ISAAC HAYES: ‘Black Moses’ (Label: Stax)

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ISAAC HAYES: 'Black Moses'

In the soul world, no one epitomised ’70s musical excess and hubris better than the late great Isaac Hayes. At the height of his fame – just after the 1971 ‘Shaft’ movie, which boasted Hayes’ memorable soundtrack, exploded like a super nova across the world – the rumble-voiced Tennessee singer/songwriter was more than just a soul singer: he was a veritable soul god. Sporting a beard, shades, a shiny bald pate and boasting a muscular naked torso festooned with gold chains, the man who penned ‘Soul Man’ and many other chart smashes for Stax soul duo Sam & Dave in the ’60s, looked like a being from another planet. The music was no less extraordinary. ‘Hot Buttered Soul,’ Hayes’ 1969 album for Stax’s Enterprise subsidiary, raised the bar for soul music albums. Before that, a hastily-cobbled collection of singles was the order of the day for most soul artists but Hayes changed all that – ‘Hot Buttered Soul’ dispensed with the idea of short, single-length songs, replacing them with extended grooves which were thematically linked and which gave the album a concept, artistic coherence and a sense of unity. Hayes’ innovations, though simple, proved radical and profoundly influential – in fact, it’s doubtful whether Marvin Gaye would have created ‘What’s Going On’ if the path-finding ‘Hot Buttered Soul’ hadn’t shown him a guiding light. In 1971, after the success of ‘Shaft,’ Isaac Hayes went into the studio to record his fifth album and came up with arguably the most potent example of his creativity and craftsmanship. That album was ‘Black Moses,’ an epic double LP that has just been reissued in deluxe format (its title, by the way, came from the nickname bestowed on Hayes by his bodyguard, Dino Woodward). In terms of its packaging, ‘Black Moses’ must have presented a headache to the designers and printers- though it looked like it was housed in an orthodox LP sleeve, the artwork folded out to form a huge cross shape showing Hayes dressed like an Old Testament prophet (incredibly, perhaps, the complex cover art has been faithfully reproduced for this reissue). As a marketing ploy, it certainly aided sales of the album, as, no doubt, did the somewhat dubious ‘Black Moses’ robe, which could be purchased for $24.95. Image, of course, was important to Isaac Hayes, but in reality his success lived or died on the quality of his music – and ‘Black Moses’ proved a soul music tour de force that has patently stood the test of time. It’s such a great and cohesive album from beginning to end that it seems unfair to single out individual moments. However, one of the key tracks is the opener, a cover of the Jackson Five’s ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’ – Hayes, as was his wont, completely deviates from the original, rendering it almost unrecognisable. The tempo’s slower and the mood is downbeat, sombre even, with Hayes transforming the song into a plaintive lament. Johnny Allen’s orchestration is wonderful, contributing a lush romantic aura to the song. In fact, ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’ is one of many cover versions on the album – Hayes tackles Bacharach-David’s ‘(They Long To Be) Close To You,’ and ‘I’ll Never Fall In Love Again’; Gamble & Huff’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up,’ Kris Kristofferson’s ‘For The Good Times,’ Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Need To Belong To Someone’ (a Jerry Butler hit) and ‘Man’s Temptation’ plus The Whispers’ ‘Your Love Is So Doggone Good,’ along with Little Johnnie Taylor’s ‘Part-Time Love.’ Given that Isaac Hayes was a prolific and very able songwriter, his decision to devote the album to non-original material (apart from the self-penned ‘Ike’s Rap II and III’) may seem strange – however, as ‘Black Moses’ cogently demonstrates, Hayes had the ability to take other peoples’ songs and mould them after his own personality: so much so, that they almost seem like songs he composed himself. A good example of this is the fantastic deconstruction of the Friends Of Distinction’s ‘Circles,’ which is arguably one of the album’s best cuts. In terms of mood and arrangement, it’s light years away from the original. Sadly, they don’t make albums like this any more – it’s an absolute classic and no self-respecting soul music fan should live without it.
(CW) 5/5