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Isaac Hayes' 'Hot Buttered Soul' And The Stax Crisis That Let It Happen

Music | September 23, 2020

Portrait of American musician Isaac Hayes (1942 - 2008). New York, New York, 1972. The photo was taken during a shoot for Essence magazine. (Photo by Anthony Barboza/Getty Images)

With the 1969 album Hot Buttered Soul, Isaac Hayes changed soul music forever. But the album should never have happened -- it came about as the result of a business blunder by Stax, the label where Hayes worked as a songwriter and producer. Virtually every other artist was a higher priority for Stax, but the label was desperate to get new material to market, so they let Hayes make an unusual record however he wished. Hot Buttered Soul was unlike any R&B or soul album that had come before it.

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Passionate delivery, mixture of gospel and blues, and funky rhythms make up one of the grooviest genres in history: soul music. Without the legendary powerhouse Stax Records releasing singles from artists such as Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Carla Thomas, soul music might never have reached the levels it did throughout the 1960s and 1970s. What put Stax Records on the map and pushed them to the top began as an obstacle, but led to the greatest event that would ever happen to them: the "Soul Explosion."

Stax Records Brings Black Musicians Together

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Stax Records was more than a renowned label working with some of the top soul musicians; it was also a close-knit family. Most of the people working at the company, along with many of the artists, grew up together and remained friends over the years. Located in heavily-segregated Memphis, Tennessee, Stax, founded by white siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, was a safe haven where black musicians could come together to escape discrimination. The sound produced by Stax was one-of-a-kind, giving a harder and tougher edge to soul music in contrast to Motown’s smoother (and more commercially successful) version of soul. Many of the top names in soul music desired this rawer form of the genre and moved over to Stax to record.

Stax Breaks Up With Atlantic

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Stax Records was dealt some bad cards in 1968. The label was already suffering over the loss of their most popular artist Otis Redding to a tragic plane crash in December 1967, but that was just the beginning. Stax had been parented by label giant Atlantic Records until they recognized Atlantic owned all the rights to their back catalog. Dissatisfied with this realization, Stax ended their relationship with Atlantic (although it meant they would be losing a few popular artists including soul duo Sam & Dave). Officially an independent label, Stax had absolutely no music catalog and nothing to sell. Facing ruin, Stax used the situation as an opportunity to completely reinvent itself and create a new brand. The company dubbed its strategy the Soul Explosion.

The Soul Explosion

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Al Bell, co-owner of Stax Records, stepped in to lead this Soul Explosion using tactics he learned through his previous work with Atlantic Records. However, soul music was not the easiest to market because white music dominated radio airwaves, and soul was primarily played on black radio stations which were few and far between. Bell and the rest of Stax Records began the transformation using a guerrilla marketing strategy while running off of sleepless nights for weeks at a time. One of those nights, Bell had an idea: he wrote down every artist they had ever signed up to that time, and he later asked each one to record new material. Over the next few months, Stax Records released 27 soul albums and 30 soul singles launching a worldwide interest in soul music. They signed new artists including The Emotions and Soul Children and recorded new songs from their own existing artists such as The Staple Singers. Johnnie Taylor’s single "Who’s Making Love?" became their first hit after leaving Atlantic Records, verifying that the parent label was not essential for Stax’s success.

Isaac Hayes Breaks The Boundaries Of Soul Music With “Hot Buttered Soul”

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Bell took a step further when he encouraged their in-house songwriter/producer Isaac Hayes to contribute and release his own solo album. Hayes was initially hesitant since his first album Presenting Isaac Hayes, released earlier that year, was a complete failure that led him to step back behind the scenes. But after Bell pleaded, Hayes agreed to the task only if he would be given full creative control. 

Hayes delivered one of the most revolutionary soul albums of all time, Hot Buttered Soul, which completely broke through the limitations of soul music. During a time where soul music consisted primarily of simple, short, and poppy love songs, Hayes created what would be referred to as “symphonic soul” combining horns and string instruments, an orchestra, spoken monologues with a rap-like essence, and psychedelic jazz. The entire album was only four songs, each one a considerable length longer than popular soul songs (his cover of "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" runs almost 19 minutes). His deep, hypnotic voice pushed soul into an entirely new dimension. Hot Buttered Soul made Hayes a viable solo artist and was a boost to Stax Records' comeback. The album reached #8 on the Billboard album chart and #1 on the R&B charts, and sold a million copies throughout the world, becoming Stax’s best seller of the Soul Explosion and their top artist. The record demonstrated that soul music could extend past short, dance oriented singles, but could also apply experimental concepts and exist as a complete album meant to be listened to in its entirety.

Stax Records Takes Over The Soul World As An Independent Label

Source: Memphis Flyer

Bell promoted the Soul Explosion by hosting a sales summit with distributors from all over the country using the theme “Getting It All Together.” The conference took place at the Memphis Rivermont Hotel where Bell revealed presentations and performances of their musicians’ fresh work. The guests were blown away by Stax’s achievements and the record label proved themselves to be at the top of the soul game. By the end of the weekend, they were a multi-million-dollar business. While Stax has had other issues over the past decades, it is still in operation today and will forever be remembered for releasing some of the most celebrated soul songs in history, especially during the momentous Soul Explosion.

Tags: Classic Albums | Isaac Hayes | Stax Records

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Brian Gilmore

Writer

Brian Gilmore has been writing about and studying everything the Internet loves since 2006 and you've probably accidentally read something he's written before, and if you haven't, you're already reading this bio, so that's a good start. He's a culture junkie ranging from Internet culture, to world history, to listening to way more podcasts than the average human being ever should. He's obsessed with the social catalysts that have caused some of the biggest movements of the last few hundred years, including everything from their effect on the pop culture of the time, to where they end up ideologically. The idea that generations have a beginning and an end is fascinating to him, and the fact that their lasting effects at any given point of their evolution can steer the direction of the entire world lead to some interesting questions, and answers, about our current culture at any given time. He also loves retrofuturism, phobias, and the fact that every pop culture icon has at least a few photos of them that make you feel like you might know them. History isn't a collection of stories as much as it is humanity trying its hardest to maintain a grasp on lessons we've learned before as a species, and that is just way too interesting to not look into a few hours a week. Oh and he used to collect Pez dispensers.