Isaac Hayes lived a remarkable life. One that took him from poverty and orphanhood in 1940s Tennessee, to success in the 1960s as a soul songwriter for Stax in Memphis, to millionaire wealth and global fame as composer of the Oscar-winning Shaft score, and then to bankruptcy and ultimately to prison (in 1989 for non-payment of alimony and child support), followed by a financial and creative recovery, and finally to a stroke in 2006 that was blamed for some uncharacteristically erratic appearances from this most elegant of men.
He fathered 12 children, had been married several times and was – amongst his other achievements – an honorary king in Ghana.
Hayes was raised by his grandmother in the musical hotbed of Memphis, and after singing in a local gospel choir and playing in the high school band, Hayes began to form his own soul music groups and put out singles.
His career took off when he began to concentrate on songwriting and teamed up with fellow Memphis songsmith David Porter.
Together, they penned several hits for the duo act Sam and Dave, including Soul Man and Hold On, I’m Comin’. Still, Hayes wanted to be a performer and began recording albums of his own, starting with 1967s Presenting Isaac Hayes.
Its low-key, jazzy feel was a hint of the great things soon to come from Hayes as a solo artist.
Between the years of 1969 and 1973, when encouraged by Stax to record anything he liked, Hayes had the notion of taking a rock-style approach to making soul albums.
To the instant delight of late night radio DJ’s in America (who were looking for longer and longer pieces of music to play), Hayes broke free of the soul genre’s three-minute confines and produced dramatic – and very lengthy – versions of familiar pop hits (Walk On By, The Look Of Love, (They Long To Be) Close To You) in which psychedelic guitars were placed alongside lush strings and gorgeous flutes, gospel-influenced organ and cooing female backing singers.
Hayes’ own baritone voice floated on top, addressing the listener in a tone of oddly bashful regret, often speaking rather than singing.
The results were spectacular. Hot Buttered Soul (1969), the first of these LPs, sold an estimated five million copies. Its mammoth version of Jimmy Webb’s By The Time I Get To Phoenix – which sees Hayes ‘introduce’ the song while his drummer patiently taps a ride cymbal for eight-and-a-half-minutes – rewrote all the rules for Memphis, and soul-based music.
Hayes’ breakthrough as a solo artist was unexpected. His debut album, Presenting Isaac Hayes (1968), had been a low-selling jazz trio LP, which he later admitted to recording while drunk.
His reputation in the music industry was based on songwriting – particularly the hits he had co-written with David Porter for Sam & Dave – so it was ironic that this massively successful chapter of Hayes’ life (from Hot Buttered Soul onwards) consisted primarily of interpreting other people’s songs. But nobody interpreted other people’s songs like Isaac Hayes!
Their length, for one thing, increased to around the 12-minute mark as Hayes began a full-scale vocal and musical seduction process involving every instrument in the soul orchestra. Men would play his albums to their girlfriends, he revealed, and stop him in the street the next day to offer their profuse gratitude for his music’s stunning effect.
Whereas songwriters like Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder turned to socio-political lyrics and made listeners confront issues of identity and empowerment in everyday black America life, Ike for the most part stayed on the romantic side of the street – though he was certainly an activist in real life – and most of the songs he wrote and recorded in the early 70s are about what happens late in the evening between a man and a woman, rather than people’s struggles on the street during the day.
As the 1970s began, Isaac Hayes continued to develop his distinctly epic flavour of soul on albums like The Isaac Hayes Movement and To Be Continued. He reached a new level of fame in 1971 when he composed the score for the film Shaft.
Hayes gave this detective story about “a black private dick who’s a sex machine with all the chicks” a classic sound that blended R&B grit with orchestral smoothness.
Its finest moment was #1 hit Theme From Shaft, a silky groove driven by wah-wah guitar and a half-spoken, half-sung rap from Hayes. Shaft became a big hit, spawning a wave of black action films that imitated the rich sounds of Hayes’ score and netting Hayes an Oscar nomination for Best Score to go with his win for Best Song.
Isaac Hayes continued to score hits throughout the 1970s with songs like the bass-driven Joy and his moody remake of Never Can Say Goodbye. He also devoted much time to film scores like Three Tough Guys and Truck Turner (1974) in which he also starred as the title character, a bounty hunter.
During this time, his combination of romance-minded music and a striking visual image (a shaved head, big gold chains) helped him become one of the more interesting sex symbols of the 1970s.
Hayes further cemented this sex-symbol image by recording duet albums with both Millie Jackson and Dionne Warwick. He also continued to score hits throughout the 1970s with danceable R&B like Zeke The Freak and Don’t Let Go.
The arrival of Disco effectively put an end to Hayes’ musical success in the latter part of the 70s, and he turned to a new career as an actor and started turning up in episodes of The Rockford Files.
Acting remained his main source of income in the 1980s – he usually played bad guys and starred in John Carpenter’s Escape From New York (1981) – which added a degree of ‘heaviness’ to his already formidable image.
But behind the forbidding glare and intimidating bling he remained a warm, humorous, and entertaining performer (witness his performance on his 1973 album, Live At The Sahara Tahoe).
In the latter half of the 1980s, he began to work his way back into the music scene with albums like U-Turn and Love Attack. He even scored a Top-10 R&B hit in 1986 with Ike’s Rap, a song that brought the rap style he pioneered into the modern era. Just the same, Hayes returned his attention to acting by the end of the decade.
In 1995, after years of being name-checked by the new breed of rappers, Hayes signed a new record deal and embarked on a comeback with Branded – his first album in seven years.
But it was the TV show South Park which was to become his main claim to fame from the late 90s until his stroke in 2006. The series was a surprising project for him to endorse but it paid well, and the likeable, sexually encyclopaedic school chef made Isaac Hayes a star all over again, until after six years – and a UK #1 hit with Chocolate Salty Balls – he left the show suddenly, unable to see the funny side of an episode about Scientology (he had converted in the early 90s).
Hayes died on 10 August 2008. After spending a few hours at the piano, the 65-year-old turned on his treadmill for an afternoon jog. His wife, Adjowa, and his 12th child, two-year-old Nana Kwadjo, were out running errands when he suffered a stroke.
Rescue workers attempted CPR, but at 2 pm, Hayes was pronounced dead.