Isaac Hayes - Biography

By Lee Hildebrand


Isaac Hayes was soul music’s first super hero. He was a young African American man who had risen out of abject poverty to prove that he could do most everything musical: sing, play (keyboards, vibes, saxophone), produce, compose, arrange, and score motion pictures. Jet magazine dubbed him “the Moses of Black Music,” and the husky, chrome-domed Hayes played the triumphant titan role to the hilt, frequently appearing in concert in a suit of chains. He was depicted in a long, hooded robe standing on a river bank with arms outstretched on the poster cover of the album Black Moses (1971 Enterprise), which unfolded in the shape of a cross three-feet wide and four-feet tall.


Born August 20, 1942, on a farm 30 miles north of Memphis in Covington, Tennessee, Hayes revolutionized soul music, leading it out of the era of the three-minute single into two new areas: the symphonically orchestrated “concept” album with extended tracks and the black motion picture soundtrack. His second album, Hot Buttered Soul (1969 Enterprise), contained only four songs, of which one—“By the Time I Get to Phoenix”—ran a full 18 minutes. The album became the first for Stax Records, of which Enterprise was a subsidiary label, to go gold. Hayes’ fourth album, the soundtrack from the hit motion picture Shaft (1971 Enterprise), topped Billboard’s pop album chart, and “Theme from Shaft” earned him an Oscar for Best Original Song. That success opened doors for such other soul music veterans as Curtis Mayfield and Norman Whitfield to write music for the big screen.


Hayes’ mother died when he was an infant, and his father deserted him and his older sister, leaving them to be raised by their sharecropping grandparents. He moved to Memphis with his grandparents when he was seven and Hayes became the man of the house at ten years old when his grandfather passed away. He juggled school and work schedules as a teenager and learned to play piano and saxophone.


A deep baritone who initially modeled his singing style on that of Brook Benton, Hayes cut his first single, “Laura We’re On Our Last Go-Round,” for Memphis producer Chips Moman’s Youngstown label in 1962 and, the following year, played piano on a Stax record titled Boot-Leg by baritone saxophonist Floyd Newman. Hayes was soon recruited by the company as a substitute for keyboardist for Booker T. Jones, who was often away at college, and he started contributing to sessions by such artists as Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, The Astors, even Booker T. & the M.G.’s. The company issued his first instrumental single, “Blue Groove” by Sir Isaac & the Do-Dads, in 1965. More importantly, he began collaborating as a songwriter and producer with David Porter to create hits for Carla Thomas (“B-A-B-Y”), Mable John (“Your Good Thing [Is About To End]”), Johnnie Taylor (“I’ve Got to Love Somebody’s Baby”), The Soul Children (“The Sweeter He Is”), and particularly Sam & Dave. The Sam Moore/David Prater singing duo joined with the Hayes/Porter team to create hit after hit between 1966 and 1968, including “You Don’t Know Like I Know,” “Hold On! I’m A-Comin’,” “You Got Me Hummin’,” “When Something Is Wrong with My Baby,” “Soul Man,” and 1968’s “I Thank You.”


Hayes’ first album, Presenting Isaac Hayes (1967 Enterprise), was a low-budget, Jazz-flavored affair recorded on the spur of the moment following a Christmas party, with just bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn and drummer Al Jackson Jr. supporting Hayes’ piano and voice. According to Hayes and Stax executive Al Bell, all three musicians were drunk at the time of the recording. His second album, Hot Buttered Soul, was something altogether different, featuring Hayes’ very masculine baritone crooning and rapping over a massive backdrop of strings and horns supplied by the Memphis Symphony and the solid grooves of The Bar-Kays. Fans who weren’t satisfied with the three-minute single version of Hayes’ unique reading of Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”—which had been a minor pop hit for Glen Campbell in 1967—rushed to stores to buy the unedited version on the album. Hot Buttered Soul also included a 12-minute reading of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Walk on By,” adorned with a compelling fuzz-toned guitar riff. The album proved to be a genre-crossing sensation, placing high on Billboard’s pop, R&B, jazz, and easy-listening charts.


Other hit albums (all originally issued on Enterprise and reissued in CD form on Stax) followed: The Isaac Hayes Movement (1970 Enterprise) featuring “I Stand Accused,” . . . To Be Continued (1970), Shaft (1971), and Black Moses featuring “Never Can Say Goodbye” (1971). The pinnacle of Hayes’ musical career came in 1971 when MGM hired him to compose the score for the Gordon Parks film Shaft, starring Richard Roundtree as private eye John Shaft. Hayes had hoped to be cast in the lead role himself, but his turns at acting were soon to come; in 1974, Hayes starred in the motion picture Truck Turner and he later played a lead role in Three Tough Guys, both of which he also scored. In 1976, he became a semi-regular on NBC-TV’s The Rockford Files.


