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Isaac Hayes in full

Isaac HayesI wish I’d had longer to talk to Isaac Hayes back in January 1971, and that I’d been able to get him to talk in more detail about his childhood and his family background, which involved picking cotton and extreme poverty. That day in Memphis, in his extraordinary office in the Stax corporate HQ, white-hot from the success of Hot Buttered Soul and To Be Continued, sitting in a white egg-shaped chair suspended by a chain from the ceiling, he talked about his plans for the imminent recording of what would become Black Moses, the double album released at the end of that year, with its extraordinary cruciform fold-out cover art.

He talked about making it a big production, mentioning George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass as an inspiration and giving me the impression that it would be based on gospel music and spirituals. “But I’m going do it in a commercial fashion,” he explained. “I hope I haven’t waited too long to do it, because sometimes the trend changes so fast and I feel I can really get right to the roots of it. I know I can from recollecting my own experiences, from being in those small country churches that are no larger than this office, where people didn’t have no piano or anything, just feet on the floor. It’s so beautiful, man, and things like that are what I’m going to try and capture.”

I asked him if he’d heard work songs during his upbringing in Covington, a rural town outside Memphis. “Yeah, I can vaguely remember… I’m sure my grandmother would know them, because her mother was a slave. She tells me about those experiences. I used to sing spirituals in the rural areas of Mississippi and Tennessee and Arkansas. Also I started out playing blues. I used to play with a little blues band — I think it was Valentino and the Swing Cats, or something… I played a little tenor sax, and we’d play on a store porch sometimes. On Friday evenings, man, everybody’s coming in from the fields, they fry the fish here and they’re gambling there and selling corn liquor there and drinking wine right across the tracks. You know, one side of the tracks is white and the other is black. We’d play right out in the porches of the stores, those country blues. I’m going back to those places… I’ve been away from it so long. All this will help in putting this album together, because I’m not only going to include spirituals, I’m going to go the whole bit. It’ll be a picture.”

Well, Black Moses didn’t quite turn out like that. In some ways the strangest thing about Hayes’s career is that, having made his name as one of the great soul-music songwriting partnerships of the 1960s (with David Porter), once he became successful as an artist it was via other people’s songs: his protracted boudoir-friendly versions of pieces from the pens of superior pop song writers, in particular Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and Bacharach and David’s “The Look of Love” and “Walk On By”. Such things, not gospel songs or spirituals, would be the basis of the double album he recorded between that March and October.

Hayes was a fascinating musician, and all his facets are displayed in The Spirit of Memphis 1962-76, a thoughtfully compiled and beautifully presented four-CD anthology of his material for the Stax family of labels. There’s a first CD containing 26 examples of his early work as a writer, producer and keyboard player for Stax, including tracks by Carla Thomas, Sam and Dave, Johnnie Taylor and William Bell, the highlights for me being Mable John’s “Your Real Good Thing”, the Soul Children’s “The Sweeter He Is” and, perhaps most of all, Judy Clay’s glorious “You Can’t Run Away From Your Heart”. The second disc has his own hit singles for Volt and Enterprise, including “Phoenix” and the theme from Shaft.

Half of the third disc (which opens with some of his cover versions) is devoted to a mostly unreleased set from an Operation PUSH concert in Chicago in 1972. He exposes his blues, R&B and gospel roots to tremendous effect in a great big-band version of “Stormy Monday”, an epic “If Loving You Is Wrong”, and a heartfelt voice and piano treatment of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow”, the gospel classic which Hayes says he heard his grandfather sing, his spoken introduction reprising some of the things he had said to me almost two years earlier.

The fourth disc throws together several fine and again mostly unreleased funk jams featuring his excellent band, the Movement, with Willie Hall on drums, James Alexander on bass, Sidney Kirk and Lester Snell on keys, and Michael Toles, Harold Beane and Skip Pitts on guitars. The 19-minute “Groove-a-thon” and the 33-minute version of “Do Your Thing”, expanded from the one heard on the Shaft soundtrack, remind us of the place Hayes’s music occupied alongside Norman Whitfield’s psych-soul and Miles Davis’s psych-jazz in an era when stretching out seemed to be the natural mode of musical life.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kevin Mitchell #

    Hi Richard. Do you get any of my responses? K

    Sent from my iPad


    November 27, 2017
    • Yes indeed, Kevinho.

      November 27, 2017
    • At least I think I do… except possibly the ones I don’t know I don’t get (the unknown unknowns, you might say).

      November 27, 2017
  2. Richard – like my blogs, it seems you get little response, but again, like me, maybe you’re just doing them to get your thoughts and views on “paper.” I never interviewed Isaac, but in my Polydor dates remember arranging an interview in his London hotel, where the journo’s were sat in a horseshoe around him-probably dissatisfacitory on both sides! Where did the intervening 45 years go?!

    November 28, 2017
    • David — Nice to hear from you. I get all the response I want, thanks! And, as you suggest, I do it for pleasure anyway.

      November 28, 2017
      • The pleasure that you give us readers too.

        November 28, 2017
      • At our age, that’s the best reason – the pleasure of still writing and getting things out of our heads before they’re gone forever!

        November 28, 2017
  3. Davitt #

    You’re sending me back to “Hung Up On My Baby” from the Three Tough Guys soundtrack; and thence to its immortality, as the main sample in the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks On Me.”

    November 28, 2017
    • Hello, Davitt. There’s an extended (7:31) jam on “Hung Up…” in the anthology, too.

      November 28, 2017
      • Davitt #

        Which sent me on to “Joy.” Yes, some Whitfieldian references, mostly in the strings, and the complete list of ingredients that Barry White would redeploy to invent his own genre. And then to Track 2, the unlistenable (way tmi) bugged-bedroom recording “I Love You That’s All.” You and Howard T. were probably in St Peter’s Square then. I was across the river at St Paul’s where my buddy Hooman (also to figure later, prominently, in Island’s history) alerted me to the moment (5.34) when Ike drops his chains off the side of the bed.

        November 28, 2017
  4. saverio pechini #

    Stretching out ( warts ‘ n ‘ all) has always been my idea of musical heaven .

    November 28, 2017
  5. Keith Wood #

    When I was at Virgin in 2000 I had a few meetings with Issac and Rza about a new soul label they wanted to put together. Obviously it never got off the ground but for me it was a great experience as Issac would invariably be early or on time and Rza was frequently late. That meant I could sit and talk to Issac about Stax etc whose music propelled my youth. Then Rza would arrive who is one of the most perceptive people and the conversation would start. Great shame the label never happened but it was more a good idea than a reality.

    November 28, 2017
    • i recorded a movie score in Seattle for RZA, and he was a total idiot

      November 29, 2017
  6. Beautiful encapsulation of what made Ike so special. I hope this box gets more people to look beyond Shaft and give him full credit for his genius.

    November 28, 2017

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