Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Isaac Hayes
Isaac Hayes Isaac Hayes Isaac Hayes Stax logo

Back in 1957, Jim Stewart - a white bank teller and amateur violinist who played country music in his spare time – joined forces with business partners Fred Byler and Neil Herbert to set up a small indie label in Memphis called Satellite.

The fledgling company issued a few 45s – mostly country, rockabilly and pop – but lacked the funds to invest in state-of-the-art recording equipment. Enter Stewart’s elder sister, Estelle Axton, who coincidentally also worked in a bank. Though Satellite looked doomed and Axton had no previous experience in the music business, she agreed to re-mortgage her house to acquire the requisite finance to buy a new tape machine and get the company on its feet. Stewart and Axton moved their business into an old movie theatre in Memphis at 926 East McLemore, which was converted into a recording studio with a record shop at the front. The company scored its first hit with an R&B record by The Veltones and soon afterwards Rufus Thomas and his teenaged daughter, Carla, joined the label. When Carla had a smash with ‘Cause I Love You’ in 1960, Satellite left country music behind for good and concentrated on R&B. In 1961, Stewart and Axton became aware that a west coast record company had been using the name Satellite before them, and although they received an offer to buy the name outright, they elected to rechristen their label Stax (formed from the first two letters of their respective surnames).

A lucrative national distribution deal with Atlantic Records dramatically aided Stax’s commercial fortunes and from 1962 onwards, classic after classic flowed out of the ‘Soulsville’ hit factory in Memphis. Mixed-race combo, Booker T & The MGs, struck gold with the organ-led instrumental ‘Green Onions’ in 1962 and over the next decade, a slew of smashes would follow: from dynamic soul duo Sam & Dave, Rufus Thomas, Otis Redding, The Mar-Keys, Eddie Floyd, Johnnie Taylor, William Bell, Mel & Tim, The Soul Children, The Emotions, The Dramatics, The Staple Singers and Shirley Brown (all featured on ‘Sweet Soul Music.’)

Undoubtedly one of the label’s biggest stars was Isaac Hayes, who has just joined the roster of the revamped Stax label, now under the auspices of the Universal-distributed Concord group. Hayes – who’ll be 65 in August – was a key back room figure at Stax before he hit the big time as a solo artist. A church-raised singer with a deep, resonant voice, Hayes reveals that he was initially rejected by the company. “I went over there about three or four times and was turned down,” he recalls. But his perseverance eventually paid off and in 1964 he says “they finally gave me a chance” playing keyboards on a session for Otis Redding. Even so, Hayes continued to keep his day job at a meat packing plant.

His prospects changed dramatically when he joined forces with David Porter, also a singer and budding tunesmith. “We knew each other before we worked together at Stax,” says Hayes. “It was a funny thing. I sang with the Teen Tones and he sang with The Marquettes. We were in rival groups and would sing on talent shows every Monday. I won one time and another time, David won.” According to Hayes, it was Porter’s suggestion that they write songs together: “David said look, man, Holland-Dozier-Holland and Bacharach-David have got a thing going so why don’t we? So we hooked up.” In 1965, the duo got their first Stax release with a Porter solo single, ‘Can’t See You When I Want To’ and then went on to become salaried songwriters on the label penning a raft of hits for sensational soul twosome, Sam & Dave. They wrote the classics ‘Soul Man,’ ‘When Something Is Wrong With My Baby’ and ‘Hold On I’m Coming.’ There’s a famous story about the genesis of ‘Hold On I’m Coming,’ which Hayes is happy to relate: “In the studio - that was studio A - the floor was slanted and the rest room was in the corner of the room. David said hey, I’ve got to go to the rest room. I said go, man, I’m working on something and when you’ve finished come here and we’ll do it together. I got tired of waiting and told him to hurry up. So when David came out of the restroom he shouted hold on I’m coming and then realised that could be the title of the song. He said I got it, I got it, I got it! He was falling over himself and we wrote ‘Hold On I’m Coming’ just like that.”

But Hayes’s chief aspiration was to make his own records. Thanks, in part, to his success as a tunesmith and the influence of Stax executive, Al Bell (“he was my mentor”), the shaven-headed singer got to have his own Stax-distributed label, Enterprise. In 1969, he released the landmark soul album ‘Hot Buttered Soul,’ featuring extended symphonic grooves and sexy, deep-voiced monologues. “I had a free hand to do what I wanted to do and I just did it,” explains Hayes, whose music was hugely influential and opened the door for similar artists like Barry White. “For me it was just a natural thing to do. Albums weren’t seen as very important and that’s why I did ‘Hot Buttered Soul’ like I did. What I wanted to say couldn’t have been done in two minutes and 30 seconds. So out of that came longer cuts.”

Almost overnight, Hayes was catapulted into the elite soul superstar bracket. “I couldn’t go anywhere,” he says ruefully regarding the effect that fame had on his life, “but it brought more money in.”

His Oscar-winning soundtrack to the black action movie, ‘Shaft,’ in 1971 heightened Hayes’ public profile. “Gordon Parks (the film’s director) wanted me to do it,” he remembers, “but he gave me three pieces to write before I could do it. I did ‘Theme From Shaft,’ ‘Soulsville’ and ‘Ellie’s Love Theme’ and when I did those, I went to New York to play them for him. When he heard them he was convinced I could do it: Oh man, you were right, he said. Just do it. And then I just put it all together. It was difficult to do but I did it.” Hayes says working on ‘Shaft’ and his being inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2002 are the two main highlights of his long career.

Isaac Hayes left Stax in 1975 when the label was suffering financial difficulties and says “I think I had outgrown it.” Despite recording for a raft of other labels in the ‘70s and ‘80s (including Polydor and Columbia), Hayes wasn’t able to emulate the success he tasted at Stax and made more of a name for himself as an actor (which included his recent memorable role as the voice of Chef in the controversial adult cartoon show, ‘South Park’).

Now back at the label where it all started 42 years ago and with a new album in the pipeline, Isaac Hayes is understandably upbeat about the future. “I’m excited,” he says in that sonorous, velvet-textured voice that has melted a thousand hearts. “It’s like I’m back home. I hope we can achieve some hits. We’ve got Angie Stone and myself so I’ll think we’ll do well.”

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Words Charles Waring

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