“Man, what am I going to do to follow up the ‘Shaft’ LP? I know — let’s try something badass!”
— Isaac Hayes
Nearly a half-century after being released, Black Moses stands the test of time. It’s a meandering mishmash of disjointed instrumentation and unanticipated musical influences somehow welded together by a singular prophetical artist then at the pinnacle of his power and creativity.
Isaac Hayes’ fifth studio album was so highly anticipated that it was probably doomed from the start upon its original release, given the record company’s lofty expectations combined with insurmountable public demands in the towering shadow of the epic and groundbreaking Shaft movie soundtrack, still climbing the charts, which had been released during the summer five months earlier. Indeed, Shalf solidified Hayes’ presence as a musical monolith, netting him a well-deserved Oscar for its theme song, becoming the first Black Academy Award winner in history in a non-acting category. As the seeds of what would become a funk classic were airing on transistor radios and spinning on turntables everywhere, Hayes re-entered Memphis’ Stax studio pressured to rush-record what would be his second double-album released in the late half of 1971.
Think about that for a moment — Isaac Hayes recorded and released two double albums within a five-month stretch. That’s staggering.
A truly great album becomes transformative, ushering in a new sound reverberating into a vast cultural shockwave. Black Moses was not that album. It would be far more accurate to call it the third in Hayes’ soul trilogy, coming on the coattails of Shaft, which had followed up his breakout masterpiece album, Hot Buttered Soul, released in 1969.
Hot Buttered Soul had been that perfect storm of an album at the ideal time in urban contemporary recording history by a supremely self-confident artist fully prepared to swagger into the empty void left when Otis Redding died young. Hayes grabbed the soul baton and ran into the studio with it determined to create a new sound which became a shared musical holy trinity among his co-contemporaries, Curtis Mayfield and Barry White. But Hayes went beyond sound, morphing into both sytle and statement. His sound and appearance were both daring and deeply introspective. Ultimately, the fruit of Hayes’ three-album musical trifecta would become the soundtrack of the ’70s for millions of listeners, a creative amalgamation which inspired Soul Train (which debuted at precisely the same time of this album), enduring for another decade, and beyond.
Here’s a quick taste. Listen to Hayes interpretation of “Part-Time Love,” which as was so often the case with Hayes, a marked improvement on the original track (hey, give it a listen with headphones while reading this retrospective):
The songs on Black Moses aren’t original. Most of the 14 compositions running a total length of 96 minutes (averaging an unheard of 7 minutes per song, which undoubtedly hampered radio airplay and hurt sales on the singles market) were written and previously recorded by other artists. Nearly a half-century later, what gives this album such an evergreen quality that’s lacking in other collections is the seemingly discordant soundtrack laced so perfectly together with Hayes’ trademark baritone voice and interpretive adventurism, combined with an impeccable sense of musical timing.
By reinterpreting what were once known as songs from the “easy-listening” bin, cut originally by Burt Bachrach (The Carpenters’ #1 hit “Close to You”), Diane Warwick (“I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”), and Kris Kristofferson (“For the Good Times”) — Hayes risked his badass reputation among his most loyal urban base. By doing his own thing, Hayes demonstrated just how cool risky musical genre crossover could become when performed with genuine affection and authenticity for the music and lyric. Only Hayes could get away with singing song lyrics made famous by Karen Carpenter and still be looked upon as the hippest guy on the block.
Black Moses was accompanied by considerable behind-the-scenes conflict and public controversy that began even before its release. The album title — “Black Moses” — was widely considered sacrilegious. Hayes had been tagged with the religious and racially-tinged nickname in the racy headline of a Jet magazine feature article, and the name stuck. Hayes, who was deeply religious, initially didn’t like it. Gradually, Hayes began to embrace the nickname, not so much for his own aggrandizement, but rather for the message of power and pride it conveyed. Years later, he said:
“Black men could finally stand up and be men because here’s Black Moses; he’s the epitome of black masculinity. Chains that once represented bondage and slavery now can be a sign of power and strength and sexuality and virility.”
If the album title raised eyebrows, then the cover design was downright scandalous. Many called it outrageous. Some fans who wore out copies of Hot Buttered Soul and Shaft refused to buy Black Moses.
We now forget that album covers were once bold statements, looked upon and works of art and pinnacles of photography. Now, “album covers” barely fit into a tiny square the size of a downloadable thumbnail. Liner notes all but disappeared. Artistry is gone. All the accessories that once made LP albums not merely something to be heard, but also to hold in your hands and fully absorb as a total sensory experience have been replaced by mouseclicks on iTunes. This is what masquerades as progress.
Black Moses took cover art and album design to the very extreme. On the cover, we see Hayes adorned in his Moses-like robe, his eyes shielded by Ray-Ban sunglasses, gazing up to the heavens. Those who first unwrapped the album were in for an even bigger surprise. The cover design opened into a shocking six-square inner fold which, when fully extended to four feet in length, transformed into the shape of a cross.
Not exactly subtle.
Then, there was the music. The sound has since become fertile fodder for parody, which unfortunately has distorted what was (then and now) unique blend of voice, instrumentation, and rhythm. Hayes performs all the lead vocals, frequently backed with a trio of female voices, a staple of late ’60’s R&B that came to define the Motown sound. Hayes also plays all piano and keyboards, including a Hammond organ — which is heard throughout.
It’s as though Hayes never wanted to chase the musical record books. He intentionally extended the lengths of his songs to unplayable lengths on commercial radio stations, going way beyond the conventional 3-minute hook designed to sell records. Every selection on Black Moses clocks in at 5 minutes or more, with some tracks approaching 10 minutes in duration. With Hayes, it was never about the money. It was about the music, one reason he declared bankruptcy a few years after this album was released to lackluster reviews, despite this third in a stellar trilogy of creativity.
Black Moses was panned when it came out. Rolling Stone trashed it (since then, they’ve regraded the album far more favorably). In retrospect, we’ve come to recognize this album’s enduring musical and cultural legacy, with its shattering of conventional expectations during an era of intense change and upheaval. It’s become a pillar of soul reflective of a coming out party for urban culture and ultimately an expression of self-identity.
Black Moses ranks among my top 100 essential albums of all time, although it’s a flawed masterpiece. With each new album and interpretive take on a familiar song, we hear and see Hayes struggling to out-do himself from the one before. Even for Isaac Hayes, in the recording studio or performing live, he was an impossible act to follow.
Here’s Hayes’ recording of The Carpenters’ classic, “Close to You.”
Note: This is the first of a series of reviews and retrospectives of my 100 essential albums, expected to be posted here over the next year or so. Countdown #100: “Black Moses” by Isaac Hayes