“By the Time I Get to Phoenix” - Isaac Hayes
Written by Jimmy Webb
From Hot Buttered Soul, (Enterprise, 1969)
“By the Time I Get to Arizona” - Public Enemy
Written by Carlton Ridenhour, Cerwin Depper, Gary G-Wiz, Stuart Robertz, and Neftali Santiago
From Apocalypse ‘91… The Enemy Strikes Black, (Def Jam/CBS, 1991)
These two songs are bound together, musically, lyrically, and spiritually, by the inventively funky vision of the artists, and by both artists’ commitment to civil rights. In 1969, after taking a break from music in the wake of the death of his close friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Isaac “Ike” Hayes took a country/pop hit performed by Glen Campbell and turned it into a striking, 18:40 soul-sermon about love and leaving. Twenty-two years later, Chuck D of Public Enemy (PE) borrowed the title of Isaac’s tune, swapped a state for a city, and lit into that state’s racially-charged refusal to acknowledge the holiday for Dr. King. Isaac Hayes and Public Enemy are both unabashedly funky, strong, cerebral-in-a-good-way, and multi-dimensional in their approach to conveying their desired message.
Hayes’ version of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” begins with a hypnotic ride cymbal and organ (courtesy of the Bar-Kays), and Hayes’ stretched-out rap exploring the meaning of the song. He gives it an incredible back-story, expanding on Webb’s emotionally detailed lyric. He also breaks into little melodic moans every now and then, but for the most part, he sustains a very compelling, spoken-word-only intro for about nine minutes or so. Many old-school R&B songs have brief, spoken explanatory intros or interludes (e.g., the Chi-Lites’ “Have You Seen Her?”, Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “All About Love”, )—but Ike really shows off here, digging deep and coming up with a fascinating narrative to complement Webb’s song. His “sermon” is packed with details about the protagonist’s “love blindness”, the nonchalant emotional (and financial) exploitation of the protagonist at the hands of his partner, sexual betrayal, and the dangers of mistaking a kind heart for a weak constitution.