“Theme from Shaft,” besides winning an Academy Award for Best Original Song, grabbed two Grammys: Best Instrumental Arrangement (given to Hayes and Johnny Allen) and Best Engineered Recording (to Dave Purple, Ron Capone, and Henry Bush). The album Shaft also won a Grammy for Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture. Although African American jazz arrangers Benny Carter and Quincy Jones had earlier broken the soundtrack color bar in Hollywood, Hayes’ success with Shaft soon opened the film industry’s soundtrack doors for such R&B singers as Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, Bobby Womack, Joe Simon, and James Brown, as well as for former Motown producer-songwriter Norman Whitfield.  


Another pinnacle in Hayes’ career came on his 30th birthday, August 20, 1972. That’s the memorable date when Hayes headlined the Watts Summer Festival at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before a crowd of 112,000 people, each who had paid $1 each for tickets to the community event. Because MGM owned the movie rights to “Theme from Shaft,” his performance of it that day was not included in the Mel Stuart-directed documentary film Wattstax (1972), which included only his medley of “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lonely Avenue” and a version of “Rolling Down A Mountain Side” that was recorded later on a soundstage. Hayes’ complete eight-song set from the festival didn’t surface until two decades later, on the CD Isaac Hayes at Wattstax (1991 Stax)


Hayes continued making the charts—with his Enterprise albums Joy (Stax 1973) and Live at the Sahara Tahoe (Stax 1973), as well as with such singles as “Let’s Stay Together,” “Theme from The Men,” “Joy,” and “Wonderful”—but he had become seriously in debt to Union Planters Bank in Memphis, as had Stax itself. He sued Stax $5.3 million in September 1974. The following year, Hayes signed with ABC Records, which set him up with his own subsidiary label, Hot Buttered Soul. The disco-ushering Chocolate Chip (1975), his first album under the next contract, went gold. It reached #18 on Billboard’s album chart, and boasted two top 20 hits. Unfortunately for Hayes, Chocolate Chip would prove to be the last Hayes album ever to crack the pop Top 20.


By 1976, Hayes found himself $6 million in debt and declared bankruptcy. When bankruptcy proceedings wrapped up in 1977, Hayes lost his house and other property, as well as all future royalty income from music he’d written, produced, and recorded— the latter proving the most financially devastating hit he took in the long run. Hayes’ fortunes improved, however, upon signing with Polydor in 1977. His New Horizon (1977 Polydor) release shook off some of the later ABC recordings which were considered subpar, and he struck gold again with the album Don’t Let Go (1979 Polydor). However, Hayes found himself without a recording contract for the first half of the ’80s until signing with Columbia in 1986 and landing his first Top 20 R&B single in a dozen years with the #9 “Ike’s Rap” from the U-Turn album. His final foray onto U.S. charts came in 1991 with the #29 R&B “Dark and Lovely (You Over There),” a duet on A&M Records with Barry White. Ironically, White had risen to fame in the mid-’70s with his adaptation of Hayes’ bedroom baritone voice and orchestral soul innovations.


If it hadn’t been for acting, Hayes might have found himself relegated to the oldies circuit. He appeared the motion pictures Escape from New York (1981), I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988), Prime Target (1991), Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), It Could Happen to You (1994), Flipper (1996), Blues Brothers 2000 (1998), a remake of Shaft (2000), Dr. Doolittle 2 (2001), Hustle & Flow (2005), and posthumously as himself in Soul Men (2008), among others. He also acted in episodes of such television series as The Hughleys, Girlfriends, and Stargate SG-1, but he achieved his greatest degree of post-’70s exposure as the voice of Chef in 137 episodes (1997-2005) of the hugely popular animated Comedy Central series, South Park. Hayes also became part-owner of the Memphis Tams, an American Basketball Association (ABA) team in 1974, but the team relocated to Baltimore and disbanded in 1976.


Hayes scored his final hit in England in 1999, with the #1 single “Chocolate Salty Balls (P.S. I Love You),” which he originally performed as Chef in South Park. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, the same year in which the reactivated Stax label issued a two-CD, one-DVD set titled Ultimate Isaac Hayes: Can You Dig It? He signed with the company in 2006 but never completed an album prior to his death in Memphis, Tennessee, on August 10, 2008, just 10 days short of his 66th birthday.    

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