Juicy Fruit (Disco Freak)
While primarily known for his work as Chef on South Park, the theme from Shaft and… um… Scientology, Isaac Hayes was a driving force behind a huge portion of the twentieth century’s popular music, and a boundary-pushing artist.
As a staff writer at Stax Records with David Porter, Hayes wrote dozens of hits for other artists, including Sam and Dave, Johnnie Taylor and Carla Thomas. Embarking on a solo career, Hayes’ second album, Hot Buttered Soul showed that soul/R&B music could expand beyond the standard 3-minute single and take up huge chunks of an LP, paving the way for Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder’s ’70s albums. Hayes’ reworking of Glenn Campbell’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” which takes up almost 20 minutes, is a hypnotic groove — Hayes’ spoken introduction will leave you on the edge of your seat.
Then in 1971, Hayes released the soundtrack to Shaft, a Grammy winning double album. You’d think that that would be enough for a year, but Hayes also dropped his masterpiece, another double album called Black Moses, the same year.
Like Hot Buttered Soul, Hayes takes chances on cover versions, and is able to find the soul in songs like The Carpenters’ “Close to Me.” The whole album is awash in lush strings and horns and Hayes’ smooth baritone, which seems like a blueprint for Barry White. Most of the songs clock in around five minutes or so, taking a groove and riding it for as long as it takes. While most of the songs have a haunting slow to mid-tempo, tracks like “Part-Time Love” build to thrilling climaxes, and there’s some mid-’60s sounding funk in “Good Love.” This is an album that rewards the patient listener, and on the spoken word sections, especially “Ike’s Rap, pt.2” — later sampled by Portishead in “Glory Box” — are arrestingly hypnotic. Listening to Hayes plead with his woman to give him another chance or describe his pain over sparse instrumental backing will give you the chills. Much has been made of the fact that Hayes was going through a painful divorce at the time of Black Moses, but the album never feels oppressively sad or depressing, it seems more like a concept album documenting each phase of love.
The reissue is top-notch. The album sounds great — darker and richer than I remember the vinyl sounding — and the CD pack preserves the original vinyl sleeve, unfolding into a cross with Hayes in Biblical garb on the shores of a river. In this age of iPods and digital downloads, it is very likely that this might be one of the last CDs to be presented with such care. Black Moses is also an album that deserves to be heard as an entire piece, preferably at night.
With his fondness for strings and lush production, Isaac Hayes was a natural for the disco era, and the never-released-on-CD Juicy Fruit shows Hayes adapting to the new style. The title track is a funky workout with a great chorus. It’s just too bad that half of the song’s running time has Hayes and his band flirting with a woman. How the hell did they play this at discos? Just start the song halfway in? Juicy Fruit doesn’t get much praise, especially compared to Black Moses, Shaft, and Hot Buttered Soul, but it’s not a bad album. The production isn’t as dense and lush, but songs like the title track and “Love Me or Lose Me” and “Thank You Love” are nice uptempo numbers that I can picture filling dance floors at the time. And it has an awesome front and back cover, showing Hayes in a pool surrounded by women wearing fruit on their heads.
If your budget only allows you to pick up one of these reissues, definitely choose Black Moses. It’s truly a groundbreaking album, and one that deserves a relistening.