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Soul served hot and buttery

The shiver would end at the base of my brain in a twisted spasm of pain that gave me a facial twitch. It also produced a thought which today seems bizarre to me – that I didn’t much care for music.

15 Jun 2017

By guest author Paul Smith, Deputy Editor of Australian Doctor

There was a moment back in the late 80s when Whitney Houston’s pitch perfect vocal pyrotechnics in the final chorus of I Will Always Love You sent a shiver up my spine.

The shiver would end at the base of my brain in a twisted spasm of pain that gave me a facial twitch. It also produced a thought which today seems bizarre to me – that I didn’t much care for music.

But then the late 80s was an era of mainstream aural horror. I can still list the perpetrators: Wet Wet Wet, Bryan Adams, Whitney herself. And yes, Crowded House and REM.

And I harboured this dislike for music for some years until my life-changing conversion in a Bournemouth bedsit. The date: May 30th 1994.

At the time I was living in this English coastal town as a low paid hack on the local newspaper nurturing tobacco and drinking addictions. One of my colleagues – who we called Crabbers – was a reporter whose local patch was inhabited by people who had highest median age in England, somewhere above 72. The lack of news action in God’s Waiting Room meant he spent a lot of time in the bookies testing to failure his foolproof betting system.

But he did have a big record collection. One night after running out of money at  Edgecliff Arms we went back to his dingy flat. He put on one of his old vinyl records. “This is good,” he said. The static crackled. I would have expressed contempt. It was Walk On By but instead of the Burt Bacharach, it was Isaac Hayes – whose version brought black soul to easy listening.

Twelve minutes later this song has been turned inside out into an epic, widescreen version of three minutes 60s pop, with fat incessant baselines and strings that pull your mind elsewhere, to bigger things. As proof of the revolution it has just performed, it ends with a final giant orchestral chord – it is saying “we are done”. In my tiny life this was a biblical event,   

Hayes had made his name as a songwriter with Stax Records. His first album was a flop. But then comes 1969, the midst of an artistic paradigm shift. In the freedoms this brings Hayes managed to knock out, with a group of Stax session musicians known as the Bar-Keys, Hot Buttered Soul. The final track on this album is By the Time I Get to Phoenix – a Jimmy Webb country favourite. Hayes makes it into a monster 18-minute track with his story of how a good man escapes the wrongs inflicted by a bad (a very bad) woman. It’s ludicrous and brilliant.

To be honest if you want Whitney’s technical perfection you have to look elsewhere. Hayes’ singing isn’t up to much. But to me all this opened up a new world. From Hayes it ran to Curtis Mayfield and then Terry Callier and the producer Charles Stepney and from that, the genius of black America.

Genius because you realised it was also forward to early 90s hip hop and back to jazz and forward to Dance and Breakbeat and Jungle and whatever is good now. Hot Buttered Soul just happened to be one of the million threads which stiches this glorious world together.

The consequence in my life was almost dramatic – after Hot Buttered Soul I spent weekends rummaging through boxes in second hand record shops hanging out with people denied regular sunlight.  

I still dislike Whitney of course but only early Whitney. As the drugs destroyed her made It’s Not Right But It’s OK.  That is a good record. And I feel such judgements prove that in my biblical moment I managed to escape becoming an evangelical music snob. Yes I still harbour prejudice.  One of my undeclared ambitions is to get through life having never listened to an REM album. But then REM really do suck.


Published: 15 Jun 2017