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The Blackest Moses: The Hot-Buttered Soul of Isaac Hayes

By Mark Anthony Neal | @NewBlackMan | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Thursday, July 29, 2017.

That the career of Isaac Hayes could be neatly packaged into generationally specific references like Shaft, the Comedy Central animated series South Park and Scientology says volumes about the man’s longevity.  The timeless soundtrack that Hayes produced in support of Gordon Parks’s groundbreaking Blaxploitation film, the character of Chef (a hammer like nod to that same film) and the controversy surrounding Hayes’s Scientology related departure from South Park, provide little context for the genius of a man.  At his peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Isaac Hayes’s music and image embodied the potency and vibrancy of “Blackness” during one of the most tumultuous eras in American history.

Born in Covington, Tennessee in 1942, Hayes was just out of high school, when Stax, a local recording label in Memphis begin to draw attention to itself in the field of Soul Music.  With acts like Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas and Booker T. & MG's, Stax was poised become one of the most important producers of Soul music by the end of the 1960s, second only to Motown, in that regard. With the shadow of Stax all over Memphis, Hayes did the struggling musician thing in performing for a time in the group Sir Isaac & the Doo-Dads and putting time in at the Pleasant Green Baptist Church on Sunday mornings.   

Hayes, a piano player by trade, began to hang out at the Stax studios, and when the label’s house pianist Booker T. Jones (of Booker T. and the MGs) went off to college, Hayes begin to do session work with the label.  That work eventually led to a relationship with another local musician David Porter, who Hayes began to write songs with. When the Atlantic label, which distributed Stax’s music, brought their act Sam & Dave down to Memphis to work with the Stax musicians it was Hayes and Porter’s songs that they recorded.  With Sam & Dave topping the Soul charts with tracks like “Hold On I’m Coming”, “Soul Man” and “When Something is Wrong with My Baby” Hayes and Porter became in demand songwriters and producers.  But Isaac Hayes wanted more for himself.

After the tragic death of Otis Redding in December of 1967, Stax found itself at a crossroads.  The terms of the label’s distribution deal with Atlantic Records, called for the latter to take ownership of all of the former’s recording masters.  In 1968, Stax was a label that had no back catalogue and was mourning the death of its biggest star.  Though Stax was white-owned label that specialized in black music, by 1968 it was being directed African-American promoter named Al Bell.  In response to the crisis at hand, Bell called for a  “Soul Explosion”  where Stax would flood the market with product, putting out 27-albums in a short period of time. As Hayes told the Washington Post in 1995, “[Bell] needed catalogue” and in exchange for his assistance on those 27-albums, Bell agreed to let Hayes record his own album.  That  album was Hot Buttered Soul (1969) and it would almost single-handedly change the sound of Soul Music.

The Blackest Moses: The Hot-Buttered Soul of Isaac Hayes

Year after its release, Hayes would remark “I didn’t give a damn if Hot Buttered Soul didn’t sell, because there were 26 other LPs to carry the load.  I just wanted to do something artistic, with total freedom.”  That freedom can be heard on virtually every track on Hot Buttered Soul, as Hayes transformed well-known pop songs like Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By” and Glen Campbell’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” into lengthy excursions into Soul; “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” clocks in at more than 18-minutes, including the nearly 9-minute spoken introduction.  

Whereas Rock groups like The Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin would turn pop music conventions on their head in the late 1960s with long-playing singles, Hayes helped introduce that same sensibility into Soul music.  Hayes’s subsequent recordings like The Isaac Hayes Movement (1970), …To Be Continued (1970) and the double-album Black Moses (1971) marked Soul music as something that was vital, personal, yet expansive, the resonances of which could be heard in the music of Motown (“Papa was a Rolling Stone”), the fledgling Philadelphia International Records (“Back Stabbers”) and of course the music of Barry White, whose use of strings and spoken words intros borrowed respectfully from the Isaac Hayes musical playbook.

A signature feature of Hayes’s music in this era was his “raps”—spoken introductions to some of his more personal tracks.  As he told the New York Times back in 1972, “There’s nothing fictional in my raps…I might elongate or extend an idea or something like that, but the basic thing that comes through is from experience that I’ve had.”  

Nowhere was this more the case than on Black Moses, which was among many, an archival voyage into what was then, relatively recent Black musical history.  Hayes covered tracks like Jerry Butler’s “Need to Belong” and “Never Gonna Give You Up”, “Going in Circles” by The Friends of Distinction and Dionne Warwick’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” and in each instance offered up something that was unmistakably Isaac Hayes.  The highlight of the recording is Hayes’s 9-minute version of The Carpenter’s “white bread” pop hit “(They Long to Be) Close to You” which likely inspired Luther Vandross to tackle the same group’s “Superstar” a decade later. Had Hayes never recorded another note at this point, his place as one of the true architects of Soul and Funk would have been intact, but Shaft, released months before Black Moses, took Hayes to another realm.

