#373: Hot Buttered Soul, Isaac Hayes
It’s nice to listen to a record with four long songs instead of fifteen short ones. There’s less pressure to uncover the secret of each and every song — I could just sink into the vibe.
So what is the vibe? Whatever Isaac Hayes wants it to be. Hayes demanded complete artistic control from Stax Records on his second album, and he got it, resulting in a record that was years ahead of its time — this was released in 1969! Hayes takes advantage of that control — he recorded the whole thing live, playing a Hammond organ while he sang AND directing his band, which is made up of some truly badass musicians.
For instance: “Walk On By” features legendary Funkadelic guitarist Harold Beane letting it rip over an orchestra. It’s actually a cover of a Burt Bacharach and Hal David song written for Dionne Warwick, but in some ways Hayes’ twelve-minute version has become the more famous version. It was recently sampled in Beyonce’s “6 Inch.” (I recognized the sampled bit almost immediately, which I’m very proud of.) Then there’s “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic,” which features Marvell Thomas on the piano. Thomas is the son of Rufus Thomas, who wrote the unmitigated masterpiece “Do the Funky Chicken.” Thomas deftly noodles over this song full of hyper-syllabic quasi-pretentious words.
Then there’s his uncredited backup singers, who steal the show on “One Woman,” the record’s only ballad. I was indignant that the singers are unnamed, though at least one source speculates that they included Pat Lewis and Sandra Chalmers. They cushion Hayes’ buttery vocals with perfectly structured harmonies, though they’re octaves above him.
Like I said, these songs are lengthy. The lengthiest is another cover, Jimmy Webb’s “By The Time I Get to Phoenix,” first famously performed by Glen Campbell. The original was under three minutes and a country song, and Hayes takes it and makes it a whole eighteen-minute-long soul song. The introduction is just Hayes asserting his right to cover the song, saying Everybody’s got his own way of doing a thing. Then he paints a picture of a man that falls in love with a woman who repeatedly cheats on him. When he stops talking and starts singing it’s magical, because we’ve already been sitting with the character. It’s ultimately about a cross-country breakup road trip, but he takes a simple torch song and turns it into an epic for the ages.
I promised myself that I would save this bit for the end. Here goes: I know Isaac Hayes as Chef from South Park. I should have known that Chef was voiced by a famous singer, since he frequently breaks out into song. (I’m gonna make love to you, woman/Gonna lay you down by the fire… sung to a group of schoolchildren.) Hayes was on the show for nearly ten years, until he departed after their episode lambasting Scientology, of which Hayes was a member. The split was acrimonious (they brutally killed Chef off after the fact), but according to Hayes’ son some years after his death in 2008, his choice to leave the show was made for him by Scientology higher-ups. Who knows what actually happened, but either way, South Park (and the world) is a sadder place without him.
Fun Fact: He also wrote the theme for Shaft!