There’s great music on each of its four CDs, but the careful structure doesn’t quite do justice to its mercurial subject.
Isaac Hayes (1942-2008) co-wrote some of Stax Records’ greatest hits—in other words, some of the greatest R&B singles of the ‘60s. His 1969 solo album Hot Buttered Soul was that musical rarity, an expansive, experimental landmark that sold a million copies. His “Shaft” was one of the funkiest movie themes of the ‘70s. Late in his career, that gravel-voiced soul singer became a different kind of pop culture icon as the voice of Chef on “South Park.” How do you condense such a varied career into a boxed set? With nearly four and a half hours of music, The Spirit of Memphis (1962-1976) hits many of Hayes’ early career highlights and does its best to make organizational sense out of it, but while there is great music on each of its four CDs, its careful structure doesn’t quite do justice to its mercurial subject.
Hayes once said he sang hillbilly music before he sang R&B. The first guitar he heard was from gospel legend Sister Rosetta Tharpe. He sang a Nat King Cole song for his ninth grade talent show. This is the musically omnivorous background from which Hayes sprung forth, and that range makes it easy to see how he was as equally at home co-writing deep soul for Stax as he was covering Glen Campbell.
Disc one, which focuses on songs Hayes produced or wrote for other artists, charts the Stax years when, with David Porter, he wrote such perennials as Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man” and “Hold On, I’m Coming.” The latter’s propulsive horn chart seems in miniature an early template for the extended vamps that Hayes would develop by the end of the decade. It’s a surprise to hear crooner Billy Eckstine on this disc, and perhaps even more of a surprise to hear his influence. Hayes produced and arranged an Eckstine album for Stax not long after Hot Buttered Soul (although Robert Gordon’s extensive liner notes doesn’t get the chronology right, asserting that the Eckstine album came first). Eckstine, whose band once featured such jazz legends as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, may seem like a long way from Hayes’ 18-minute long reinvention of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” but as he was raised to enjoy and perform all kinds of music, Hayes forged a path beyond genre.
Unfortunately, Hayes’ choices weren’t always spot on, and neither are the choices that went into this set. While disc two, which covers his solo singles, is fairly consistent, a third disc consisting entirely of covers is where Spirit of Memphis loses steam.
At first, it’s not for lack of good material. The disc opens with the standard “When I Fall in Love,” taken at such a glacial pace that it suggests another unlikely precursor: actor Jackie Gleason, whose albums as a pop music conductor were famous for tempos so slow that they almost became avant-garde. The 12-minute cover of Bacharach-David’s “Walk on By” is typical of the way Hayes could take lush pop and transform it into an extended love-making session. But a schlocky instrumental version of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” is a bad call, and much of the disc is given to a live show from 1972 that was probably great to witness but doesn’t seem to work for a career retrospective. Worse, a final disc devoted to Hayes the “Jam Master” doesn’t even include “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic,” a Hot Buttered Soul highlight famously sampled by Public Enemy.
Producer Joe McEwan writes that this set “is an attempt to frame a career that doesn’t always fit neatly together,” and in that sense its sprawling and not entirely coherent nature aptly captures an unpredictable life in music. But it’s even more perfectly captured on Hot Buttered Soul. Just put that on and wait for the nine-minute narrated introduction (which is cut from the single edit on disc two of this set) of “Phoenix.” Hayes somehow takes his MOR inspiration and taps it for 18 minutes of a distinctly African-American melodrama. It’s too bad that Spirit of Memphis can’t replicate such magic across its four discs. But what can?