ISAAC HAYES: ‘Hot Buttered Soul’ (Enterprise/Craft Recordings)

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“When I started out doing my thing, what I had to say couldn’t be said in 2 minutes and 30 seconds… so out of that came the long cuts,” Isaac Hayes told this writer a year before his passing in 2007, reflecting on his iconic 1969 album Hot Buttered Soul, which radically changed the face of R&B music with its extended grooves and deep-voiced spoken monologues. Not only did Hot Buttered Soul usher in a new age of symphonic soul, it also witnessed the 33 rpm LP challenge the hegemony of the 45 rpm single that had ruled the R&B world for many years. As the African American equivalent to The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, it marked a watershed moment in Black music, opening up the R&B realm to a brave new world of concept albums, hitherto unimagined musical horizons, and of course, love gods with earth-trembling basso profundo voices. Given the album’s significance, it’s not surprising that 55 years later, it’s returning as an audiophile reissue in Craft Recordings’ special Small Batch vinyl series.

Before Hot Buttered Soul melted soul fans’ hearts and transformed him into a superstar, Hayes was an important behind-the-scenes figure at Memphis’ mighty Stax Records; together with his song-writing partner David Porter, Hayes was responsible for a slew of hits by soul’s dynamic duo Sam & Dave. What he desired most, though, was to step out of the shadows and into the spotlight as an artist. But after his first album,1968’s Presenting Isaac Hayes, fell on deaf ears, a radical change of direction saw Hayes change the soul music landscape forever. Urged on by ambitious Stax executive Al Bell – “He was my mentor and gave me a free hand to do what I wanted to do” Hayes told me – the Tennessee-born singer/songwriter used lush orchestrations that gave Hot Buttered Soul a widescreen effect. 

The album consists of just four songs, the longest being an eighteen-minute interpretation of Jimmy Webb’s Glen Campbell hit ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix,’ which is preceded by a spoken scene-setting narrative, expanding the song into a huge musical edifice. “I want you to travel with me,” says Hayes in his compelling spoken preamble, taking the listener on a journey into his imagination where he concocts a convincing backstory for the song’s protagonists. What results is incredibly dramatic – part theater and part soul sermon: epic grandeur without hollowness or hubris.  

Hayes also gives a soulful big screen makeover to another MOR classic, the Burt Bacharach-Hal David-written Dionne Warwick hit ‘Walk On By,’ which opens the album. Hayes’ voice floats over a backdrop of thick organ chords and rich orchestral strings punctuated by guitarist Harold Beane’s fuzzy psychedelic fretwork, which reaches a combustible intensity as the tune morphs from a ballad into a pounding uptempo stomper.   

Given his prowess as a tunesmith, the fact that Hot Buttered Soul only contains one Hayes original is surprising; the funkafied ‘Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic,’ a tongue-in-cheek exercise in wordplay that is probably the only song in history to contain the words “medulla oblongata” in its lyrics. Compared with the other three tracks, the much-shorter ‘One Woman’ is less dramatic, highlighting Hayes’ genius as a storytelling balladeer; showing that despite his tough guy looks and gritty machismo, “Ike” was ultra-sensitive.   

This new reissue, brilliantly mastered by veteran audio engineer Bernie Grundman, who oversaw the one-step all-analogue mastering process, is limited to 3,500 numbered copies. Presented in a special commemorative hardcover jacket and bolstered with a 12” insert featuring new liner notes, Hot Buttered Soul, which retails at £88 in the UK doesn’t come cheap, but as one of the greatest albums ever created, you can’t put a price on its true value. 

Over half a century on, Hot Buttered Soul is far from stale – as this sublime vinyl reissue proves, it’s as fresh and tasty as it’s ever been. Dig in and spread the word.  

(CW) 5/5

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