Can You Dig It?
Hot Buttered Soul, the 1969 album that established the Memphis producer-arranger Isaac Hayes, contains just four tracks. One is a nine-minute showcase for the endlessly interesting backing ensemble the Bar-Kays; another is an ornate orchestral reimagining of the 1964 Burt Bacharach classic "Walk On By" that lasts for twelve minutes.
Such long expanses of instrumental vamping became Hayes's trademark—they're the cornerstone of this 1971 project, the soundtrack to the blaxploitation film Shaft. While others working at Memphis's Stax label concentrated on terse three-minute songs, Hayes gave listeners the long cinematic tour. He approached music as though he were expected to provide a full evening's worth of material. On his most successful recordings, grooves simmer for minutes before anything as overt as a melody appears.
The "Theme from Shaft," a groove étude built on expertly manipulated wah-wah guitar, became a cultural phenomenon. It spread from the big screen to the pop charts (the title song, featuring Hayes's talky narration, was a huge hit) to marching band halftime routines. The song helped bring Hayes (whose deep baritone became known to a later generation as the voice of Chef on South Park) an Oscar for best score. He was the first African American to receive that honor.
The original Shaft theme (and, indeed, much of the soundtrack) still sizzles. Hayes utilizes the many colors of the orchestra—a single low piano note, a noirish, shadowy flute, a hissing cymbal that kicks things off—to set a mood, and then cooks up musical chase scenes so tense, no visuals are necessary.
Released: 1971, Stax
Key Tracks: "Do Your Thing," "Soulsville," "Theme from Shaft."
Catalog Choice: Hot Buttered Soul
Next Stop: Curtis Mayfield: Superfly
After That: Booker T. and the MGs: Melting Pot
Book Pages: 351–352