Hot Buttered Soulman

It's all too typical that a man who should be revered for co-writing “Soul Man,” “Hold On! I'm Comin',” or “When Something Is Wrong with My Baby” for Sam & Dave or any number of stellar achievements has stickers placed on his albums telling the world that this is the guy who does the voice of Chef on South Park. Yes, folks, and Robert De Niro is the actor we all remember from Analyze This.

Isaac Hayes helped shape the soul music at Stax/Volt from its heyday in the Sixties into the smooth grooves that dominated the genre throughout the following decade. His deep purr predated Barry White, and his lengthy spoken monologues on the topic of L-O-V-E made every tune an epic last stand. Eighteen and a half minutes of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” may remain one of the great late-night DJ anthems -- nothing better for when nature calls -- but anything from Hot Buttered Soul, The Isaac Hayes Movement, To Be Continued ..., Black Moses, or Joy is worthy of your nocturnal attention.

Though he drew notice with a striking appearance -- shiny bald head, wraparound shades, extensive jewelry -- Hayes was more than a smooth-talking Lothario. Over the course of ten minutes of “I Stand Accused,” he recounts a life lived within moral law -- no robbing, no cheating -- and yet the yearning for his best friend's woman, “John's girl,” wracks him with guilt. By the time he makes it to the crooning end, the picture that's emerged is beyond that of a sweet talker. This is someone who's weighing the consequences, who's thought perhaps too much about what he believes he must do. You get a sense the song could go 30 minutes and still end up ambiguous. No amount of talking makes things right. There's really just the beauty of the emotion and the tragedy of the situation.

There are countless moments like this on Hayes's albums. You need to take time with them and relisten to spots you initially miss to get it all. The grooves flow like wine into a spacy netherworld where time expands and compresses, depending on the listener's mood.

Hayes was born in Covington, Tennessee, in 1942. His parents died soon after his birth, and he was raised by grandparents. Music came early to him, as he learned the fundamentals of piano, organ, and saxophone. As soon he was able, Hayes moved to Memphis to begin his apprenticeship with the music industry. Although Sir Calvin and His Swinging Cats, one early group, never made much of an impression, Hayes stuck to it; by 1962, at the age of twenty, he was cutting sides for local labels. In 1964 he joined up with Stax Records, and his future would take a dramatic turn. He began on saxophone, performing behind the Mar-Keys and Otis Redding, before shifting to piano. Friendship with another Stax artist, David Porter, made for a songwriting collaboration that yielded an intense string of classic soul tunes, from the obvious “Soul Man” and Carla Thomas's “B-A-B-Y,” to the less distinguished but no less powerful (Sam & Dave's “Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody,” for instance).

It wasn't until 1967 that Hayes took a turn at the mike. His first album, Presenting Isaac Hayes, was recorded at the tail end of a Stax party -- while Hayes allegedly was drunk -- and has the feel of a tossed-off improvisation. This spontaneous bop prosody would click in greater proportion for 1969's Hot Buttered Soul and subsequent releases. By the time of 1971's Shaft, the soundtrack to the ultimate blaxploitation film for which he won an Academy Award, Hayes was entrenched as the basso profundo of soul.

In 1974 Hayes continued along the movie route with two soundtracks, Tough Guys and Truck Turner, but times were a-changin', and Hayes was about to begin the long commercial slumber. Albums such as 1975's Chocolate Chip and the next year's Groove-a-thon simply didn't pack the same gestalt as earlier works, and his influence and sales waned considerably. Before the Seventies were over, Hayes would file for bankruptcy.

Duets with Dionne Warwick and Millie Jackson helped keep him in the public eye, but by 1981's Lifetime Thing, Hayes seemed down for the count. It took him five years to return, with U-Turn and its Top 10 R&B hit “Ike's Rap.” His old tunes were being heavily sampled by rap groups, including Public Enemy, whose “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” is based on a loop from Hot Buttered Soul.

He has since stuck with acting, voice-overs (yes, as Chef in South Park), DJing a syndicated vintage-soul show, and contributing musically to projects such as Shaft 2000, a revisiting of his earlier success with mixed results. But for a time no one ruled the late-night love machine like Ike. Just listen to the clinking of glasses at the onset of the fifteen-minute track “Joy.” You hear an effusive giggle, an alcoholic burp, and then the mellow super-funk Hayes perfected: “Every morning when I rise, baby/I look into your sexy eyes, baby.”

If this were baseball, I'd take Ike over Barry White in five.

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Rob O'Connor