Walk On By

I’ve been digging into the Stax again lately and am just floored by Steve Cropper’s versatility and style as a guitarist. His stuff on ANY given Otis Redding song would be the high-water mark for any other session musician’s career.

Not that he was just a session musician, mind you. Hardly a journeyman, Cropper stuck around the old theater on East McLemore Ave. from his teens in the early 60’s and just past its major upheaval in the 1970’s. He was a Mar-Key, an MG, and later a Blues Brother. But Steve Cropper would never allow you to mistake him for anyone else (though occasional Steven Seagal comparisons are warranted). Take “Let Me Come On Home” from 1967.

Otis Redding – Let Me Come On Home

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Featuring the kind of straight-fingered piano plink that makes white-haired RZA scratch his chin, the song manages to be one of those great and rare moments in 60’s soul music where the singer allows himself to get caught up–and ultimately lost–in the band’s sound. You can’t blame Otis, either. The horns are so tight, Booker T. and Al Jackson are in a mind-meld, and whenever Cropper is playing, you hear Otis just back right off. The rumor is that Otis Redding was an incredibly demanding bandleader, and in this case, the band is just too good to sing over.

Cropper’s ability to transition his playing early on from the style of The Ventures, John Barry or Dick Dale, to someone who could later easily play on a Meters or Funkadelic track–all without losing his trademark twang–is also remarkable.

And, he plays on Isaac Hayes’ “Walk On By”

Isaac Hayes – Walk On By

I’m going to say that every other version of this song pisses me off. Even the shortened version of the Hayes song. To really appreciate it, you’ve got to hear it all the way through, allowing for the brutal pauses where every instrument has its say before Mr. Hayes sings his first word — over two minutes into the track. For a songwriter famed up to this point in his career for writing songs with an almost overwhelming sense of urgency (hey, the guy wrote a #1 song about getting off the toilet), I think giving the time to explore words he appreciates with the help of an outstanding backing band can certainly be called a turning point.

Can we go back in time for a moment?

Isaac Hayes wrote over 200 songs with partner Dave Porter in the mid-1960’s at Stax before breaking up the partnership to focus on his solo career. Their tunes were dependably great and a “Hayes/Porter” on a 45 was a stamp of approval. For one thing, they write one hell of an intro (pay attention Mr. Rza):

Charmels – As Long As I’ve Got You

But beyond that, I think they appreciated who they were writing for. As the above song easily proves, these guys could write and arrange some highly refined music for the right artists. But where Sam & Dave were concerned, they hardly wanted to sound refined or anything else. Sam Moore and Dave Prater sang intense, proud and raw music, which needed no stylistic buffers to get their point across. And with songs like “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” or “I Thank You,” Hayes and Porter offer no buffers.

How great then for Hayes, to have the opportunity to explore a highly-refined song, by two highly-refined songwriters (Burt Bacharach and Hal David), written originally for a very classy lady (one Dione Warwick).

Ok, forward in time to mid-1969

Now I guess that around the time Isaac Hayes recorded “Walk On By” for his album Hot Buttered Soul, things were in a bit of upheaval at Stax records. Everyone was still mourning the death of label superstar Otis Redding (and to tell you the truth, I’m still mourning him too), control of the label had been not-too-kindly handed over by label founders Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton to powerful businessman Al Bell, and the entire Stax back catalog had been sold to Atlantic Records in a distribution deal. So, Al Bell ordered that 27 records and 30 singles come out, all in Mid-1969.

Hot Buttered Soul was not Hayes’ first solo record. Presenting Isaac Hayes had come out in 1968 on Stax at Bell’s urging and had sold poorly. The opening track, “Precious, Precious”, though, had been cut down from a lengthy 18 minutes of tape, and thus begins Hayes’ mature exploration of songs, musicianship, and pushing past the 3-minute boundary of radio-friendly music. This is how Hayes described the process in the liner notes to his 2005 greatest hits album Ultimate Isaac Hayes (Can You Dig It?):

“What it was, was the real me…I mean, OK, the real me had written those other songs [‘Soul Man,’ ‘Hold On I’m Comin’,’ etc.], but they were being written for other people. As for me wanting to express myself as an artist, that’s what Hot Buttered Soul was. Although I was a songwriter, there were some songs that I loved, that really touched me. Came the opportunity, I wanted to record these tunes. I wanted to do them the way that I wanted to do them. I took them apart, dissected them, and put them back together and made them my personal tunes. I took creative license to do that. By doing them my way, it almost made them like totally different songs all over again.”

