Before immersing myself in his music in the early ‘90s, I had long imagined Isaac Hayes to have a penchant for sheepskin rugs and mirrored ceilings. How else was I to read that sly smile on his lips and the kilo of gold hanging from his neck? I always suspected the ‘love woes’ of which he sang to be indulgent exercises in self pity, narcissistic, and possibly even imaginary altogether. And there, on his fifth studio album Black Moses, the velvet-voiced lothario was at it again. The confessions he whispered on ‘Ike’s Rap II’ (“I abused you, took advantage of you, used you selfishly”) existed only as the preamble to renewed utterances of seduction.
In that sense Black Moses appeared to be a triumph of opulence over frugality, and artifice over sincerity. Yet as I was later to discover, Hayes recorded these songs during a wretched time in his personal life. “When I recorded Black Moses in 1971, my marriage was breaking up and I was broken-hearted,” he recounted to author Vivien Goldman. “Most of the titles were about relationships ending. I used to stand in front of the mic and cry. I had to have my secretary hold my hand while I was singing tunes like ‘Help Me Love’.” Indeed, on that particular track, one can hear him edge ever closer to emotional breakdown with a near deranged “ple-ea-ea-eaaaase” falsetto at 3:39 and again at 6:56, those ascending strings continuously strangled by the mournful brass tugging from below as if to hammer the point home: God, how hard it is to get up when you’re broken.
It seems my initial judgement of Hayes’ music had been grossly unfair. I had underestimated him, mistrusted him even. Foolish of me, for paradoxically, when it came to the task of reworking others’ songs, there is no one I would have trusted more than Isaac Hayes. No one. Despite his hugely successful songwriting partnership with David Porter which yielded major hits for Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, Johnnie Taylor and many other Stax artists in the late 60s, Ike had established himself first and foremost as a masterful interpreter of others’ songs. By the time of Black Moses, his music had become almost exclusively about those extravagant embellishments which had become progressively more ambitious in scope. There didn’t seem to be any three minute classic Hayes couldn’t stretch into fifteen, all the while keeping you captivated, often hypnotised, until the very last note (He once famously quipped that this allowed radio DJs sufficient time to nip out for a coffee!)
‘Walk On By’ and ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ from the groundbreaking Hot Buttered Soul, ‘I Stand Accused’ from The Isaac Hayes Movement, ‘Our Day Will Come and ‘The Look Of Love’ from To Be Continued were cases in point – they were extraordinary recreations, some of which contained lengthy monologues before transforming into masterfully hypnotic extended grooves. Hayes had been blessed with a divine gift, and the four sides of Black Moses afforded him ample opportunity to flaunt it in style.
The choice of material at times may have confounded expectations, but almost everything worked well, sometimes spectacularly well. The smouldering takes of ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’ and Gamble & Huff’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ (first recorded by Jerry Butler) are expertly handled. The bubbling organ of Toussaint McCall’s ‘Nothing Takes The Place Of You’ (made more famous on William Bell’s Soul Of A Bell album) and the earthy bump and grind of ‘Good Love’ add a little southern grit to proceedings while ‘Part-time Love’ is euphoric and funky. Far from pedestrian but undoubtedly less ambitious are his takes of ‘For The Good Times’ and ‘I’ll Never Fall In Love Again’. Elsewhere folks we’re talking seriously blissed out. Underneath their weighty orchestration Scott Walker’s songs may have creaked with existential angst, but for Isaac Hayes the luxurious accompaniment seemed – despite his emotional turmoil – entirely designed to bestow pleasure. ‘A Brand New Me’ had been recorded exquisitely by Jerry Butler, Dusty Springfield and Aretha Franklin, but is distilled by Ike to perfection. Here, as elsewhere on the album, much of the credit must lie with the incredible backing vocals provided by Rose Williams and sisters Pat and Diane Lewis (aka Hot Buttered and Soul). That paradisiacal chorus of “It’s just because of you” seems like it is destined never to end, and indeed why would you want it to?
‘Going In Circles’, written by Jerry Peters and Anita Poree, had already been a hit for the Friends Of Distinction, but it is as nothing compared to Hayes’ spiralling rendition with its lavish orchestration, near hysterical falsetto and – the genius part – a stunning shadow melody played out on those horns from the Milk Tray adverts of the ‘70s. The moody loungecore template of ‘You’re Love Is So Dog-gone Good’ repeats that trick and could have worked perfectly as one of those mainstream late ‘60s films masquerading as modernist / arthouse, or at least as something you might have imagined Pearl & Dean producing for period cinema advertising in between the trailers. Then there are two Curtis Mayfield-penned covers, ‘Man’s Temptation’ and ‘I Need To Belong To Someone’, each borrowed from the Impressions’ 1966 classic Ridin’ High LP. The former features a dramatic intro and sweeping strings alongside some seriously taut wah wah guitar from Charles ‘Skip’ Pitts making it overall a slightly more gritty outing than its companion. The latter is a little shorter, beginning with electric piano and skyscraping strings before adding stabs of brass and those coiled guitar licks (worthy of Cropper or Mayfield himself), but both are marvellously OTT. He even takes the mammoth MOR hit by the Carpenters, ‘(They Long To Be) Close To You’, immediately locating the g-spot of its melody, before scaffolding around it honeycoated rhythms (by the marvellous Bar-Kays) and supremely unctuous sighs and harmonies.
That divine inspiration is present not only in the music but also in the visible portrayal of him as Biblical African-American prophet on the album’s sleeve. The title was conferred upon him by an enthusiastic security guard at one of his shows and envisaged him as a uniting figure for black Americans, leading them out from slavery and finally breaking those chains of bondage. Nevertheless Hayes was anxious about how the sleeve (which folded out to reveal him in a crucified pose) might be interpreted by the media. At the time a Christian himself, he recalled “I thought it a bit sacrilegious. But when I realised the relevance it had to black people, I wore it with pride.”
Hayes moved soul music forward at a brisker pace than many would give him credit for and his records sound incredibly modern today, which is doubtless why his songs (he surely earned the right to call them his) have been so heavily sampled by artists ranging from Portishead to Public Enemy. Black Moses stands as perhaps his most definitive (certainly his most comprehensive) artistic statement and is a fitting testament to his genius. (JJ)