Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Isaac Hayes

Isaac Hayes, pioneering soul and R&B artist, and occasional actor, passed away at his home Sunday. He was 65 years old.

Isaac Lee Hayes Jr. was raised by his grandparents in the heart of West Tennessee cotton country. He started singing in church at age 5, and began learning to play piano soon afterward. He dropped out of high school to play his music in the Memphis clubs, and eventually was hired by the city's up-and-coming Stax record label as a session pianist. At Stax, he soon teamed with David Porter, whom he had known from rival doo-wop groups, and began a songwriting partnership that brought Stax many of its greatest hits, as well as a lifelong friendship.

Hayes and Porter rose to prominence providing a string of classic hits for Sam & Dave - "You Don't Know Like I Know", "Soul Man", "When Something Is Wrong with My Baby", and "Hold On I'm Comin", to name a few. Other artists Hayes and Porter worked with included Carla Thomas, Johnnie Taylor, and The Emotions. As a songwriter and a musician, Hayes played a major role in catapulting Stax to its position as one of the premier R&B labels of the 60's.

Hayes' success at Stax eventually led him to record on his own. His debut, Presenting Isaac Hayes, was basically an after-hours jam that attracted little attention. The followup disc, Hot Buttered Soul, was the record that firmly established Hayes' sound and image. Consisting of only four tracks over 45 minutes of music, the LP featured many of Hayes' trademarks: extended workouts of pop standards ("Walk On By" and "By The Time I Get To Phoenix"), lush orchestration, long spoken-word introductions (the intro to "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" goes on for eight minutes before the music finally kicks in), and Hayes' rich baritone vocals. With his shaven head, gold chains, and buff physique, Hayes created a powerful visual image to match. Hot Buttered Soul went gold, and set the stage for Hayes' early 70's triumphs.

Subsequent recordings continued in the same vein: The Isaac Hayes Movement, To Be Continued, and Black Moses all sold well. But a meeting with film director Gordon Parks led to Hayes' greatest success. Parks asked Hayes to provide the soundtrack to a movie he was making about a black private eye, Shaft, and Hayes responded with a landmark recording. The "Theme From Shaft", with its chucka-wucka synthesizers, wah-wah guitar effects, and Hayes' unforgettable rap at the center of the song, became a prototype for the disco explosion of the later 70's. The "Theme From Shaft" deservedly spent two weeks atop the US singles charts, and would also win Hayes an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Hayes also made a cameo appearance in the movie as a bartender. Shaft would lift Hayes up for a time into the highest ranks of superstardom.

Hayes would continue through the mid 70's with movie work, providing music for and acting in Tough Guys and Truck Turner, in addition to his regular LP releases. But by 1976, he was in deep money trouble, mostly tied to the financial difficulties Stax Records found itself in. In 1974, Hayes sued Stax for $5.3 million in unpaid royalties; with Stax unable to pay, Hayes found it impossible to pay his own debts, and in 1976 was forced to file for bankruptcy. By the time the bankruptcy proceedings were settled the next year, Hayes had lost his home, many of his personal belongings, and especially painful, the rights to any future royalties earned from his work up to that point.

Through the 80's and much of the 90's, Hayes maintained a lower profile as he rebuilt his career, making occasional recordings and appearing in acting roles on TV series such as The A-Team and Miami Vice. He returned to national prominence in the later 90's as the voice of Chef on South Park. Chef became one of the series' most popular characters, dispensing advice to the South Park kids laced with salacious double-entendres. Chef even gave Hayes' music career a revival of sorts - "Chocolate Salty Balls", sung by Hayes in Chef's persona, became a #1 hit in the UK. Hayes would leave South Park in 2006. A devout Scientologist, he quit following a dispute with the show's creators over an episode that lampooned Scientology.

Hayes was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2002. He was known in Memphis for his philanthropic activities, including sponsoring reading programs for young children and his support of the Blues Ball. Despite suffering a stroke in 2006, Hayes remained in good physical shape. When he passed away, his wife found him laying next to his treadmill, with the treadmill still running.

Here's Isaac Hayes from back in the day with "The Look Of Love", another extended treatment of a Burt Bacharach song. Oldskool at its finest.