Overtime, double time, triple time
Isaac Hayes 'By The Time I Get To Phoenix' (Hot Buttered Soul - 1969)
Jimmy Webb’s ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ was first performed by Johnny Rivers in 1965. The song, described by Frank Sinatra as “the greatest torch song ever written”, was recorded by Glen Campbell as a baroque country ballad and went on to top the country charts in Canada and make the upper reaches of equivalent charts in the USA. It features in Rolling Stone’s greatest-ever songs list from 2004 and is one of the most-played songs on US radio of the 20th century.
Webb wrote the song about his breakup with Susan Horton. Horton was also at least a partial inspiration for another Webb song, ‘MacArthur Park’ - which was covered by Floyd Cramer and then sampled by Roots Manuva on ‘Dreamy Days’
Even by the end of the sixties, it was a song with a well-earned reputation, so it would take something quite novel to appear fresh to well-acclimatised ears.
In 1968 Isaac Hayes was reeling from the poor sales of his debut solo album, Presenting Isaac Hayes; he was seriously contemplating going back to producing and songwriting and not having a career as a performer of material. When his record label Stax split from Atlantic, the label lost access to most of its back catalogue and label exec Al Bell encouraged all his amassed troops to record albums. So many, including Hayes’ guitarist, Steve Cropper, did. Hayes agreed to this as well, on the condition he retained complete control and, as a result, produced the landmark soul album Hot Buttered Soul. The album only features four songs but opens with a languid twelve-minute version of Bacharach/David’s ‘Walk on By’ that takes up most of side one and an even more extended version of ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ that stretches to almost 19 minutes making it the longest closerwe’ve covered on The Run Out Grooves.
Hayes begins the song with the story before the Webb song; rather than start with our protagonist in the car having left his woman and on his way to Phoenix, we begin with a nine-minute introductory backstory of how things got to that point. The lengthy intro was cut down on the single version for radio play, but it was still around seven minutes long and, as a result, contains the first proto-rapping that received significant airplay in the US.
In a 1973 New York Times profile, Hayes revealed the detail of how it came about;
One of the Stax back‐up groups was gigging at a club in Memphis. I went to sit in one night and asked if they knew “Phoenix” and they said they did. There was a lot of drinking and talking going on, and I though to myself, ‘How can I do this tune when these people have never heard it before? I don’t want to turn them off.’ So I told the musicians, ‘Hey man, hang up on a Bb 11 chord, and don’t change it until I start singing the song. So they started, and I started rapping. People kept talking for a while, but finally the sound began to subside and they began to listen.
I started telling them a story about a situation that a black man could interpret in the song. Pretty soon every body was just sitting there listening, and when I hit the first line of the song—'By the time I get to Phoenix …’ —oh, man, they dug it, and they sat and listened to the whole song. And I thought, wow, maybe I’ve got something. I wasn’t completely convinced yet, though, even though I thought maybe there was something unique in the way I had done it. So I sang it in a club that had a predominately white audience, the same way, and they dug it, too, and pretty soon everybody started to request it.
So when I did my second album, we went into the studio and went straight through it—no rehearsal or anything. I did it live at the organ and we had a little trouble mixing the final sound because of the leakage on the vocal microphone, but it was so good we just kept it‐18 minutes and 40 seconds without a stop.
The intro has Hayes’ discussing how the power of love can make or break you. The man in the story has been cheated on by his wife at least seven times and is finally persuaded to leave her on the eighth occasion.
Even discounting the intro, the song differs significantly from the more country-adjacent and pop versions. Hayes sings with his deep, bassy voice rather than the light and reedy vocals you hear on most versions before it. He continues to add and embellish the lyrics even once the song portion has started. The arrangement features lush strings, horns, and a slow, funky beat, giving the music a cinematic flavour to accompany the vivid storytelling.
It is worth leaving the final word to original songwriter Jimmy Webb who remembered his reaction to Hayes' reconstructed cover:
Honestly, I thought it was kind of funny, the whole pre-discourse where he’s kind of riffing with the drummer. And he says, “So I opened the door.” BAM! “And I saw my woman.” BAM! “And I saw my woman with another man.” BAM BAM! I thought that was pretty funny. It was kind of a James Brown thing. I actually got up and checked the record. I said, “Wait a minute. This is supposed to be ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix.‘ I just went to check and, sure enough, it was cut five or whatever. So I listened on into the track for a while and finally, right at the end of the cut, he sings the song. It takes a long, long time. I loved Isaac. He was a smart guy. He was an innovator. He was a good fella. He was a good singer. I can’t say it’s my favorite version of ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ but it beats the hell out of Telly Savalas’ version. I’m always amazed at the records that come to the surface.
‘Cop Shoot Cop’ by Spiritualized has been relegated to second place.
Have you heard that 42 minute version of Wichita Lineman by the Dick Slessig Combo? Check it out on YT.
"It's a deep tune". Nice!