Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Isaac Hayes (1942-2008) Joins the Ancestors at 65: His Influence on Black Music Has Been Recognized Around the World

Isaac Hayes obituary

Isaac Hayes, who died on Sunday aged 65 , was best known for his theme to the 1971 film Shaft, and much later for his contribution to the cartoon South Park; but he was also a highly important influence on the way popular music developed in the 1970s and 1990s.

By the mid-1960s, Hayes was already well regarded in the music industry for his songwriting work for Carla Thomas and Sam and Dave. But he yearned to be recognised as a singer in his own right, and in 1969 released an album unlike any yet heard.

Hot Buttered Soul consisted of just four tracks, extended reworkings of familiar songs such as Walk on By and By the time I get to Pheonix (lasting almost 19 minutes), which blended distinctly African funk grooves with European symphonic orchestration. In amongst the music brooded Hayes’s basso profundo voice, virile yet sensitive and intimate, with the vocals at times delivered as spoken soliloquies.

The album sold more five million copies, and persuaded other black singers - many of whom were involved in the civil rights movements - that an LP need not consist just of collections of singles. Without its influence, it is unlikely that Stevie Wonder would have recorded Talking Book (1972) or Marvin Gaye his polemic What’s Going On (1971). Equally, Hayes’s monologues, while derived from the traditional delivery of blues singers, later came to influence the emergence of rap music.

In his prime Hayes also cut an impressive and radical figure on stage. Led on stage enveloped in cloak and floppy hat, he would throw these off to reveal a muscular frame clad in burgundy tights, fur cuffs and an almost gladiatorial vest of gold chains, a provocative reference to his slave heritage.

The ensemble was toped by beard, sunglasses and a bald pate, shaved “to let my head breathe”, which appeared prominently on the cover of Hot Buttered Soul. At a time of struggle by America’s blacks for greater equality, Hayes consciously cast himself as the embodiment of black masculinity, a leader of his musical tribe, prompting his bodyguard, the future Reverend Dino Woodard, to dub him “Black Moses”.

The label stuck, and by 1971 Hayes seemed the natural choice to cut the score to the thriller Shaft, starring the black actor Richard Roundtree. Hayes’s instantly memorable theme, with its wah-wah guitar, edgy brass and unashamedly chauvinist lyrics (“Who’s the black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks?”) topped the American charts, took the Oscar for Best Song, and paved the way for the success of a film which, almost for the first time, gave America’s urban black community a hero with which it could identify.

Isaac Lee Hayes was born in a tin shack at Covington, Tennessee, on August 20 1942. His mother died when he was one and his father abandoned him soon afterwards, leaving him to be raised by his grandparents, who were sharecroppers. When Isaac was six, the family moved to Memphis, where he was educated at Manassas High School. From the age of eight, he was picking cotton and working as a shoe-shine boy.

On leaving school, Hayes, ran with the wrong crowd and was soon arrested for burglary. He was acquitted, however, and resolved to concentrate on music, having taught himself to play the piano, organ and saxophone. He also enjoyed singing, his early efforts being influenced by Nat King Cole. Hayes soon cultivated a more soulful style after being enjoined to think of girls he liked while singing.

By his late teens he was already married and a father, and had to turn down seven music scholarships because he needed to support his family, which he did mainly by playing in Memphis bars. Eventually he was offered work as a session musician at the city’s Stax Records, covering for Booker T Jones, the house pianist, who was still attending school. Hayes took the job, although he could not read music and was only proficient on the piano in the key of C. His first assignment was to play keyboards for an artist newly discovered by Stax, Otis Redding.

By 1965, Hayes was working regularly by Stax by night and in a meat packing plant by day. He had also begun to write songs with a friend, David Porter, and on hearing these the owner of the Stax label, Jim Stewart, teamed the pair with another new act, Sam and Dave. Over the next four years, Hayes and Porter would write a series of outstanding songs for them, including Hold On, I’m Coming (1966), Soul Man (1967), Wrap It Up (1968) and Soul Sister, Brown Sugar (1968). A vital ingredient in the infectious rhythm of these was the sassy backing of the Memphis Horns, tighly orchestrated by Hayes.

Following his triumph at the Oscars in 1972, Hayes released half a dozen more albums in the mid-1970’s, among them Black Moses (1972), Joy (1973) and several more soundtracks, including Truck Turner (1974), in which Hayes starred as an American footballer. But though these essentially repeated the formula Hayes had created in his earlier recordings, they failed to reach the same heights, and were also less commercially successful, particularly once the taste for disco music started to replace that for soul.

Moreover, by now Hayes had become embroiled in the financial troubles which were affecting Stax and, following a dispute about royalty payments, he began – almost unbelievably – to fall into debt. In 1977 Hayes filed for bankruptcy, owing some $9 million; in four years, he had gone from owning a gold-plated Cadillac and employing a personal staff of 65 to having nothing. He even lost the rights to his recordings for Stax, although their plight was perhaps still worse than his; in a move that hinted of desperation, the label signed up Lena Zavaroni.

During the next 20 years, Hayes continued occasionally to release albums, enjoying some success with the anti-drugs single Ike’s Rap in 1986. He also appeared (usually as a villain) in films, including Escape From New York (1981). But he was also twice jailed (for using drugs and failing to pay alimony), and it as not until he turned to Scientology in the early 1990s that he began to bring order to his life; he credited his new faith with securing him a job as a disc jockey on a radio station in New York.

Just as important for Hayes, the sampling revolution in music began to give his records a second lease of life, with snatches of his songs being used as the core to the influential dance single Beat Dis by Bomb the Bass in 1988, and later on albums by Young MC and the Bristol-based trio of acts Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky.

Hayes’s influence on the form of rep and dance music came to be widely acknowledged, and his personal renaissance was completed when, from 1998, he began to voice the character of Chef in the vile but popular adult cartoon South Park. The character parodied Hayes’s reputation as a ladies’ man, but allowed him the last laugh when, in January 1999, he reached No 1 in the British charts with the obscenely ribald novelty single Chocolate Salty Balls.

When in 2005 the show produced an episode which satirised the Church of Scientology, he did not appear and, although he initially defended the programme, he left the following year, claiming that satire had crossed the line and become bigotry (though he had not complained about South Park’s frequent previous attacks on mainstream religions).

Isaac Hayes was known to be fond of feminine company. “Life could not be sweeter,” he said in 2000, as he contemplated his regained dignity. “Now all I need is a good woman to share myself with.”

He was married three times and fathered 11 children. He was also an honorary king of Ghana, taking the title Nene Katey Ocansey I.

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