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History-making icon Isaac Hayes

By Bill Friskics-Warren

MAY 3, 1999:  Most people's picture of Isaac Hayes is as cartoonish as "Chef," the character he plays on the animated late-night TV series South Park. To some, he is but a bedroom-voiced precursor to Barry White, to others a gold-chain-wearing harbinger of Mr. T. Still others know him as a B-movie-star or as James Garner's hulking sidekick on The Rockford Files. He is all these things, true. But few give Hayes, who makes a rare Nashville appearance at River Stages this week, his props as an artist, much less as one of the most pivotal figures in the history of soul music and R&B.

As a songwriter, sideman, producer, and arranger at Stax Records in the '60s, Hayes helped forge the Memphis label's lean, gritty, epoch-defining sound. With his 1969 solo LP, Hot Buttered Soul, he paved the way for such album-oriented artists as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Funkadelic. And with his Oscar- and Grammy-winning soundtrack to the 1971 blaxploitation flick Shaft, he opened Hollywood's doors to other black composers, notably Curtis Mayfield and James Brown.

The West Tennessee native achieved all of this during his 10-year tenure at Stax, where he became the label's best-selling artist and an international superstar. Oddly enough, though, Hayes was turned away twice before getting his foot in the door at 926 E. McLemore Ave., Stax's downtown Memphis address. The first time was as a member of the Ambassadors, a doowop group that auditioned for the label in 1962, the second as the piano player in Calvin and the Swing Cats, a blues band that was also set on a record deal. Hayes' third bid for a job at Stax, however, proved a charm.

"Ironically, I wound up at Stax as a side keyboard player," Hayes explains. "This time--in '64, I think it was--I went in with [saxophonist] Floyd Newman, who was on the staff at Stax." Hayes soon became an adjunct member of the label's house band, Booker T. & the MGs, playing on hundreds of sessions, including those that produced Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour," Eddie Floyd's "Knock on Wood," and Otis Redding's "Respect" and "I've Been Loving You Too Long."

Hayes also began writing songs with lyricist David Porter. Their goal, he says, was to be as big as Burt Bacharach and Hal David or the Motown triumvirate of Holland-Dozier-Holland. And before the '60s were over, they were, penning at least 200 songs together, including "B-A-B-Y" for Carla Thomas and "Soul Man" and "Hold On! I'm Comin' " for Sam and Dave. (Hayes and Porter in fact wrote and produced nearly everything Sam and Dave did for Stax.) "We wrote a lot of hits, and we wrote a lot of flops," Hayes laughs. "But it was fun. It was never like work or anything. We were in a groove. We just wrote about things that we experienced, or things that people we knew experienced."

The inspiration for some of their collaborations verged on the ridiculous--take the genesis of "Hold On! I'm Comin'," for example. "We were at Stax," Hayes recalls. "David went to the restroom, and I struck a groove on the piano and yelled, 'Hurry up, man!' David said, 'Hold on, I'm comin'!' And then he said, 'That's it! That's it!' He burst out of the restroom all excited, his pants down to the knees, screaming, 'Hold on, I'm comin'!''

The impetus for the equally urgent "Soul Man" was considerably more sublime. "There was a lot of rioting going on at the time--a lot of unrest in the inner cities," Hayes explains, recounting a story that also appears in Rob Bowman's first-rate history of Stax, Soulsville, USA. "I was sitting at the TV one day watching the burning in Detroit, and the news commentator said, 'If you put the word 'soul' on your building, they'll bypass it and won't burn it.' Then I saw black people running through the streets with their fists clenched in the air, showing the black power sign, and I said to myself, 'Right or wrong, they're united.' Soul had become a rallying cry. Talk about black pride. We were no longer afraid. We no longer felt inferior. I called David and told him about it, and we started working on 'Soul Man' right away."