Hot Buttered Soul has 4 songs. The longest, “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” clocks in at 18 minutes. Of course, the first half of the song features an elaborate spoken backstory. Here is how Hayes explained the song to National Public Radio:

“The rap came out of the necessity to communicate. There’s a local club in Memphis, primarily black, called The Tiki Club. One day there I heard this song by Glen Campbell – ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix.’ I thought, ‘Wow, this song is great, this man must really love this woman.’ I ran down to the studio and told them about the song, and they said ‘yeah, yeah.’ They didn’t feel what I felt, I thought maybe they weren’t getting it. The Bar-Kays were playing the Tiki Club a few days later, so I told them to learn the song and that I would sit in. I told them to keep cycling the first chord, and I started talking, just telling the story about what could have happened to cause this man to leave. Halfway through the song, conversations started to subside, and by the time I finished the song, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

Man, Glen Campbell’s version is beautiful, but the video isn’t what you’d call heavy soul:

Hayes takes this and “Walk On By” and does more than dissect them, he hears them. In the same way Gram Parsons does, when he records William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water” with the Byrds, or Dan Penn’s “Dark End Of The Street.” I think that Isaac Hayes is saying that in 1969 there were two sides of the aisle–Black Music and White Music–and if you tried to get someone to hear a song from the other side of the aisle, they would say ‘yeah, yeah’ but they wouldn’t want to do anything with it.

I find it funny that if you google ‘Isaac Hayes, By The Time I Get To Phoenix,’ you’re going to see words like ‘soulful’ and ‘erotic’, and without his name, you don’t get any description of the song at all, just that it’s sung by Glen Campbell and that it’s a #1 hit.

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So, we’re 7 & 1/2 minutes into “Walk On By,” and we know where this thing is going. Isaac has introduced a flute run after each time he and the ladies say “walk on” at around 6:30.  That run gets picked up by the rest of the brass and a few strings at 7:30, just as Hayes bows out. The brass fades out by about 8:20 and the strings fully take over. Fully, I should say, with the exception of that guitar player. Steve Cropper is so insistent that his sound come out alongside the strings that they start to fade in and out. Then, incredibly, they bow out entirely at about 9:12, just as Booker T lays it all on the table. It’s as if they’re saying “This is not the Love Unlimited Orchestra, We’re BOOKER T. & THE MG’s!” It’s 11:10 and Al Jackson Jr. is flipping the fuck out! Cropper is playing all sorts of bizarre angular chops and the band is totally together. The 70’s, Gamble and Huff, and all sorts of fluffy R&B shit may be right around the corner, but for a couple of minutes at the end of an impossibly long and perfect song, the Stax house band reigns, and the bandleader is wise enough to get out of their way.

11 Comments

  1. Posted February 16, 2010 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    Gold, that post killed it. I think we’re hitting our stride here. And I’m going to go ahead and say that Isaac Hayes’ version of “Walk On By” is maybe the greatest recorded song in all of pop music. Do what you want with that.

  2. Posted February 16, 2010 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

    What a talent Glen was and still is! Wonderful!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Posted February 17, 2010 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    Yeah, I’m thinking of this post as the start of a series of “Best Songs Ever.” You always said this was your favorite, but could you conceive of a post on my all time fave, “Buffalo Stance” by Neneh Cherry? The gauntlet hath been thrown…

  4. Posted February 17, 2010 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    also, I’m pretty sure Jens Lekman samples Glen Campbell here on “Maple Leaves”:

    soulful, erotic.

  5. Posted February 17, 2010 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    Whoa. I jsut met a guy whose favorite song is Buffalo Stance. Weird coincidence. Weird choice for favorite song ever. I’m guessing the best times of your lives were in roller rinks.

  6. Posted February 18, 2010 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    This is why I’m not in politics.

    So, either I need to re-up the post with new info, or say it’s all Booker T. to me. I don’t know, Tim. I don’t know.

  7. Tim
    Posted February 18, 2010 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Nice article, and I hate to burst your bubble, but the MGs are not on “Walk on By”. Booker had just left or was soon to leave Stax, Cropper left soon after this too. That’s The Bar-Kays. Hayes, himself is probably on keys (or Rufus’s son Marvell Thomas), Blues Brother Willie Hall is on drums, and that great guitar is very likely Charles “Skip” Pitts, the wah-wah great who’s also on “Shaft” and remained close to Hayes till his passing.

  8. Posted February 19, 2010 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    Snap. I guess we need to hire us some fact-checkers. That sucks. And it totally reinvents Gold’s musical world. I’m here for you friend.

  9. Posted November 13, 2010 at 2:00 am | Permalink

    Great work keep it coming

  10. Posted March 11, 2014 at 1:18 am | Permalink

    I’d recently been reading up on listening to Steve Cropper. I was just listening to Walk on By, remembering when I first heard it, etc. All of a sudden I got to what you called the 8:20 part with the strings, and thought that must be Cropper. Went to look it up, discovered this post. Really like what you’re writing, how you write it, and the subject matter, of course. Most interesting. You give the music and artists their just due. Thanks, man!

  11. Pat Beavers
    Posted April 7, 2016 at 3:40 am | Permalink

    Just listening to Walk on By, and thought about your article two years ago. So I am re-reading your article about the drama and the art of Isaac Hayes’ Walk on By recording session, and I swear, it’s just as interesting and informative as when I first read it, as well as the song when i first heard it. I find it to be the pinnacle of excellent coverage of powerful music. I would like to thank you again for describing how it really went down. So glad Cropper’s still living, and I still miss Isaac Hayes.

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