A must-listen for any serious student of American popular music, Hot Buttered Soul radically expanded the borders of soul and funk and was instrumental in the creation of later styles such as disco and hip-hop. But a lot of things had to go very wrong for Isaac Hayes’ seminal sophomore album to exist.
First, in December 1967, Stax Records’ biggest star, Otis Redding, as well as all but two members of their best session group, the Bar-Kays, were killed in a plane crash. A few months later, the soul label was dealt another crushing blow when they broke with Atlantic Records and discovered that a contract clause gave Atlantic the right to continue to distribute their entire back catalog. Stax also lost their second-most popular act, Sam & Dave, in the split. In the wake of this profound tragedy and misfortune, Stax VP Al Bell took a desperate gamble: He scheduled the immediate release of 27 albums and 30 singles, plus ordered all Stax artists to record new material. In-house producer and songwriter, Isaac Hayes, was urged to record an album too.
Hayes had recorded a debut for Stax in 1967, but it was unsuccessful commercially and frustrating creatively–recorded at an impromptu session he felt didn’t capture him at his best. For his second effort, Hayes insisted on retaining complete creative control. That freedom shows in the audacious choices he made: its four tracks span over 45 minutes, nearly half of that devoted to a slow-building, monologue-heavy rework of the country hit “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” The album brilliantly combined lounge music; the strings-drenched Philly soul sound; touches of tripped-out psychedelia and acid rock; jazz flourishes and overtly sensual, deep bass vocals. The result–funkier than Memphis soul and far more baroque than Motown–accidentally set the world on fire. Radio edits of “Walk on By” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” hit the Top 40, and the album went triple-Platinum, selling more than a million copies. Surprising everyone, Hot Buttered Soul turned Isaac Hayes into an icon and put Stax back on the map. Soul music would never be the same.
Hayes’ improbably successful maximalist masterpiece liberated commercial black artists from the singles-driven model of music making, inspiring a revolution of ambitious, album-oriented releases from artists like Curtis Mayfield, George Clinton, the Isley Brothers, Labelle and more. His raw, emotive baritone and symphonic soul/R&B style launched the “love man” genre that would explode in popularity during the ‘70s: the roots of Barry White’s indulgent bedroom soul and Marvin Gaye’s languid, jazz-inflected funk groove can be traced back to Hot Buttered Soul. In the mid-‘70s, black DJs partly inspired by the musical monologues of Isaac Hayes and his disciples created rap music. And another two decades down the line, pretty much every major hip-hop star sampled Hayes’ grandiose instrumentation, including Tupac, Dr. Dre and Biggie Smalls. Younger fans today often associate Hayes’ hot buttered voice with his character “Chef” on the popular animated TV series South Park, and those around during his heyday remember him best for his Shaft soundtrack, but Hot Buttered Soul, too, is an indispensable piece of Hayes’ legacy.
Explains how Hot Buttered Soul’s sonic largesse represented not only a musical revolution, but a political one.
“If it weren't for the New York Mets, Isaac Hayes' Hot Buttered Soul would be the most unlikely comeback story of 1969,” Nate Patrin cracks in this rave review.
WhoSampled’s Hayes feature will give you a better sense of the enormous scope of his influence. Did you know, for instance, that he is one of the top 20 most sampled artists of all time? Read to understand his contributions more deeply.
DEEP CUTS WE LOVE…
“Walk on By” - The album’s opening track is an epic 12-minute cover of the Burt Bacharach and Hal Dav’id classic. It kicks things into high drama right away, with a thumping mid-tempo drumbeat, celestial organ and strings, and a funky bassline that give way to a (much-sampled) fuzz guitar riff. It’s over two minutes into the song before we hear Isaac Hayes’ voice, but we’ve been through the ringer already. Hayes' interplay with his trio of background singers (credited as “Hot,” “Buttered” and “Soul”) ups the intensity of the song’s pathos even further. Around nine minutes in, a kaleidoscopic, warbling guitar riff transitions the song into a frenzied organ and guitar coda that reaches unbelievable heights before finally releasing you after three minutes of madness.
“Hyperbolicsyllabicsequedalymistic” - Hayes’ sole songwriting credit on Hot Buttered Soul is straight-ahead, slick funk that gradually evolves into something approaching krautrock. His humorous pidgin Latin lyrics are accented by a stomping piano riff, wah-wah guitar and the breathy vocals of his background singers.
“One Woman” - This twinkling cover of Charles Chalmers' and Sandra Rhodes' mellow ballad serves as a breather before the majestically sprawling album closer. It also proves Hayes could still have an emotional impact in a more conventional, short-format composition–this one clocks in at just five minutes.
“By the Time I Get to Phoenix” - So legend has it, Isaac Hayes incorporated “raps” (monologues that blended speaking and singing) to hook the attention of apathetic bar audiences. For the first eight and a half minutes of this 18-minute opus, he murmurs over a hypnotic minimalist groove explaining what drove the song’s protagonist to hit the road. By the end, the song is exploding with triumphant brass fanfare and sweet strings, a conclusion that feels all the more euphoric for the journey you’ve taken to arrive there. Hayes once explained his formula to NPR’s Audie Cornish, “You can't put bread in a cold oven . . . You've got to heat it up. So that's what I like to do with my music. I like to build it, and build it into a maddening, exciting crescendo.”
DID YOU KNOW?
- In 1972 Hayes won an Oscar for Best Original Song for his “Theme From Shaft,” becoming the first black composer to receive that honor. He also won two Grammys for his Shaft soundtrack.
- Hayes was raised by his sharecropper grandparents in segregated rural Tennessee.
- At Stax, Isaac Hayes worked with fellow songwriter David Porter to create some of the Sixties' most groundbreaking soul music, including such Sam & Dave hits as “Soul Man” “I Thank You” and “Hold On, I’m Comin.’”
- Hayes put in session work on virtually all of Otis Redding’s recordings.
Listen to Hot Buttered Soul in its entirety on your preferred streaming platform or purchase on wax below.
Words: Katherine McCollough