What is it? Ever since I can remember – since I was a very young child – I have been drawn to black music. More than that, I have been drawn to black people and I find that throughout my life I have cultivated black friends. I hesitate to even mention this in this day and age because someone could find some fault or inappropriateness in my feeling this way and stating it out loud. Let me try to simplify by saying that all my life I’ve been aware of hurtful attitudes towards all people in general and more specifically the persecution suffered by African Americans and subsequently I’ve supported them and am often disgusted by the viewpoints and behaviour of some whites through the ages. At my schools or workplaces – particularly those places that have been predominantly white – I have made sure to try and make all people of colour feel comfortable. Admittedly, many or most probably didn’t need my help but, hey, it never hurts.
My first exposure to soul music came from literally the very first record I remember owning, My Name is Roosevelt Franklin, an album featuring Sesame Street‘s black Muppet. The coolest puppet in the history of mankind, Roosevelt decreased in visibility throughout the 1970’s for a variety of reasons. Regardless, what my young ears heard when listening to Roosevelt’s album was a relatable young boy who shared a special relationship with his mother, was a good friend and cared much about all people. This record helped make me into a person who cared about people and didn’t want to see them hurt. And we can argue about the depiction but this was an early exposure for me to black culture.
I had black friends when I was young and they would often take me in hand. They taught me about their culture and shared their food and lingo with me. I distinctly recall being taught about the reggae singer Yellowman and being laughed at when I tried his Jamaican accent. I remember being in Ajamu’s apartment. He lived alone with his dad who had a huge centerfold picture of a black girl on the back of the bathroom door. We played Atari at Ajamu’s; Pitfall. And I’ve always gravitated towards black music. To me there is no better source of soul; the ingredient needed to induce the feeling you are supposed to get when music is done right.
Having said all that as carefully and respectfully as possible, it should come as no surprise that Isaac Hayes’ 1971 double album Black Moses is my fourth-favourite album. In August of ’71, Hayes had released his soundtrack album for the film Shaft, an album that almost single-handedly changed black music and helped further the sub-genre cinematic soul that the Temptations had pioneered with songs like “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”. The Shaft soundtrack album was a huge critical and commercial success for Hayes and his record label. Released on a subsidiary of Stax Records, Enterprise Records, it remains the biggest-selling LP ever to be released on any Stax label. It would eventually make Isaac Hayes the third African American ever to win an Oscar when he took home the statuette for Best Original Song the following spring. (Shaft contains my fourteenth-favourite song ever, “Cafe Regio’s”) But Isaac had much more music in him. After the almost-70-minute Shaft album, Hayes put out Black Moses in November and it clocked in at over 90 minutes.
The title for this record came from a nickname for Hayes, one he didn’t particularly like at first, thinking it sacrilegious. In fact, the title was bestowed on Isaac in reference to his Moses-like ability to lead “his people” out of the wilderness. As the Biblical Moses had done with the Israelites, Isaac Hayes was bestowing a sort of freedom on black audiences – particularly young black men – through his music and he was becoming a symbol of black pride. A wonderful adjunct to this image was the jacket design devised for the record. Isaac appeared on the cover in eyeshades and head covering and the jacket folded out to reveal a poster-sized picture of Hayes in biblical-inspired attire.
The record begins with a cover of the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye”. Hayes maintains the basic structure of the original tune but applies his slow jam touch to it and stretches it out to the proper length suitable for eyes closed-head bobbing listening. I bet you didn’t know that a 9-minute version of “(They Long to Be) Close to You)” was something that is essential in order to get all the joy possible out of life. The Bacharach/David tune had been a huge hit the previous year for the Carpenters. While Isaac and the Carpenters may seem like polar opposites, with this tune we see – or hear – what Hayes does best. He takes a song we all know and love, keeps it basically intact while at the same time putting his indelible stamp on it. Like another Bacharach/David tune Isaac did on ’69’s Hot Buttered Soul, “Walk On By”, Hayes employs lush strings, female backup singers and his own soulful voice to show the other possibilities in a composition. Simply by choosing his favourite chord progression or section of the melody and repeating it for several minutes, Isaac creates a sublime listening experience. “Just like me, all the fellas wanna be…”
I have an oldies playlist that I’ve adorned with random howlings from the great disc jockey Wolfman Jack. During one of his sign-offs from his infamous radio show, Jack would sing or speak along with Toussaint McCall’s 1967 song “Nothing Takes the Place of You”. Jack obviously thought it contained sufficient soul and emotion to serve as a goodnight to his listeners and I’m inclined to agree. Hayes makes little alterations on his version and is able to wrench all the soul out of the lyric. The virile love man is hurting here; “I read your letters one by one. And I still love you when it’s all said and done. And oh, my darling, I’m so blue because nothing takes the place of you”
Probably the best original song on the record is the upbeat “Good Love 6-9969” that starts off with some playful studio chatter and goes into a stone groove with lyrics encouraging young ladies to call up Isaac for some…good love. “All I’m guilty of is spreading a love-type thing” To hear Isaac’s voice as he signs the title is one of the highlights of the record. I’m indebted to Isaac for recording one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard. Kris Kristofferson wrote and Ray Price recorded “For the Good Times” in 1970 so the song was brand new when it appeared on Black Moses. Hayes seems to have known he had a gem on his hands and largely left the heartbreaker alone, singing the lyrics straight in his resonant voice.
