Isaac Hayes saw success early in his musical career as a session musician and songwriter at legendary Stax-Volt Records, the birthplace of commercial Memphis soul music. With David Porter, Hayes authored such hits as “Soul Man” and “Hold On, I’m Coming” for the famed R&B duo Sam & Dave, as well as a host of others. Though he struggled in his initial efforts as a recording artist, Hayes broke through in 1969 with the influential album Hoi Buttered Soul and ended up taking home an Oscar for the theme song to the blaxploitation film Shaft. Though critics have charted Hayes’s influence through almost every subsequent strain of black music—crediting him for inventing disco and paving the way for deep-voiced crooners like Barry White—many regarded him as a hack impresario, citing his lengthy “progressive soul” jams, his over-the-top concerts, and his claiming the mantle “Black Moses.” After struggling through the 1970s both artistically and financially, Hayes retired from music a few times—returning for short-lived “comeback” recordings—and pursued a film acting career.
Hayes was born August 20, 1942, in Covington, Tennessee, on a sharecropper’s farm; orphaned during his infancy, he was raised by his grandparents. He first sang publicly in church at the age of five. “When I graduated from high school I wanted to be a performer,” Hayes told Down Beat “But at that time, in Memphis, there was no market for the kind of music I wanted to do.” His preferred style was pop—as exemplified by the velvety singing of Nat King Cole—but Memphis was a blues/R&B town. Hayes married early and thus chose a steady job over higher education or music; though he recorded a single in 1962, nothing came of it. He worked in a meat packing plant and then eased himself back into music, playing gigs in local clubs with his group, Sir Isaac and the Doo-Dads. He claimed to be a pianist despite limited training on the instrument: “I learned a little about the piano and as time went on more and more chords and so forth,” he told Rolling Stone.
His first break came when Floyd Newman, a Stax-Volt house player with whom Hayes had been playing, invited the fledgling keyboardist in to cut an instrumental. The Stax sound was largely created by a core unit called the MGs, featuring keyboardist Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. Hayes recalled to Down Beat that Jones left to attend school and Hayes was invited to replace him; his first session was for an album by legendary vocalist Otis Redding.
Born August 20, 1942, in Covington, TN; son of Isaac and Eula Hayes; married, c. 1960 (divorced); children: eight.
Worked in meat packing plant; performed in clubs with Sir Isaac and the Doo-Dads, Memphis, TN; worked as house musician and songwriter, Stax-Volt Records, 1964-67; released first solo album, Presenting Isaac Hayes, 1967; released first ABC/Hot Buttered Soul album, Chocolate Chip, 1975; signed to Polydor Records and released New Horizons, 1977; film and television actor and radio host, c. 1976—; appeared in Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Twentieth Century Fox, 1993.
Awards: Academy Award for best song from a motion picture and Grammy awards for best instrumental arrangement and best original score written for a motion picture, 1971, for “Theme From Shaft”; Grammy Award for best pop instrumental performance by an arranger, composer, orchestra and/or choral leader, 1972, for Black Moses; Grammy award nominations, 1978, for composition of Dionne Warwick’s “Déjà Vu” and for best male R&B performer.
Somewhat later Hayes hooked up with lyricist David Porter, and the two wrote for a number of Stax artists, most notably Sam & Dave. With “Soul Man” and “Hold On, I’m Coming,” among others, Hayes and Porter helped to define the funky, exuberant style of mid-sixties soul, a style that would challenge the dominance of Stax’s northern competitor, Detroit’s Motown. The Stax sound would profoundly influence not only ensuing generations of R&B, soul, and funk artists, but also rock and roll groups like the Rolling Stones. As influential as these songs were, they were not written in an exacting manner. Hayes, unable to read or write music, would hum his tunes into a tape recorder and find arrangers to chart them out. But the tunes were powerful and authentic; as Time reported, “Into their songs, Hayes and Porter injected the whole experience of the black ghetto.”
At a Stax office party, Hayes was approached by Al Bell, the company’s vice-president. The two were a bit drunk on champagne, and, according to Hayes’s reminiscences in Down Beat, Bell said: “Come on in the studio, I want to cut something on you.” “I didn’t take him seriously, but I said OK,” Hayes related, “so we went back there and he turned on the machine and I just started going through some things—we hadn’t rehearsed or anything—and out of that came the first LP.” Hayes was assisted in the studio by Dunn and Jackson. The album was called Presenting Isaac Hayes. “It was a simple, powerful record,” wrote Rolling Stone. “It bombed.”
Hayes admitted in Down Beat that he “could have done better,” and later Bell gave him the chance to prove it. “Some three years later, in January 1969, AI Bell came to me and said: ‘We have a sales meeting in May, and the quota is 27 LPs, and I need one from you.’ So I said: ‘Wait a minute, man. You need an LP. Can I cut it like I want to cut it?’ And he says, ‘Yeah, man—whatever you want to do. Just give me the LP.’”
