Isaac Hayes
Black Moses and Juicy Fruit (Disco Freak)

It would be a crying shame if Isaac Hayes is best remembered in the annals of pop culture as the voice of South Park’s Chef (and the center of a controversy surrounding his Scientologist beliefs and exit from the show). Or even as the composer of the “Theme from Shaft,” though it won him an Academy Award (the first time an African-American had won for Best Score). Even worse would be for his roles as Truck Turner in the movie of the same name and as the Duke in Escape from New York, but there doesn’t seem to be much danger of that happening.

No, Hayes needs to be remembered for his immense impact on soul and R&B. As a staff member at Stax in the ’60s, he penned hits like “When Something Is Wrong with My Baby” and “Soul Man” (Sam & Dave), “B-A-B-Y” (Carla Thomas), and “The Sweeter He Is” (the Soul Children), while also arranging, producing and playing on many other sides. And while Shaft may have brought him the greatest commercial success and paved the way for funk and, in turn, disco, it was preceded and followed by even greater artistic achievements. Well into the new millennium Hayes’ impact could be felt; he played piano on and contributed string arrangements to Alicia Keys’ 2001 debut, Songs in A Minor.

This week Concord, who resurrected the Stax label in 2007, reissued two records from Hayes’ lengthy and varied discography: 1971’s Black Moses and 1976’s Juicy Fruit (Disco Freak). But while Juicy Fruit hasn’t seen release on CD previously, Black Moses remains the more necessary of the two. As the nomenclature promises, this is the soul promised land. While new packaging (like the original vinyl pressing, it folds out into a cross-shaped, head-to-toe portrait of Isaac appropriately robed) and new remastering are welcomed enhances, it’s this album’s epic sounds that are the real revelation.

After writing hits for so many others, it’s odd that Hayes took to covering others’ songs for much of his output, and even on this two discs’ worth of material, only one original song appears. It becomes a moot point, though, for he so fully makes each cut here his own that it’s hard to hear each any other way afterwards. His deep, velvety vocals are definitely part of the reason, but it’s his sultry arrangements, cut from a lusher fabric, that distinguish this record. His nine-minute version of the Carpenters hit “(They Long to Be) Close to You” is decadently rich. Ensconced in strings, horns, flutes and other flourishes—pop songs just aren’t made like this anymore. There's actual movements, not just shifts between verse, chorus and refrain. “Man’s Temptation,” Hayes’ oft sampled cover of the Curtis Mayfield penned Gene Chandler hit, balances such majestic verve with a gritty guitar riff that echoes his paean to love gone awry. Black Moses is the sound of soul gone orchestral, a groove stretched out to cover four sides.

Juicy Fruit, on the other hand, isn’t anything so profound. In fact, as Hayes might call it since one song is so titled, this is “music to make love by.” The title cut is the equivalent of “Chocolate Salty Balls,” following a track of food innuendo over disco grooves. But the record’s not a total waste. “Let’s Don’t Ever Blow Our Thing” recalls Moses a bit, Hayes getting sentimental—to the point of being corny at times—over ornate backing. ”Lady of the Night” follows a close tack, here Hayes detailing his infatuation with a member of the world’s oldest professtion even as he asks, “What do you want out of life? A true love or a higher price?” In other words, Juicy Fruit is mostly expendable, though the cover almost makes the album worth purchasing on its own. Still, the record is not so much of a foible to mar Hayes’ towering stature and is easily forgotten in the wake of his successes.
Stephen Slaybaugh