Isaac Hayes was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this past March. He just turned 60, and has three shows coming up in September: Sept. 19, 2002 Alexandria, VA – The Birchmere; Sept. 20, 2002 Uncasville, Conn – Mohegan Sun; Sept. 21, 2002 Brooklyn, NY – Verizon Music Fest. In addition, his outstanding keyboard work can be heard on the new reissue of William Bell’s classic Stax album, The Soul of a Bell.
Another man with Isaac Hayes’ credentials – musician, singer, songwriter, producer, actor, humanitarian, radio personality – would be called a chameleon, but Hayes has always been resolutely, undeniably himself. As a sideman at Stax, then co-producer and co-writer (with David Porter) of the great Sam & Dave hits (“Hold On I’m Comin’,” “Soul Man,” “I Thank You,” “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby”) and others for Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Johnnie Taylor, William Bell, Judy Clay and the Bar-Kays, Hayes helped define soul music in the ’60s.
Then, as a solo artist Hayes stretched the boundaries of soul adding strings and social themes; with Sly Stone, Gamble and Huff, Curtis Mayfield and Norman Whitfield, he helped move black music from a singles to an album format. On albums like Hot Buttered Soul, The Isaac Hayes Movement, To Be Continued, Black Moses, and especially the Oscar and Grammy-winning Shaft, Hayes took his brand of elegant but funky soul to a huge new audience.
Isaac Hayes was born August 20, 1942 in Covington, Tennessee. He lived on a farm until he was 7, then moved with his maternal grandparents (who raised him) to Memphis. The family was musical and active in the church, school and community. Hayes’ first public performance was a duet with his sister at church when he was 3. Already the musical perfectionist, Hayes halted his sister mid-performance when she made a mistake.
In high school Hayes won a singing contest, noted the attention his performance generated, and said “Hmm, this is what I want to do.” He took a year of band (tuba then sax) and began singing with a variety of combos: rock ‘n’ roll, doo wop, blues, gospel, jazz.
“I loved it all – this adventure into music – I was sucking up everything like a sponge,” he says.
“With the blues band we played the juke joints of Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas. We didn’t make much money: it was all the corn liquor you could drink and enough money to get back home. If the owner didn’t feel like paying you, he didn’t pay you and you didn’t argue because he had a .38 pistol on his hip,” he laughs darkly. “With gospel it was all the food you could eat, and then maybe a collection was taken up for expenses.”
Eventually he “learned enough piano to get along,” and wound up on the staff at Memphis’ Stax Records by around ’63, having been turned down three times by the label as an artist. An old friend from his doo wop days, David Porter, was already with the label and said to Hayes, “You play music and I write lyrics, let’s team up and start writing and producing like Holland-Dozier-Holland up at Motown.”
“When we started writing,” Hayes remembers, “guys around the city would tease us: ‘Hey hit men, how many hits did you write today?’ But we kept our noses to the grindstone and we finally clicked with Carla Thomas’ ‘How Do You Quit’ in ’65.
Then they chose David and I to write and produce for Sam and Dave, and after we had a big hit with them, more people around town wanted to write songs. We organized a writer’s workshop and everything,” recalls Hayes. Their writing for Sam & Dave was typical of their approach. “We would come up with a good subject or a good hook. For the meat of the song you have to ask yourselves some questions: If you want this girl, why do you want her? If you get her, what would you do? People have to able to get what you’re trying to get across. As far as music is concerned, you’ve got to come up with a groove with changes and things that keep the emotional content in it.
“Usually our songs came from personal experiences,” he continues. “For instance, with ‘When Something’s Wrong With My Baby,’ David and I were working and working and working, and we just couldn’t come up with anything. So we gave up and each went home. After about 30 minutes, he called me: ‘I got it, I got it, I got it.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He had just written it on toilet paper or something, and said, ‘When something’s wrong with my baby, something’s wrong with me.’