The album in question was Hot Buttered Soul, and it made Isaac Hayes a star. With only four songs, it was a very unusual soul record, but the time was ripe for musical experimentation; Soul went platinum, hitting Number Eight on the pop charts. Exceedingly lush compared to the spartan grooves of the Stax jukebox, the record utilizes strings and backing vocalists to produce an almost symphonic quality. “One of the few weaknesses of Hot Buttered Soul is the tendency of the production to overwhelm the basic funkiness of Hayes’ voice and organ,” noted Rolling Stone. “More frequently, however, his deep sandpaper voice rubs straight into the heart of a song.” Indeed, Hayes’s gravelly pre-song monologues—he called it “rapping” before rap music existed—and deep crooning established a tradition of R&B bedroom patter upon which singer Barry White built an impressive career. Of Hayes’s persona, Vince Aletti of the Village Voice wrote in 1986, “If his image was aggressively macho (shaved head, bared chest, chains) on vinyl, Hayes turned to mush—a sensitive stud oozing sincerity and concern: [blaxploitation hero] Superfly in love. The pose was bogus but benign; the format—extended love talk/extended love song— was killer.”
The follow-up recordings Isaac Hayes Movement and ... To Be Continued also made it into the Top 20. Hayes struck again in 1971 with the theme to the urban cop thriller Shaft, for which he won an Academy Award and Grammy awards for best instrumental arrangement and best original score written for a motion picture. The song—a tense, funky workout with horns, flute, and strings that also gave the wah-wah guitar sound a preeminent place in ’70s soul—features a call-and-response dialogue between Hayes and several female backup singers. Its lyrics (“Who’s the black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks?”) and sound helped to mold the music of the era. In it are elements from a wide array of musical styles from jazz to R&B to gospel. The “Theme From Shaft ” reached Number One on the pop charts and went platinum. Hayes became a superstar, riding around in limousines and sporting extravagant outfits. “I like luxury, man,” he told Time, “because it’s what I never had.”
Hayes snagged a 1972 Grammy Award for best pop instrumental performance by an arranger, composer, orchestra and/or choral leader in honor of his 1971 effort Black Moses. Both of his 1973 releases, Live at the Sahara Tahoe and Joy, were certified gold. In the meantime, he was performing to huge crowds, presenting what Rolling Stone sarcastically referred to as “beautifully executed lounge music.”
Hayes’s records—including the soundtracks to the blaxploitation films Truck Turner and Three Tough Guys, in which he also appeared as an actor—continued to sell reasonably well. Having had a falling out and extended legal wrangling with Stax, which ultimately went bankrupt, he established his own label, Hot Buttered Soul, as an ABC subsidiary. In 1975, he released Chocolate Chip, which was certified gold, and Groove-a-Thon. The next year, he helped make disco a household word with Juicy Fruit. (The title cut from the album is subtitled “Disco Freak.”) Melody Maker noted in its review of Juicy Fruit that Hayes’s “[work] subsequent to ‘Chip’ has been a blend of straight disco grist and ponderous ballads, and his latest is no exception.”
Relocating to Atlanta, Hayes appeared on the TV show The Rockford Files and, in 1977, signed with Polydor Records. During the late 1970s, he released a flurry of records, including Royal Rappin’s, which he recorded with singer Millie Jackson. Several of his early Stax albums were re-released around this time. He received two Grammy nominations in 1978, and the title track from the 1979 effort Don’t Let Go was certified gold. He also appeared in the 1981 film Escape From New York and hosted a syndicated radio show. Even so, his difficulties continued, and he removed himself from the limelight for the rest of the first half of the 1980s. When he returned with the album U-Turn —with its anti-drug single “Ike’s Rap”—in 1986, he told Dennis Hunt of the Los Angeles Times he’d spent the intervening years in Atlanta and London: “I haven’t been doing that much, just little odds and ends to survive and keep the bills paid.” Hunt called the new album “vintage Hayes dressed up with modern techno-pop touches.”
In 1991 Jet reported that Hayes planned to collaborate on an album with Barry White. He had in the meantime appeared in more films and seen further evidence of his importance in the development of pop music, as rap, rock, and funk spun variations on his innovations. Though many critics derided his image and impulses, Hayes had emerged as a crucial influence on the American music scene.
Presenting Isaac Hayes, 1967.
Hot Buttered Soul, 1969.
Isaac Hayes Movement, 1970.
. . . To Be Continued, 1970.
Shaft (soundtrack), 1971.
Black Moses, 1971.
Live at the Sahara Tahoe, 1973.
Tough Guys (soundtrack), 1973.
Truck Turner (soundtrack), 1974.
Enterprise—His Greatest Hits, 1980.
Chocolate Chip, 1975.
Juicy Fruit (includes “Juicy Fruit [Disco Freak]”), 1976.
New Horizons, 1977.
(With Dionne Warwick) A Man and a Woman, 1977.
For the Sake of Love, 1978.
Don’t Let Go, 1979.
(With Millie Jackson) Royal Rappin’s, 1979.
And Once Again, 1980.
U-Turn (includes “Ike’s Rap”), 1986.
By the Time I Get to Phoenix
Never Give Up
He took his grandmother to show his appreciation for her