The Best Organ Solo Ever Laid Down On Wax. A Review Of The “Essential Albums: Isaac Hayes” Box Set
“HOT BUTTERED SOUL….blurs the lines of what you thought you knew was possible with music… it is one of those start to finish CLASSICS.. and yes, d@mn near EVERYTHING is here: soul. rock. sweeping strings. blasting horns. full orchestral arrangements. bare stripped down moments. humor. sadness. funk. THE SOUND— the recording is so 3-D! it’s black. it’s white. it is universal….it is TIMELESS. it is LOVE.” by Jim James, the lead vocalist, songwriter, and producer for My Morning Jacket
To say that Isaac Hayes was one of the most influential artists of the last 50 years is an underestimation — not an exaggeration. His songs have been heard around the world and have touched generations. Before becoming a multiplatinum GRAMMY award-winning solo artist, he played keyboards in the house band for Stax Records. He backed Otis Redding in the studio. And he was part of the songwriting/production duo with David Porter that composed over 200 hits including “Soul Man” and “Hold On I’m Coming.” But I don’t need to introduce Isaac Hayes to the Head-Fi community. I’m preaching to the choir. Isaac Hayes practically invented headphone music.
We all know that headphones bring out the best of our favorite tracks but some albums just shine more than others. To me, “Hot Buttered Soul” has always been a headphone extravaganza. The arrangements and combinations of the strings, horns, percussion, and fuzzed-out guitars are mind blowing. This is my test album for evaluating new audio gear. The piano solo that starts around the 5-minute mark of “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic” is what I use to judge clarity, separation, and headroom. The hard circular pans are out of this world; always leaving me somewhat dazed and disoriented. I've never heard anything other recording like this anywhere else and I doubt that I ever will. Take a listen but don't say that I didn't warn you.
The production value on this album was so far ahead of its time — probably because the album came about by chance and circumstance. Up until this time, Isaac Hayes was a behind-the-scenes guy. He was a song writer. He was a producer. He was a gifted musician. And he had even cut a record prior — but he had yet to develop his voice and flavor and the album was met with mixed reviews. "Hot Buttered Soul" was destined to be something different. In the studio, Isaac sang live with the band and the vocals and rhythm tracks were laid down over 3 evening sessions. But instead of chasing radio singles, the album only had 4 songs, with “Walk on By” hitting the 12 minute mark and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” stretching over 18 minutes. This was so far out of left field and so unconventional for the time. It was more like an anti-album than anything else.
"There was absolutely no attempt to be commercial," Marvell Thomas, the album's co-producer and piano player, once said. "It was just, ‘Let's do these songs. Let's do 'em like we like to do 'em. Play whatever you want to play and have a good time doing it.' To the company, it wasn't, ‘We're going to make one of the all-time great albums and it's going to sell huge.' It was, ‘Okay, let Isaac do his thing.'"
Here’s how it all came about. In 1967, Warner Brothers bought Atlantic Records. No big deal, except that Atlantic was Stax’s distributor and the sale activated a clause in the contract that called for a renegotiation of terms. The sale also brought to light the fact that Jim Stewart, the founder of Stax Records, unknowingly signed away all rights to all the original master recordings for the entire Atlantic distributed recordings. Just like that, Stax lost their entire back catalog. No Otis. No Sam and Dave. No Rufus. No back revenue. Nothing! So with that, Al Bell, the Executive VP for Stax/ Volt called on all previous Stax artists to record new albums and singles. In May of 1969, Stax released 27 new albums and 30 singles.
“They were cutting product on everybody,” said Marvell Thomas. They even leaned on staff — which is how Isaac got into the studio again. His first album, “Presenting Isaac Hayes” was not commercially successful. So when Al Bell asked Isaac Hayes to make another record, Hayes insisted on full creative control.
“He was very much in control, doing very different things, doing what he wanted to do the way he wanted to do it,” said Terry Manning, the recording engineer for the album. And the public responded. Hot Buttered Soul sold over a million copies and it redefined the concept of an R&B album. It became one of Stax’s biggest hits and it also set the stage for Isaac Hayes to become an international superstar.
Isaac Hayes was prolific throughout his life, but there’s magic in those early recordings. So imagine my surprise when I saw a new 24-bit digitally remastered box set called “Essential Albums: Isaac Hayes.” It’s a beautiful set containing the definitive classics: “Hot Buttered Soul,” “Shaft,” and “Black Moses.”
But why? Why buy physical music or box sets in this digital age of the cloud? Why opt to own something that exists virtually? I’m literally surrounded by digital music all day long. I’m sent digital files. I move data for projects. Spotify and Rhapshody are always running in the background. Yet honestly, nothing beats holding a real collection in your hands. As soon as I got this set, the first thing I did was sit down and read all the expanded liner notes. It was a treat and I can’t remember the last time I did that. Sure, I own Hot Buttered Soul as an album, but I’ve never bought it on CD. This set was a perfect excuse for me to finally update my collection.
And there’s more to the story. This box set is a link to history. Stax Records was an amazing label and company. It was one of the first integrated record labels and it really held true to the beliefs of Dr. King. Stax was synonymous with southern soul music and now through a series of acquisitions, Stax Records is once again a viable label releasing new albums along with reissues. Angie Stone is now a Stax artist. So to me, this box set is as much about supporting a pioneering record label as it is about the legacy of Mr. Isaac Hayes. May he Rest in Peace. And continue to make us move!
What's your favorite Isaac Hayes song? What's your favorite record released on the Stax label? We'd love to hear your thoughts!
** Note – all quotes are taken from the expanded liner notes of the new box set. I did not personally interview any of the artists featured in this story.
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Mike Dias is a huge fan of music, of telling stories, and of laughing. And lucky for him, he’s somehow managed to make somewhat of living from all of this. He designs funny and creative apps for the iPhone. He is the music supervisor for Ultimate Ears and he writes about music and the music industry. He’s always happy to talk about artists, apps, and headphones so feel free to reach out about any of those topics. Email him directly.
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Edited by Mike Dias - 7/30/12 at 11:46am