The great songwriter and singer has died. I've long loved his epic, 18-minutes-counting-monologue version of "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." About a year ago, I posted a long piece about Hayes as one of my favorite singers. I'm reposting the text after the jump. That doesn't deal with some aspects of his career -- the years of songwriting for Stax, the later "South Park" fame (and controversy) -- but it does deal with why I'm crushed by his passing.
First of all, I will not insist that everyone fall in love with Hayes's recordings. While the voice is irresistible, the complicated and layered sound of the records, as well as their deliberate pace, is not always accessible, even to an audience used to interminable rock-concert jams.
I remember in college, getting people to listen to his epic 18 minute, 40 second version of "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," including the monologue where Hayes sets the scene. You would think in the era of late-night FM deejays blending talk and poetry with the music, that Hayes's talking — and then the extraordinary performance of the song itself, would be greeted with enthusiasm. Instead, puzzlement was more the rule of the day.
Then there's the sometimes extreme nature of the arrangements — especially the chirping of the backup vocals — or of Hayes's monologues. (As he says in "I Stand Accused," "I had to wait until I reached manhood to commit a crime, according to the Court of Love, if there is such a court.")
And Hayes, a gritty writer with David Porter, embraced some of the mushiest songs in the world: "Phoenix," the Carpenter's "Close To You," selections from the Dionne Warwick catalog. To be sure, they were filtered through that rumbling Hays voice and sometimes eerie arrangements (like the guitar riff in "Walk on By"). You nonetheless came away with a sense that Black Moses was a very sentimental guy.
But not, I would argue, as sentimental as the song choices might suggest. Instead, Hayes was building monuments to making out and more that were as towering as Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On," or any slow-jams album you can name.
The considerable length of some of Hayes's recordings — close to 12 minutes on "I Stand Accused," "Walk on By," "Something," almost 9 on "Close to You" — or the blending of a series of longish numbers was meant to set the mood and then, uh, take you home.
It's even more stunning on CD, where there's no need to flip a record to the other side. The first disc of "Black Moses" takes you through longing and foreplay ("Never Can Say Goodbye," "Close to You") into more intensity ("Nothing Takes the Place of You") and then the heat of "Man's Temptation." If you're man enough, it's followed by even greater passion on "Part Time Love," before letting you cool down and have a smoke during one of Ike's raps and the mellow "A Brand New Me."
"Hot Buttered Soul," "I Stand Accused" and "Black Moses" are collectively a stunning achievement, a pure distillation of late-night "music for lovers" radio broadcasts. (Does anyone still do such a thing?) Oh, there's a wrong step here and there; "Something" is an overly long tease, a series of stops and starts, and I've never been a big fan of "Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic." And Hayes would have some good later moments; his disco version of "Don't Let Go" grooves nicely, and there's a live duet with Dionne Warwick of "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself"/"Walk on By" that is impressively steamy. (Hayes has reportedly said he and Warwick were an item for several years, so I'll take the steam as genuine.) But the early work is crucial, especially in its original configurations.
And that poster with "Black Moses"? Boldness, sheer boldness.