Isaac goes back to Bacharach/David with “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”. Again, Hayes leaves this oft-recorded gem alone and it’s a fine recording, if taken at a slightly laborious gait. But the thing that matters about Hayes essaying songs like this is, by putting his stone cold soul stamp on them, it does much to elevate these songs in the eyes of the listening public at large. Hayes shows how well these fine, well-structured compositions lend themselves to a soul treatment, revealing their inherent quality. Let’s face it, along with Dionne Warwick, Hayes has done much to present Bacharach/David to black audiences and this benefits this specific demographic as well. “Part-Time Love” is a grind, another stone groove featuring excellent organ from Hayes and some dramatic scoring in the good cinematic soul tradition.
Helping to cement Isaac’s rep in the romance department was his regular “raps” that appeared on his records, often introducing or leading into a song. Labelled as “Ike’s Rap”, these interludes featured Hayes waxing lyrical about the vagaries of love and offered advice to those trying to navigate. There’s three raps on this record and “Ike’s Rap IV” and the song it leads into, “A Brand New Me”, reveal that Hayes’ modus operandi was not all sexy bravado. “A Brand New Me” is a great example of Ike’s tenderness, his need. He raps and sings about a woman who has had a tremendous effect on him, suggesting that he had been somewhat lost. This vulnerability – combined with the sexy bravado – showed a multi-faceted man and artist and this was something that endeared Isaac Hayes to many.
Isaac Hayes was never more successful or innovative as he was during the first few years of his recording career. Remember that he started at Stax as a songwriter penning with partner Dave Porter such legendary songs as “When Something is Wrong With My Baby”, “Hold On, I’m Coming” and “Soul Man”. When Stax lost its catalog to Atlantic Records in 1968, it was all hands on deck; every employee at the label was called on to record an album and Hayes became a recording artist. Three of his first four records were huge successes and then Shaft put him over the top. Then came Black Moses and two more soundtracks and then Hayes spent several years and several albums in the disco jungle. His records still featured on the R&B charts but he entered an elder statesman phase as opposed to an artist at the vanguard of black music. He spent the rest of his life respected not only as a hit-maker but also an innovative musician and a giant of black music. Black Moses is a significant part of his legacy.
Black Moses (ENS-5003 – 1971) from Enterprise Records
Produced by Isaac Hayes
Side One: “Never Can Say Goodbye”, “(They Long to Be) Close to You”, “Nothing Takes the Place of You”, “Man’s Temptation”
Side Two: “Never Gonna Give You Up”, “Medley: Ike’s Rap II/Help Me Love”, “Need to Belong to Someone”, “Good Love 6-9969”
Side Three: “Medley: Ike’s Wrap III/Your Love is So Doggone Good”, “For the Good Times”, “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”
Side Four: “Part-Time Love”, “Medley: Ike’s Rap IV/A Brand New Me”, “Going in Circles”
Isaac Hayes, lead and background vocals; Hot, Buttered and Soul, background vocals; The Bar-Kays, instrumentation: “(They Long to Be) Close to You”, “Going in Circles”; The Isaac Hayes Movement, instrumentation: Isaac Hayes, piano, vibraphone, organ, electric piano; Ronnie Hudson, bass; Gary Jones, congas, bongos; Willie Hall, drums, tambourine; Lester Snell, electric piano; Charles “Skip” Pitts, electric guitar; Sidney Kirk, piano. Arranged by Isaac Hayes, Johnny Allen and Dale Warren.
Recorded at Stax Records, Memphis, Tennessee.
I took snaps of a couple of the displays at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis in 2016.