“He came over and we started going over the lyrics. I sat down at the piano and started playing something slow. We got the changes and the melody and put it with the first verse, and the rest was easy. Sam & Dave were in town – we would usually work on their songs when they were around – sometimes we’d have them sitting there while we wrote to get a good feel for them.
“‘You Don’t Know Like I Know’ was originally a gospel song: ‘You don’t know like I know what the Lord has done for me.’ Well, a woman can do some good things for you too. We just switched it around,” Hayes says with a chuckle.
“‘Soul Man’ came about during one of the riots. I was watching TV and they said something about businesses being bypassed when ‘soul’ was written on the door. That reminded me of Passover in the Bible. So I thought about this ‘soul’ thing: there’s a lot of pride in it. I didn’t look at the rioting as destroying. I looked at it as frustrated people taking out their frustrations on whatever got in their way. I told David about it and we started working on it. Everything just clicked.”
Hayes recalls the Stax studio. “We only had a one-track recorder at first. [Label-owner] Jim Stewart was considered the king of one-track. If anybody screwed up, we had to start all over again and [trumpet player] Wayne Jackson’s lips would fall off. Eventually we got two-track when Tom Dowd came in and installed it for us.
“Regarding arrangements, we did them in out heads, where Motown may have had them written out. We went on feel. I continue to do that. Otis [Redding] would come in sometimes with just an idea. He would get behind the microphone and say ‘work up a groove’ and start doing lyrics spontaneously – [singing] ‘I can’t turn you loose.'”
Though deeply in the groove, Hayes was always a thinking man with a conscience as well. “I was active even in high school in marches and things. I was afraid but I thought it was the right thing to do. When Dr. King was killed [in ’68] I went through a period when I couldn’t write, couldn’t create. I just went blank. I was so hurt by that and I had so much bitterness and hatred for racist attitudes. Then one day after about a year I cognized: ‘Hey man, the only way you can make a change is to do what you do.’ So I got busy again.”
Hayes had recorded a very casual album in ’67 that received a fair amount of critical praise and was given the opportunity to record again in ’69. This time he took the affair more seriously, but still felt no particular pressure to succeed as an artist. That album became Hot Buttered Soul, and it established the recording career of Isaac Hayes.
Hayes was shocked by his solo success. “I couldn’t believe it because I had been behind the scenes so long. When David and wrote together, we wrote for other people so we had to match their personalities. I had a background in blues, jazz, pop, even classical and I wanted to get it all out. I had a funky groove underneath, but those strings on top. I was happy with it for myself, but a few million other people got into it too,” he laughs.
For Shaft, Hayes had the powerful image of a tough but vulnerable black screen detective to inspire him; he found his all-time resonant grooves for the title track and long instrumental passages that achieved a perfect balance between the funk and the sweet. Hayes has released almost two-dozen (mostly) successful albums since. He remains humble. “I never took myself too seriously. Each time I cut a hit record I would say ‘Whew, I made it again.’ I was honest with my music and said ‘if I hurt, I cry.’ A lot of men liked it because it said what they wanted to say but didn’t know how to. Women liked it because it showed sensitivity in a man, and that’s what they were looking for.”
Hayes could get away with sensitivity because of his tough, forbidding image in the way that Nixon could go to China. Some TV stations wouldn’t let him on because they thought he was militant. “The image was my security blanket, especially the shades (tough on the outside, sensitive on the inside),” he confides.
That image – shaved head, chains draped over muscles – led to an acting career. Hayes has appeared in over a dozen films and in recurring roles on TV. His favorite role so far is that of Gandolf Finch in James Garner’s Rockford Files TV series from the ’80s. Hayes’ most recent album is the notable Raw and Refined from ’95. He also did a Shaft parody for the Beavis and Butthead Do America soundtrack; and is the star of the Isaac Hayes and Friends radio show on “KISS-FM” (WRKS) in New York, playing “classic soul and today’s R&B” weekday mornings. He is also the voice of “Chef” on the Comedy Central hit animated series South Park. But most of all, he is Isaac Hayes.