By the 1970s, Isaac Hayes had decreed that the borders of soul must open. As the genre entered a new decade, he let in love’s hysterical pain and the strange ecstasy of heartbreak. He took standards and stretched them until they wept. Love songs were now the domain of emotional calamity, and he demanded suitably grand arrangements.
On 1971’s Black Moses, the pinnacle of Hayes’s maximalism, his band the Movement rallies behind the spectacle. It’s a heartbreak album, liberated from the formalities of taste to better conduct its inquiry into romance. It is a messy, blood-and-guts account of everything that goes into love and never comes back.
It’s hard to speak of the man in less than grandiose terms, because he conducted all of stardom’s duties with largesse. A giant of soul, screen and fashion, he was born in segregated Memphis in 1942, to parents who soon died, and born again in 1969, when he rose with leather-tasselled wings from the ashes of first-wave Stax Records.
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He had waited years to let loose. Throughout the Sixties he worked days at the slaughterhouse, waiting to climb the ranks at the Stax studio. There, he toiled as a session player and composer, converting the pop charts into an R&B church as he awaited an opening on the mic. “I believed in whatever he said,” Sam and Dave’s Sam Moore says of those years in Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion. “His mouth, to me, was a Bible.”
In 1968, Stax star Otis Redding, 26, had gone down with most of his Bar-Kays band in a plane crash. The same year, the label learnt its partner, Atlantic, had slyly acquired the rights to the Stax catalogue through contractual small print. Facing ruin, the label devised a plan to split from Atlantic and record a new repertoire from scratch, releasing 27 albums within a year.
Part of this “soul explosion” was Hot Buttered Soul, Hayes’s debut proper, an album that abandoned commercial sense and sold a million by accident. On the improbable lead single, an 18-minute cover of Glen Campbell’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, he unspooled a spoken monologue that he called a “rap”. (For this trend to catch, he would be waiting once again, this time for more than a decade.) Recording more covers over the years, he honed the tradition, adding narrative detail that revealed characters more noble and soulful than the original singers grasped.
The Black Moses rendition of “A Brand New Me”, originally performed by Dusty Springfield, was my first seduction by Hayes. During the intro, we hear of the narrator’s depression – same old jokes, same routine smiles – and finally of the woman he believes will rescue him. “Now the jokes sound so new,” he confides over Panglossian strings, “and the laughter does too.”
As I flew towards a doomed romance, his soaring optimism – the way he spun a declaration of love into one of spiritual redemption – towed me along like a kite. Revisiting it on the way home, crestfallen, I let the chorus hit and felt the plane shudder. That sonorous voice can be rapturous or catastrophic, tied to whatever tumult summons it.
Vocally untrained, he sings in an oceanic bass-baritone that could shipwreck a naval fleet. In “Part-Time Love” and “Man’s Temptation”, sexual flings take on an apocalyptic tenor: basslines roll like landslides, backing singers vent pangs of terror, horns portend sin and retribution. His symphonies cling together like warring factions of one person’s psyche.
The centrepiece, if a double album can be said to have one, is the romantic charade of “Going in Circles”, originally a sweet song by the Friends of Distinction. Hayes turns it into a devil’s waltz, full of lovelorn groans and infernal strings. There is also pride in unrequited love – that melodramatic sense that heartbreak, however miserable, carries some spiritual benefit – and his brass fanfares remind us to cherish it.
There are breathers, like his take on the Bacharach and David classic “Close to You”, but when Hayes describes joy he is wont to succeed so emphatically that things turn sad, a glimpse of unattainable perfection. Black Moses plays tricks like this, mixing discordantly cruel emotions, so you have to be careful with it. Listen once a year to preserve it. And the next time you need to be saved or hurt, know that Hayes will be there, waiting.