Forget that he was the voice of Chef on South Park, push aside that he was a devoted member of the Church of Scientology. I think I’ll always chose to remember Isaac Hayes, who died yesterday at 65, as the bad ass black dude who composed and sang the iconic and marvelous theme from the 1971 “blaxploitation” film Shaft.
When I first heard that transcendent wah-wah guitar, I wanted to learn how to do that. The symphonic arrangement and build was equal parts film music (flutes, strings, horn blasts) but informed with an urban soul underpinning from The Bar-Kays Willie Hall on drums (hi-hats especially) and the lean repetitive bass line by James Alexander. He even won an Oscar that year for Best Original Song. Then I saw Isaac himself, a big, bald black man, often shirtless, with a big confident smile and impenetrable wraparound shades over his eyes. Who was this brother from another planet, standing up there conducting this groovy orchestral throwdown?
Well, I later discovered that Isaac Hayes had sprung from relative squalor in rural Tennessee and taught himself how to play a few instruments before joining the Stax stable, in Memphis, as a session musician in 1964, working with greats like Otis Redding, Sam and Dave and had a hand in most of the great, post-racial, soul music that emanated from that little brick building on McLemore Avenue. He and his buddy David Porter wrote those hits like “Hold On I’m Coming” and the song that even fuelled the success of Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi’s Blues Brothers, “Soul Man”.
Then there was the album, Hot Buttered Soul.
On that classic, he reinterpreted Burt Bacharach’s “Walk On By” (the best non-Dionne Warwick version ever although I also dug the Stranglers punky version which comes a close third) and transformed Jimmy Webb’s song, “By The Time I Get to Phoenix” – an 18 minute opus that kicks Glen Campbell’s still awesome version to the curb.
A few years ago, I rediscovered Black Moses, an album that I had been too young, and perhaps too white and Canadian, to understand when it was originally released.
The album sits nicely with the civil rights minded funk and symphony of contemporaries like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield and even Stevie Wonder during his “Living For The City” period.
I think one of the best ways to remember Isaac Hayes is to go out and rent, buy, or (whatever you have to do), the concert film , Wattstax, Mel Stuart’s Golden Globe nominated 1973 documentary feature about the 1972 Wattstax music festival and it’s positive impact on the troubled L.A. neighborhood of Watts.
I love it not only because it features live concert performances by the Bar Kays and Isaac Hayes, seen here on a YouTube excerpt performing Shaft with an introduction by the Afro sporting Reverend Jesse Jackson…
… but because it really studies one urban community and their own attempts at positive rebirth after struggles and the nightmares of the riots. And because they cut away to Richard Pryor, in his prime, actin’ the fool (in the court jester sense of the word) at a local barbershop.
Isaac Hayes redefined not just black music, but all music. UK fans might do well to remember that he was more than the guy who had a novelty No. 1 in the UK charts with his South Park single, “Chocolate Salty Balls”.
To get a full perspective on Isaac Hayes, and the whole Stax Volt scene, I leave you with a second documentary recommendation. Have a look at Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s excellent PBS aired film, Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson.
Here’s the trailer from YouTube:
There’s plenty of clips of Isaac Hayes, along with the greats like Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MGs, Sam & Dave, the Staple Singers, Albert King, Eddie “Knock On Wood” Floyd, and of course, Carla and Rufus Thomas,
Heaven just a got a little more soulful, rest in peace soul brother, rest in peace.