By all accounts, an Isaac Hayes concert?especially in the ’70s?was something to behold. Standing off-stage as his 40-piece ensemble, the Isaac Hayes Movement, teased the crowd with swells of music, the man known as Black Moses would emerge in grand style, accompanied by four mock bodyguards. Decked out in his trademark regalia (a colorful cape, sparkling gold necklace, and black tights), and sporting a glistening shaven head and dark glasses, Hayes would proceed to wow the audience like the fabulous showman he was.
Those performances marked the mid-period of a remarkable life’s journey. Hayes, who collapsed and died on Sunday
, was born on a sharecropper's farm in Covington, Tennessee, 40 miles north of Memphis. He hardly knew his parents, as his mother died when he was an infant and his father disappeared before Hayes was two years old. Raised by his grandparents, the youngster endured numbing poverty as he worked in the cotton fields and attended school only sporadically. He was 21 before he earned his high school diploma.
An interest in music took hold early on, however, and by age 10 Hayes had taught himself to play organ and piano. Moving to Memphis in his mid teens, he took jobs as a gas station attendant and a handyman as he sought to gain a foothold in the music profession. Forming his own group, Sir Isaac and the Doo-dads, Hayes spent much of the late ’50s doing one-night shows on the R&B circuit. Mixing the hits of the day with a smattering of original material, he started to blossom as a writer.
With the formation of Stax Records in the early ’60s, Hayes’ career took flight. Spearheading the “Memphis sound,” the label boasted a roster that included such soul legends as Otis Redding
and Sam and Dave. Along with Booker T, Hayes was the label's most valuable session player, as well as a gifted songwriter. Partnering with lyricist David Porter, Hayes co-penned such smash hits as “Soul Man,” “Hold On, I’m Coming,” and “You Don’t Know Like I Know.”
Hayes' first solo album is rumored to have been triggered by some late-night ad-hoc recording sessions during which he and Stax’s vice president had too much to drink. The album sold poorly, but its follow-up, 1969’s Hot Buttered Soul
, topped the R&B charts. A series of Top 20 solo albums followed, but it was the soundtrack for Shaft
, a 1971 so-called blaxploitation film, that made Hayes a bona fide star. A thrilling fusion of scratchy funk and orchestral music, “Theme from Shaft”
earned Hayes two Grammy awards: one for “Best Instrumental Arrangement,” and the other for “Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture.” The song also deeply impacted an array of other artists, and pre-figured the disco trend that would soon take hold.
Concurrent with his music career, Hayes secured several acting roles during the ’70s. He also set up his own subsidiary label, Hot Buttered Soul Records. Financially, however, the mid ’70s proved disastrous, as poor album sales and mismanagement of past earnings resulted in a declaration of bankruptcy. The next several years marked a fallow period, sales-wise, and during the ’80s Hayes decided to take a break from music to focus on acting. Notable film appearances during this period include roles in Escape from New York
(1981), I’m Gonna Get You Sucker
(1988), and Prime Target
(1991). Hayes also appeared in such TV shows as The A-Team
and Miami Vice
Hayes launched a successful music comeback in 1995 with the albums Branded
and Raw and Refined
. Reviews hailed the discs as a return to form, and both albums enjoyed moderate sales. But it was in 1997, when he became the voice of Chef, the soul-singing cafeteria cook in Comedy Central’s South Park
, that Hayes earned a new generation of fans. Hayes appeared on the show for nine years, leaving finally in 2006 amidst controversy that centered on an episode that satirized Scientology, a religious philosophy to which Hayes subscribed. Portentously, earlier that same year Hayes had suffered a stroke, an event that is presumed to have been a factor in his recent death.
As regards his legacy, Hayes’ life had a far-reaching impact on both musical and non-musical fronts. Music-wise, his early albums helped lay the groundwork not just for disco, but also for rap and the emergence of romantic crooners such as Barry White and Luther Vandross. Beyond music, he was an ambassador for his hometown of Memphis and a role model for impoverished children seeking to rise above their circumstance. In the wake of his death, fellow Memphis resident Priscilla Presley expressed sentiments shared by many when she spoke about Hayes to Entertainment Tonight
“We have lost not only an incredible talent but a wonderful leader to his community and a dear friend,” Presley said. “To me there will only be one Isaac Hayes, gifting us with years of performing, writing, and a voice that penetrated deep into our souls. He is to be admired for changing his life around and standing steadfast to his beliefs, his integrity and to helping others. My heart goes out to his family, his wife, Adjowa, and his beloved children, and to those who loved him for just being him. Isaac, you will be missed but never forgotten.”