Listen to this track by Stax staffer, soul music innovator, and future South Park cast member Isaac Hayes. It’s “Walk On By”, Hayes’ expansive interpretation of the Bacharach-David pop hit that appears on 1969’s Hot Buttered Soul.
Hayes had been a stalwart songwriter at the Stax label, penning many hits for resident artists, most notably Sam & Dave, and their song “Soul Man”. But, the time between that song and the end of the decade was a wide one. A lot had changed. One important thing that had shifted was the standing relationship between Stax and Atlantic, the latter of which had distributed the former’s catalog from 1965. Atlantic had claimed Stax’s output when it in turn was bought by Warner in 1968 as per the contract signed by Stax founder Jim Stewart when the distribution deal was initially struck. The requirement to back-fill Stax’s offering with new work was suddenly a vital priority. It was the end of an era, and the beginning of a new one.
How did this turn of events help to establish Isaac Hayes as a soul music icon, a status that lasted over a forty-year career as a solo artist?
The dilemma that Stax faced with the loss of rights to their back catalog, and the push to putting out records over which they had the rights to close the gap allowed established writer and instrumentalist Hayes to be in a pretty good position to create this langourous, and epic-scale take on the Bacharach-David tune along with the rest of the album off of which it comes. He was able to negotiate complete creative control over the project, as well, certainly showing his range of vision while also framing his persona on record as a chocolaty-voiced soul provider. But, it also helped to move things forward for R&B, and for recorded pop music as a whole, too.
For one, it placed soul music as a genre that could expand into longer form presentation on vinyl, perhaps borrowing from a jazz approach. Jazz musicians had been laying down expansive impressionistic interpretations of three-minute pop songs for years. But, another consideration here is that rock music was beginning to pick up on this same level of scale by the time this record was conceived. Hayes’ approach is cannily undertaken on this score, if appealing to a broader base of record buyers was such an important goal, which it certainly was.
But, none of that would matter if the song didn’t work. And it does, gloriously, by a meticulous approach to arrangement and juxtaposition of texture. Funk fuzz guitar, pop strings, clear-as-a-bell backing vocals, soaring brass, gospel organ, spacey production, and Hayes’ distinct soul voice all contribute to a whole that is difficult to pigeonhole, and easy to be charmed by, even if it’s three times as long as most pop songs of the day. It takes on a cinematic sensibility, as if the 1964 Dionne Warwick version was only a part of the story. And the closing instrumental vamp full of reverb and wah-wah pedals piloted by Stax fixtures The Bar-Kays played right into the late-60s jam band and psychedelic soul aesthetics quite handily too.
This song, and Hot Buttered Soul in general would help Isaac Hayes write his own ticket as a solo artist and usher in a new era for Stax in the 1970s. He would go on to score a big hit with an edited version of another song off of this record in Jimmy Webb’s “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”, which is even more expansive in its album form at over 18 minutes. This take on the song included a “rap” segment, applying the original definition of that term as meaning a dramatic spoken-word section. Hayes would continue with this technique on later releases. His single, “(The Theme From ) Shaft”, a single off of a soundtrack he was commissioned to write, as well as the double Black Moses album, which featured his version of Clifton Davis’ “Never Can Say Goodbye”, and another Bacharach-David hit “Close To You” would be other notable releases that helped to establish him as a singular voice in soul.
After a career as a songwriter, singer, producer, and actor, Isaac Hayes died in 2008. But, you can learn more about his career at the Isaac Hayes page on Allmusic.