Hot Buttered Soul (Stax)
Forget "Chef," "South Park," and all that Scientology bullshit. Isaac Hayes died last summer. If we're to remember him for just one thing, let it be Hot Buttered Soul.
The landmark 1969 LP has been remastered and gussied up with bonus tracks. There are also new liner notes by My Morning Jacket's Jim James. "Hot Buttered Soul" dropped June 23 to celebrate its 40th anniversary. Will anyone be celebrating South Park's 40th? Doubtful.
The record ranks as one of the most emotive and sonically progressive albums of the modern era. It moves, mesmerizes, and lingers like a sensational stranger who rocks your world but only stays for a single night. Its powers of seduction are sublime.
Before releasing Hot Buttered Soul, Hayes had already established himself as a trailblazing maven of the Memphis sound of the '60s. While employed by the legendary Stax-Volt, he played sax and keyboards on countless classic sessions by the likes of Otis Redding and company. Paired with co-songwriter/producer David Porter, Hayes created such gold standards as Sam & Dave's anthem "Soul Man." Before ever embarking on a solo career, Hayes had already established himself as a serious force in Soulsville.
That's why Stax let him do as he pleased. His debut disc, 1967's Presenting Isaac Hayes, bricked. Soul and blues with too much jazz, too much improvising. The rap bits meander. Today, Hayes would have been told to tighten up next time -- or return to the background, or hit the road.
But Hayes returned with the most ambitious R&B record perhaps ever made. Hot Buttered Soul replaces jazz with rock, and adds full-force funk and lush orchestration that never dips into maudlin malaise. And there's a sultry spoken-word piece that hits as hard as any rumbling bass line.
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The album opens with a 12-minute rendition of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David-composed Dionne Warwick hit "Walk on By." Hayes' version begins with stirring orchestration that recalls what would have been heard over the opening credits if film director Sergio Leone had ever tapped Ennio Morricone to score a gangsta flick set in the Bronx circa 1970. "Walk on By" is sweeping and funky, full of gritty twists and bleeding beauty. Hayes has tears in his eyes and doesn't want to give his ex-lover the gratification of seeing him broken by their busted relationship. The vocalist skips acrobatics for intensity, for feel. It's a meditation on sadness and strength that effortlessly dances through genres for the sheer reason of achieving upmost, gut-level intensity.
Next, comes the impossibly long title "Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic," which clocks in at nearly 10 minutes. The song, the only Hayes original on the album, has something to do with love-gone-bad and politics but mostly the lyric is just delightful nonsense, like its name implies. The swaggering funk of the number, though, holds enough edifying truth to make up for any shortcoming in the literal story or message of the song.
Then there's "One Woman." In terms of sonic structure, lyrics, and length (5:11), it's clearly the most conventional track on a most unconventional album. Sung with manly vulnerability, the singer confesses to an affair that he can't quit. Loving arms. Tender lips. But then there's the woman at home. To a certain degree, it's a dated dilemma. But hearing Hayes try to come to terms with the shitty, heartbreaking situation makes you believe he's in a tight spot -- just looking to do the right thing in a world gone wrong.
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The original version of Hot Buttered Soul only contains four tracks. The reinvention of "Walk on By" is a bold move, but virtually nothing in the pantheon of mind-blowing covers compares to what Hayes did to Jimmy Webb's "By the Time I Get To Phoenix." A hit for Johnny Rivers in 1965 and an even bigger one for Glen Campbell in '67, it's a stirring country song about a cuckold who finally, reluctantly, man's up and walks out on his trifling woman. Hayes takes the Nashville number to Soulsville and stretches it to a magificent 18 minutes. His lengthy spoken-word intro would not be rivaled until Bruce Springsteen started rapping before songs roughly a decade later.
Hayes not only sympathizes with the emasculated protagonist of "By The Times I Get to Phoenix," he embodies him like a stellar method actor. Soaring strings and poignant horns punctuate the distinct cry of a man grappling with the beast of loveless love, unrequited love, love that has soured but in the disgraced man's distorted mind's eye, still appears ripe and sweet.
Hot Buttered Soul hits hard in the finest way possible. It's rock, soul, funk and classic pop unlike just about anything ever recorded. This is Isaac Hayes' legacy. This is music that ripples with passion and song-serving innovation.
-- Wade Tatangelo