It's my contention that, whatever bizarre circ*mstances caused the flurry of lawsuits circulating round Isaac Hayes prior to the demise of Stax Records, and the subsequent demeaning bankruptcy proceedings after Hayes had moved to ABC, they had little to do with the music.
His fall from grace on record was not the cause, but the effect of these outside pressures. Indeed, the stuff he's been relentlessly turning out in recent bleak years has, in my book, been of consistently high standard.
O.K., so the Live At Lake Tahoe set may have been marking time, but the two disastrous soundtracks Truck Turner and Tough Guys both contained some solid musical moments, despite critical lambasting, however duff the movies may have been, and his Joy album is an un-recognised goodie: while the strangely ignored ABC albums Juicy Fruit, Disco Connection and Chocolate Chip, swiftly deleted and to be found in cutout racks across the U.S., were much stronger than their lack of chart success might indicate – logical contemporary extensions of his best Stax work.
So what happened? The true story lies in some Memphis bank vault. Meanwhile, forget the vagaries of fashion and give the man his due: never mind the red-herring about those long intro raps – that was no big thing, a common device in gospel, and used from time to time in soul music over the years (Joe Tex? Bobby Marchan? Etta James? Linda Jones?).
No, the Bald One will surely go down in history as having brought about two important developments: with the runaway success, out of left field, of his Hot Buttered Soul set in '69, he almost single-handedly freed black American music from the shackles of the three-minute single, while at the same time opening the floodgates for black artists to the lucrative FM-pop market, and Shaft in '71 hipped-up every film and TV theme that came after.
Listening to the HBS album now, nine years later, it sounds relatively tame, the long rap-ballads like fairly regular improvised studio jams with overdubbed orchestration and the odd bum note. Then, they conveyed a sense of majestic freedom, a welcome balm from the neurotic "sock-it-to-me, uptight" soul music of the time.
But the magic of those marathon workouts lay in their very indulgence – knowing that the tracks were absurdly over-the-top, and digging it; like laying in a hot bath for far too long – too much of a good thing, on purpose!
So the well-meaning potted history of Hayes' Stax period presented on Chronicle, with its generous playing length and ten cuts (together with authoritative sleeve-notes by Barry Lazell) cannot but be a frustrating listening experience. 'Shaft', 'Do Your Thing', 'Walk On By', the latter two in their edited form, are here, as are seven minutes each of 'I Stand Accused' and 'Phoenix', plus 'Never Can Say Goodbye', strangely the only inclusion from the Black Moses double-album.
Hitherto unissued on LP, a frantic duet with David Porter on Luther Ingram's ineffable 'Ain't That Lovin' You' and an instrumental reading of 'Let's Stay Together' with the spotlight on Isaac's own fine sax playing – here shrouded in echo, for some reason – are both fairly dispensable; instead, 'Ellie's Theme' or 'Cafe Regio's' from Shaft might have been better choices.
If these tracks have dated, it's chiefly down to the horn charts, which sound a trifle stilted on occasion (the currently prevalent Earth, Wind and Fire super-tight stab-stab approach was years away), the odd heavy-fuzz guitar riff, and a general lack of electronic keyboards bar Rhodes and Hammond.
Cut to 1978: and picture the scene. Poor old Black Moses, with a permanent hole in his wallet from alimony payments, his custom Cadillacs and mink-upholstered quadrophonic armchairs subjected to public gaze, then gone under the auctioneer's hammer, his dream studio repossessed, the ignominy of a bankruptcy court in recent memory, goes cap-in-hand to his new label, Polydor, eager for guidance as to how to regain past glories.
"Well, Ike," replies the exec. after the Billboard photographer has departed and the drinks cleared away, "why not go back to the roots, to the groove of your two classic albums, Hot Buttered Soul, the one that started it, and Shaft, the one that made you an international star?"
Off goes Ike, chains clanking in his wake, gets in faithful arranger Johnny Allen (an unsung hero in this context, as is Gene Page with Barry White), and some old mates from the Movement – guitarists Michael Toles and Skip Pitts, rock-solid drummer Willie Hall.
The result is pleasing, predictable, but ultimately perplexing. Four out of six tracks are ballads given the time-honoured rap treatment, two of them already familiar: opener is Billy Joel's 'Just The Way You Are', slowed right down, with Ike's sexy monologue decidedly more rushed, more scripted than before, but featuring a soulful alto solo from the man himself; then there's a Hayes original, 'Believe In Me', in the same key and mood; and finally the Dark Brown Voice has decided to resurrect 'Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight', which may give James Taylor some unneeded publishing royalties, but has got to be too tired to walk after the Isley Bros had finished with it.
Two stiffs: a draggy slice of social comment along the well-trodden lines of "What the world needs now/Save the children" etc. called 'If We Ever Needed Peace', and a pointless remake of 'Shaft', believe it or not: billed as "a Jim Burgess Mix" (whoever he is), it's ten minutes long and virtually identical in arrangement – the only concession to discodom being the requisite four-to-the-bar bass-drum and a midsong percussion break. The remaining cut, 'Zeke The Freak', is a cooking porn-heavy semi-instrumental a la 'Disco Connection'.
An odd album – but I wish the man luck with it. After all the sh*t that's been hitting the fan, I imagine he could do with the breaks.