Isaac Hayes‘Hot Buttered Soul, with its extended jams, lavish arrangements and silk-smooth vocals is frequently cited as the first recording to demonstrate that soul music could be an album-oriented as well as a single-oriented art form — a breakthrough that paved the way for classic albums by Stevie Wonder, Barry White, Marvin Gaye and others.
For the Memphis-born Hayes, who’d done a little bit of everything at Stax, from session work to subbing for house keyboardist Booker T. Jones to co-writing many of the label’s biggest hits, the 1969 album — his second — produced the first hit single of his own artistic career, a two-sided hit featuring covers of the ’60s pop hits “Walk on By” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” Even more unusual, both hits were edited versions of extraordinarily long versions of those songs: On Hot Buttered Soul, “Walk on By” is a 12-minute tour de force, while the other clocks in at more than 18 minutes and features a long, stunning spoken introduction in which the golden-tongued Hayes conjures a back story to the Jimmy Webb-penned classic and, as he puts it, “brings it on down to Soulsville.”
Though the single peaked at #30 on the Billboard pop chart, it was just a taste of what would come in two years for Hayes, who topped that chart in 1971 with his “Theme from Shaft.” Nor would listeners forget his arresting version of “Walk on By.” In 1995, the Hughes Brothers resurrected it for the soundtrack to their heist film Dead Presidents and “Walk on By,” like the indefatigable Isaac Hayes himself, got yet another life.
eMusic recently got a chance to interview Mr. Hayes via e-mail, about his groundbreaking treatment of “Walk on By” and other matters.
eMusic: You were a hit songwriter in your own right — what drew you as a performer to “Walk on By”?
Isaac Hayes: I was a big fan of Dionne Warwick‘s and admired what she did with the tune. I also love Burt Bacharach and Hal David, (the writers of “Walk on By”) and so wanted to contribute my own feel to the song.
eMusic: The song has a really lavish arrangement — much longer and more involved than what was generally heard on the radio then. What was your thinking? Can you remember if you were particularly influenced by anything at that moment?
IH: The arrangement came from me… that was how I wanted to express myself.
eMusic: The album also has that extraordinary, 18-minute version of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” Were you concerned that no one would ever give it any airplay? What about the long spoken introduction — what gave you the idea to do that?
IH: I wasn’t concerned with airplay… I just knew that what I had to say couldn’t be said in 2 minutes and 30 seconds…so I carried on until I was finished!
eMusic: How did you come to Stax?
IH: At the time I was the lead singer in various bands and I had taught myself how to play keyboards. It was through a friend, Floyd Newman, a sax player, that I got into Stax: He hired me to play on the record he was doing for Stax. That did the trick as I then got a job as a sideman (studio musician).
eMusic: Hot Buttered Soul is your second Stax album and the one that made you a star; before that you were having a great career as a songwriter. Was making it as a performer always your goal?
IH: I was always a dreamer as a child…one day when I was at school, I won a talent competition… that was when I immediately knew the only thing I wanted to be was an entertainer.
eMusic: Hot Buttered Soul was a very influential record — it’s hard to imagine later records by Marvin Gaye and Barry White without it. Do other musicians say much to you about it?
IH: Yes, it is often a favorite with musicians… they like it.
eMusic: It was something of a break in the Stax style: more sophisticated and less down-home than the hits we generally associated with the label. How did the people at Stax react to the album?
IH: Stax liked what I was doing and embraced the new sound.
eMusic: You continued on at Stax for many years, both as a performer and, I believe, as an executive. What do you think made Stax what it was?
IH: Everybody worked together, whether black or white…it didn’t matter. We played together and had fun.
eMusic: Listening to Hot Buttered Soul today, it has a timeless quality — it doesn’t sound dated in the least. “Walk on By” got a second life in the Dead Presidents soundtrack, but beyond that, why do you think this album among all the records you’ve made has endured so well?
IH: The message of that record and what went into it is why it endured.