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Issue 1084

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Feature

MILESTONES: ISAAC HAYES

Isaac Hayes
Isaac Hayes

The 1972 Oscars ceremony took place on 10th April at the swish Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Music Centre in Los Angeles and, as ever, the tuxedoed and designer-gowned audience knew pretty much what to expect ... until it was time for the award for Best Original Song.

That year, the prestigious award went to Isaac Hayes for his monumental 'Theme From Shaft', and to perform the tune, Hayes, draped in chains, emerged from beneath the stage in clouds of smoke. The audience were taken aback, and so too, I guess, was the performer. Hayes, you see, had come along way since his childhood in rural Covington, Tennessee.

Born on 20th August 1942, Hayes’s parents had died in his infancy. He had been brought up by grandparents and, as was the custom, he began his singing career in church. By his late teens, the self-taught musician was performing on the Memphis club circuit in a variety of incarnations, of which Sir Isaac and the Doo-Dads was perhaps the most forgettable. He cut a single in 1962, and the next year he found himself playing sax on Stax studio sessions, and on the occasion when Booker T Jones was away at college, he also contributed his distinctive piano. At McLemore Avenue he forged a partnership with writer David Porter, and between, them the duo composed over 200 songs, with perhaps Sam And Dave benefiting most from their skills.

The hits convinced Stax executive Al Bell that Hayes was a huge talent, while the writer’s flamboyant personal style and general demeanour indicated to Bell that there was a great performer in there, too. So, in January 1968, Hayes was coaxed into the studio to work as an artist in his own right. Working with bassist Duck Dunn and drummer Al Jackson, the session was more than relaxed, but it did lead to an album, 'Presenting Isaac Hayes'. Commercially, the LP was a disaster, and that might have been that as far as Isaac Hayes’ solo career went. Then the vagaries of the record business intervened.

Business chicanery meant that in 1969, Stax boss man Al Bell needed to re-launch the label with a huge release programme, and he was adamant that all the artists on his roster needed to contribute – even Hayes. The reluctant artist agreed – but only if he had total control over the project. The result, of course, was the man’s defining moment, 'Hot Buttered Soul'. The era-making four tracker was remarkably radical in all kinds of ways, and its genuine creativity manifested itself with huge commercial success. Soon selling over one million copies, it registered on all four of Billboard’s charts – jazz, pop, R&B and easy listening - and it at last proved that there was a market for serious black music, something people like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and George Clinton were quick to pick up on.

The follow-ups, 'The Isaac Hayes Movement' and 'To Be Continued', followed a similar pattern to 'HBS', and were equally successful. Then, in 1971, the man now dubbed 'Black Moses' was commissioned by Gordon Parks to score his movie 'Shaft'. The story followed the adventures of the black New York detective John Shaft, and Hayes’s music seemed to pull together all the film’s different elements. The 'Shaft' album went number one on both the pop and R&B charts, and the single also went on to win a Grammy and, as we’ve seen, the Oscar.
That Oscar victory opened up Hollywood to black music makers, and before long, people like Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Bobby Womack were hired to write for movies that were soon dubbed 'blaxploitation'.

Hayes went on to win more success with 'Black Moses' and 'Joy', and he scored soundtracks like 'Tough Guys' and 'Truck Turner', (in which he also acted). His relationship with Stax, however, soon soured, and poor sales of subsequent records meant that in 1976 he filed for bankruptcy. Since then, he’s enjoyed any number of comebacks, both as artist, co-artist and actor. He's also embraced Scientology, and been initiated into the Royal Family Of The African Nation Of Ghana. But he was eventually to become best known as the voice of Chef in the cartoon series 'South Park'. At last, in 2002, Hayes was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The previous year, however, he acknowledged that his biggest success was 'Shaft' when he agreed to appear in the Samuel L Jackson re-make of the movie. Like the man said, "Can you dig it?"
Words Bill Buckley

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