‘Hot Buttered Soul’: How Isaac Hayes Invented Symphonic Soul

·4 min read

In one of the very first critiques of Isaac Hayes’ 1969 album, Hot Buttered Soul, it was dubbed “symphonic soul.” For anyone brought up on the sweet soul music of Stax or the mellifluous melodies of Motown, this was a whole new ball game. It wasn’t what was expected of soul music, nor was it the kind of music that was normally played on radio… even given the fact that by the end of 1969, when Hot Buttered Soul was released, radio stations were moving away from the three-minute single.

Listen to Hot Buttered Soul now.

Hot Buttered Soul is exactly as Isaac Hayes named it: the lush arrangements featuring strings and horns were recorded at United Sound Studios in Detroit, home of Motown Records, and had been arranged by Johnny Allen, who had arranged music for The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, and The Supremes, and who would later do the arrangements on the soundtrack to Shaft, for which he won a Grammy.

The album’s opening track, a cover of the Burt Bacharach and Hal David classic “Walk On By,” was like nothing that had ever been heard before in popular music. It’s easy to forget this so many years – and so much more music – after the event, but what’s even more surprising is that it’s over two minutes into the song before we hear Isaac Hayes’ amazing vocals. It really is quite an intro.

Hayes, along with keyboardist Marvell Thomas and The Bar-Keys (Willie Hall, drums; James Alexander, bass; Michael Toles, guitar), recorded the basic tracks at Ardent Studios in Memphis, and together they produced the ultimate funk and soul stew to mix with the Detroit strings and horns. “Walk On By” alone runs for 12 minutes, and when it’s over there’s a sense of having been overwhelmed, but in the nicest way possible. It is so different from Dionne Warwick’s original that it stands alone as a definitive reading of this classic number. This is a kind of “drum’n’bass” before anyone had ever coined the phrase…

The album’s other standout track is the 18-minute, LP-side-filling “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” a song that had originally been a hit for Glen Campbell, whose traditional reading of this classic, written by towering Americana songwriter Jimmy Webb, was released to Grammy-winning acclaim in 1967. The song had first been recorded two years earlier by hitmaker Johnny Rivers. Rather like “Walk On By,” nothing can prepare you for this tour de force. Isaac Hayes speaks the intro, which runs for nearly nine minutes, and when he starts to sing, the song develops into an amazing musical experience. He at once strips it bare and rebuilds it into something that defies definition.

For many, Hayes himself defines soul music. His take on romance goes to a place other music fails to reach, and creates a mood like no other. The coda on “Phoenix” is just awesome as its intro and the album is worth whatever you pay for it, simply for this one track.

The other two numbers that make up the record are slightly more traditional, with “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic” being a funkified track that owes something to the kind of step-change music that was beginning to come from Blue Note Records and other labels, where artists such as Donald Byrd were looking for a new kind of jazz. As Hayes sings halfway through, “Dig the groove.” It’s hard not to.

“One Woman” is the kind of Southern soul ballad that could only have come from Memphis, and is typical of the kind of songs that Hayes made his own throughout his long career. He followed Hot Buttered Soul with a string of brilliant albums that included Black Moses and the soundtrack to Shaft, but nothing had quite the impact of this definitive, seminal, must-own record. It is life-changing, life-enhancing and it proves to newer fans that Isaac Hayes was a whole lot more than just the chef on South Park.

Isaac Hayes is an icon of soul, and from this album there is a direct line to Marvin Gaye’s masterful What’s Going On and on through to the kind of thing Barry White was doing a few years later. It made the Top 10 on the Billboard album chart and hit No.1 on both the R&B and Jazz charts, yet there are still many who have never stepped inside the Hayes House… Those that have know that those who haven’t are missing out.

Hot Buttered Soul can be bought here.

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