From its humble beginnings in a Memphis garage sixty years ago to its present-day role as part of the Concord Music Group, Stax Records has persevered through numerous ups and downs to be rightfully recognized as one of the most important labels of the 20th century. After early records concentrated on pop, country, and rockabilly, Stax (so named for founders Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton) found its niche in R&B, launching the careers of soul legends like Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, William Bell, Booker T. & the MG’s, and countless others. In recognition of its 60th anniversary, the label’s releases have ranged from budget samplers of its most famous artists (including all those named above) to more ambitious endeavors such as a new box set from one of its leading lights.
Though Stax was populated by many star artists, few could argue that the late Isaac Hayes deserves the title bestowed upon him by Stax and Craft Recordings on a new 4-CD/1-45 RPM vinyl box set: The Spirit of Memphis (CR 00050). This collection beautifully distills the essence of the artist during his Stax period of 1962-1976 by exploring his career from four different angles: as a songwriter and producer, as a hitmaking singles artist, as an interpretive singer, and as a groundbreaking jam musician pushing the boundaries of pop, soul, and funk. Of course, his social consciousness and role as a beacon for the African-American community informed all of his work. As he’s quoted by Robert Gordon in his liner notes, “Stax was honest music that represented the common man, the common black man. Real-life experiences from a very ethnic perspective. And it was black and white musicians playing together.” The tumultuous era in which Stax thrived yielded some of the most thrilling music of the day, or any other – and Isaac Hayes was at the center of that hurricane.
Whether writing the songs, producing the sessions, or pounding the piano, Hayes was an integral part of the Stax family. Disc One, Soul Songwriter, Soul Producer, boasts 26 examples of the artist’s generosity towards his fellow artists. There are big hits here, all written and produced by Hayes and his frequent collaborator David Porter, such as Sam and Dave’s trio of “Hold On! I’m A-Comin’,” “Soul Man,” and “I Thank You;” and Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y” and “Let Me Be Good to You.” Other leading lights of Soulsville, U.S.A. are heard here, like Johnnie Taylor, William Bell, and Judy Clay.
The unexpected songs are the biggest treats, however. Porter never achieved the solo stardom that his onetime partner did, but it wasn’t due to a shortage of talent. Two versions of the slow-burning Hayes/Porter copyright “Can’t See You When I Want To,” from 1965 and 1970, show just how much Hayes’ gifts as an arranger had grown in a mere five years. The original version is a charming slice of embryonic southern soul, while the remake is a torridly smoldering blast of orchestrated R&B. Crooner Billy Eckstine’s deliciously creamy reading of The Classics IV’s “Stormy” looks forward to Hayes’ own musical reinventions on Discs 2 and 3 of the box. Like Eckstine, Mable John was the rare artist to spend time at both Stax and its Detroit rival, Motown. Her 1966 “Your Good Thing is About to End” is a passionate shouter. How adaptable were Hayes and Porter’s tunes? Two 1966 recordings from future country legend Charlie Rich surely rank as among his most gutbucket recordings.
Disc Two offers a sampler of Hayes’ solo singles for Stax’s Volt and Enterprise imprints, originally issued between 1965 and 1974. From the relatively minor pair of swingin’ instrumentals credited to Sir Isaac and The Do-Dads to his majestic reworking of Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (cut down to roughly 7 minutes from 19 on the Hot Buttered Soul LP!) and the Academy Award-winning “Theme from Shaft,” this disc is everything one could hope for as a “greatest hits and rarities,” with each song presented in the form in which it was most often heard on the radio. In addition to his deep, resonant voice, sensual persona, and penchant for rich, dramatic charts and lengthy raps, Hayes stood apart from many of his peers for his eclectic tastes, which saw him absorb and transform pop hits into rhythmic soul epics; witness, here, not just the Jimmy Webb standard but the dynamic takes on Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “The Look of Love,” Bread’s “Baby I’m a-Want You,” and Clifton Davis’ Jackson 5 smash “Never Can Say Goodbye.” Among the other treats on this disc are both sides of a 1969 Christmas single (“The Mistletoe and Me” b/w “Winter Snow”) with two original, darkly shimmering ballads, a surprisingly breezy instrumental take on Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” and a couple of rare radio spots released in conjunction with The Isaac Hayes Movement.
Burt Bacharach’s influence on Hayes was never more evident than on some of the instrumentals on the Shaft soundtrack; Hayes shared Bacharach’s love of soft horn accents and purring female background vocals, and both men brought sophistication to soul. (Credit must be given, too, to Hayes’ primary co-arrangers Johnny Allen and Dale Warren.) It’s appropriate, then, that one of the highlights of Cover Man, Disc 3 of The Spirit of Memphis, is a previously unreleased, moody 1970 version of one of Bacharach and David’s most beautiful anthems, the Vietnam-era “The Windows of the World.” The singer brings a strong spiritual element to the plea for peace, as well as a somber note of introspection.
It’s one of three of the team’s songs on this disc, along with the elongated, oft-sampled 12-minute take on “Walk on By,” and the 7-minute “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself.” (Hayes would later tour and duet with Dionne Warwick, Bacharach and David’s most frequent muse.) Hayes also delivers a slow, spare interpretation of the standard “When I Fall in Love,” salutes Chicago soul man Curtis Mayfield on “Man’s Temptation,” and gets in a Philly bag on Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and Jerry Butler’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” replacing its smooth Philly splendor with a seductive Memphis groove. This disc is rounded out with an exciting six-song live set from the 1972 PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) expo in Chicago. Four of the tracks are previously unreleased. Consisting entirely of covers like “Stormy Monday” and “I Stand Accused,” it fits well on this disc, and showcases Hayes’ from-the-gut blues growl at its finest. His “Ten Commandments of Love” is as sensitive as “If Loving You is Wrong (I Don’t Want to Be Right)” is furiously assured.
The fourth and final CD in the set, Jam Master, has just seven tracks, but one of them clocks in at over 18 minutes (!) and another at over 33 (!!). Five of the seven songs are previously unreleased, and for those who prefer their Hayes a little more succinct, there are shorter instrumental jams from Hayes’ tight and funky band on Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” and Brenda and Patrice Holloway’s “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” best known in its hit version by Blood, Sweat & Tears. “Hung Up on My Baby” from the 1974 Three Tough Guys soundtrack is a bold, brassy explosion of sound.
The Spirit of Memphis is packaged in a book-style format, with 56 pages of text, photographs, and memorabilia all beautifully designed by Rachel Gutek. Each of the four CDs, which are housed in sturdy slotted pages, is emblazoned with a vintage Stax, Volt, or Enterprise label, meticulously recreated. A bonus 45 RPM record recreates Hayes’ 1962 pre-Stax debut single for Youngstown Records, “Laura, We’re On Our Last Go-Round” b/w “C.C Rider.” Paul Blakemore has remastered, and previously unreleased songs have been newly mixed by Seth Presant or Dave Cooley. Isaac Hayes’ Spirit has never dimmed. While he continued to make music for labels including Polydor, Columbia, and Virgin until his untimely passing in 2008 at the age of 65, the fullest expression of his creative soul came with the hot buttered soul he created at Stax Records. This set is a vivid testament to the Black Moses’ eternal power.