There is perhaps no more enduring idea of the early 1970s in Black America than of the image of a clean-shaven, sun-glass-wearing, gold-chain vested Isaac Hayes with the “Theme from Shaft” playing in the background.  It is an image of Hayes that has been dutifully caricatured as have so many other references to the Black Power Era.  In those days, Hayes was simply referred to as “Black Moses”—a name given to him by a Stax recording label staff member—in reference to the larger-than-life figure he cut within Black America.  

In an era that was largely defined by Black male Superheroes like Stokely Carmichael, Huey P. Newton, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, Isaac Hayes and his bald-head was a marketer’s dream, and the Stax label took every opportunity to take advantage of Hayes’s real world appeal.  As label-mate Booker T. Jones recalled in the documentary Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story, “Isaac’s position to me was more of a social position than a musical position at Stax. Isaac became something of a symbol that was missing in African-American society.”  

It was the soundtrack to the film Shaft—featuring “the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks”—that took Hayes beyond the Chitlin’ Circuit.  As Hayes recalled to NPR a few years ago, “They wanted a Black leading man [Richard Roundtree], a Black director [Gordon Parks, Sr.], and a Black composer.  So since I was Stax’s number one artist at the time they chose me.” The film Shaft helped establish the genre of Blaxploitation film and crossed Hayes over to the mainstream.  

The influence of the Shaft soundtrack can be easily detected in that rash of soundtracks that came in its wake including Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack recording for Superfly (directed by Gordon Parks, Jr.), Marvin Gaye’s work on the Trouble Man soundtrack and The Mack which featured the music of Motown artist Willie Hutch, whose “I Choose You” is source material for UGK’s classic “Int’l Players Anthem”.  All have remained timeless totems to the Blaxploitation era though Shaft still remains a step ahead in terms of its impact.  The soundtrack earned Hayes an Academy Award in 1972, making his the first African-American to earn the award for a recording.  

In many ways Shaft was the apex of Hayes’s career.  Hayes’s fortune mirrored closely those of Stax, the label that he left in 1974.   By the end of the 1970s both had filed bankruptcy and represented a music style and politics that were decidedly out of favor in mainstream America and quite a few African-American households.  

Nevertheless Hayes continued recording and even dabbled in film, most famously in the parody I’m Gonna Get U Sucka (1990), which helped introduce the Blaxploitation era to a younger generation. By the end of the 1990s hip-hop acts like the Wu Tang Clan, the Geto Boys and Public Enemy were mining the Isaac Hayes catalogue for samples.  Hayes for his part found a way to take advantage in the very caricatures that had come to define him, by turning his signature baritone into the voice of South Park’s “Chef” and as the voice of the Nickelodeon channels “Nick @ Night” programming.

The best measure of Hayes’s importance though occurred during that same watershed year of 1972.  Under Al Bell’s direction, the artists at Stax traveled to the Los Angeles Coliseum to perform a day long concert called “Wattstax.”  Modeled on Woodstock, Wattstax provided the Stax recording company an opportunity to give back to the Black community, especially the community Watts, which in the aftermath of the 1965 riots, became a symbol for Black communities under siege.

Wattstax, which included a concert film and soundtrack album, provided a valuable forum for Al Bell, who at that point owned a majority stake in Stax. Wattstax was also a springboard for a young Reverend Jesse Jackson and his campaign -- Operation Breadbasket -- to expound the virtues of Black politics and Black business.  But it was clear that the most important person to hit the stage that day was Black Moses, who served as the closing act that day.

Writing about WattStax in his book In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era, late political scientist Richard Iton observes, “Toward the end of the concert as Jackson passed the microphone to Hayes after introducing him, there was an exchange of words between the two. It was unclear what was said, but what was apparent  was that Hayes, the show’s headliner, had the power, and Jackson looked a bit resentful that that was the case.”   

Iton’s comments are just a simple reminder of how important Hayes was to Black America. Hayes was never comfortable being referred to as “Black Moses” calling the term sacrilegious, but at least on that day in 1972, it was not only true, it was the Gospel.


Mark Anthony Neal been conjuring analog for a digital world for a minute; Check him at @NewBlackMan + @LeftofBlack + BookerBBBrown on the ‘Gram + and the homebase at NewBlackMan (in Exile).

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