Hayes, now 56, knew plenty about feeling inferior, and not just from coming of age in racist America. "I grew up very poor," he explains, referring to his early childhood in Covington, Tenn., where his sharecropping grandparents raised him after his mother died. "Music was my only release. We sang music in the fields while working. We heard music on jukeboxes and at home. I used to daydream a lot, thinking that I was gonna get out of that situation one day. I didn't know how I was gonna do it--for a long time I wanted to be a doctor. But then I won a high-school talent contest and I got attention. I got adoration from the girls and said, 'I could get used to this. I think this might be my career.' "

By 1967, when "Soul Man" came out, Hayes was ready to step into the limelight. After a birthday party at the studio one night, hopped up on champagne and cake, he cut an impromptu session with MGs Al Jackson on drums and "Duck" Dunn on bass; the result was his solo debut, Presenting Isaac Hayes. "I didn't think Stax was serious about releasing it until they told me I had an appointment for a photo shoot for an album cover," Hayes remembers. "I knew it wasn't my best effort because I was under the influence of alcohol."

Hayes was in complete control, artistic and otherwise, when it came time to make his next record, 1969's landmark Hot Buttered Soul. Flying in the face of the era's prevailing singles aesthetic, the album consisted of only four extended tracks, one of them an 18-minute version of Glen Campbell's 1967 hit "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." The song's intro featured Hayes rapping over a pulsing bass, a steady high-hat, and a single B-3 chord before giving way to swooning strings, woeful oboe, and Hayes' groaning, lovelorn vocals.

Unlike any of the records Stax and other soul labels were putting out at the time, "Phoenix" was lush, adult-oriented pop. What set it apart from the current hits of Tom Jones, Glen Campbell, and Dionne Warwick, though, was that it was geared toward black record buyers--an audience that industry execs believed bought only singles.

"I didn't think [the album] was gonna sell, but I didn't care," Hayes admits. "It was an artistic opportunity for me. And what I had to say could not have been said in three minutes. So I took my shot." Hot Buttered Soul sold a whopping 1 million copies, making Hayes the first R&B artist ever to reach that milestone. It also enjoyed a staggering run at or near the top of the Billboard pop, jazz, R&B, and easy listening charts, remaining in the jazz Top 10 for over a year. Hayes' next two albums, The Isaac Hayes Movement and To Be Continued, fared about as well.

Hayes' next LP, his blockbuster soundtrack to Gordon Parks' Shaft, proved to be an even bigger success. Anchored by the churning funk of the No. 1 single "Theme From Shaft," the album reflected much the same sense of urgency and peril that Hayes saw years earlier in the Detroit riots. "If you think about Shaft, The Movement, To Be Continued, I was always very strong in my commitment, in my evaluations and social commentary," he observes. "And I think that's why people felt it so deeply, because I was never ashamed to loosen up and let them feel my spirit, my soul, in my music. And they did, they got it."

Hayes got even more serious on his second 1971 release, Black Moses, which, like Shaft, was a double-LP. Appearing cloaked and hooded on the album cover, he looked, as writer Gerri Hirshey put it, like a desert prophet. And inasmuch as his records were unprecedented achievements in R&B, Hayes indeed seemed to deliver black pop into a new era.

Increasingly, though, his albums and his image grew more exaggerated. Coupled with trouble at Stax, these developments presaged the end of his and the label's remarkable decade-plus run. After leaving Stax, Hayes didn't have another Top 10 hit until "Ike's Rap" came out in 1986. His earlier recordings nevertheless exercised an enormous influence on disco, among other things providing the blueprint for the panty-parties of growler Barry White. Hayes' albums also helped shape the emerging hip-hop culture, even though he's quick to point out that his recitations were different from the rapping of hip-hop MCs.

"I didn't rap with the rhythm," he explains. "The only time I did was in the first verse of 'Shaft.' Other than that, I was a storyteller. I liked to set moods. But now, if you're talking about the deejays, I think some of them started rummaging through their parents' closets and heard my tracks and said, 'Damn,' and they started sampling. Because that was real music."

These days, Hayes records for the Virgin label's Pointblank subsidiary, does voice-overs for Chef on South Park, and hosts a morning drive-time slot on New York City's KISS-98.7FM. "I started three years ago the first of April," he says of his radio show. "Our format is 'Classic Soul and Today's R&B.' People thought that I couldn't do it, that I couldn't pull it off because it's a lot of rhythm and timing and all that." A ridiculous assumption, especially given his undeniable contributions, rhythmic and otherwise, to American popular music. But then, Hayes has been proving people wrong for the last 35 years. No doubt he'll continue to--and in style--as long as he remains in the music business.


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