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Isaac Hayes

From smouldering Stax Records innovator to Blaxploitation big gun to unlikely South Park icon, ISAAC HAYES has spun out his legendary career as stylishly as he’s spun out countless cover versions. As a prolific in-house songwriter and session musician at Memphis’ aforementioned soul powerhouse, he was well placed to make the transition from backroom boy to pioneering artist. In contrast to the usual singles plus filler of the average 60s soul album, HAYES specialised in audaciously extended, lavishly orchestrated covers, often featuring breathy monologues on the trials of romance. Visually, he cut just as striking a figure, cultivating an aloof, sultan of soul-esque mystique through sheer physical presence and a wardrobe stuffed with extravagant dashikis.
Born August 20, 1938, Covington, Tennessee, as a teenager he moved to Memphis, where he learned to play sax and piano. Isaac was soon invited to session for the now legendary Stax label in the mid-60s, eventually forming a writing partnership with David Porter. The pair were highly successful, duly going on to scribe for label artists such as OTIS REDDING, SAM & DAVE, EDDIE FLOYD and CARLA THOMAS, as well as other outsider soul acts, WILSON PICKETT, DON COVAY and The EMOTIONS.
His rambling, jazz-based debut album from 1968, PRESENTING ISAAC HAYES {*6}, was an unexpected venture, as both he and BOOKER T/MGs rhythmatists, Donald “Dunn” Duck (bass) and Al Jackson, Jr. (drums), set about turning blues standards such as `I Just Want To Make Love To You’, `Rock Me Baby’ into jazz cues, and more or less the opposite for Heyman & Young’s `When I Fall In Love’ (best served up by Nat King Cole), Count Basie’s `Going To Chicago’ and Jimmy Rushing’s `Misty’; his own `Precious, Precious’ was the treasure here.
The follow-up, HOT BUTTERED SOUL (1969) {*9}, presented HAYES with a different proposition, in that of a Top 10 place, while also gaining widespread respect from critics for its highly original interpretations of standards like JIMMY WEBB’s `By The Time I Get To Phoenix’. Establishing himself as the original medallion man, self-styled “lovegod” HAYES created sophisticated mood pieces; stretching songs (such as BACHARACH & DAVID’s `Walk On By’) over seemingly unfeasible, elaborately orchestrated lengths, the singer patented a breathy, often spoken, vocal style, his black velvet tones proving a hit with fans of easy listening, jazz, R&B, pop and rock; the remaining BAR-KEYS from a tragic flight that killed OTIS REDDING a few years back, augmented HAYES.
Subsequent efforts, THE ISAAC HAYES MOVEMENT (1970) {*8} – featuring JERRY BUTLER’s `I Stand Accused’ and GEORGE HARRISON’s `Something’, …TO BE CONTINUED (1970) {*7} – featuring Garson & Hilliard’s `Our Day Will Come’, plus the post-“Shaft” BLACK MOSES (1971) {*7} – highlighting CURTIS MAYFIELD’s `Man’s Temptation’, followed the same formula; all tied in neatly by a respective triumvirate of further BACHARACH & DAVID workouts in `I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself’, `The Look Of Love’ and `(They Long To Be) Close To You’.
Yet it was HAYES’ commitment to atmosphere over hooks which suggested an inevitable move into film composing: after an initial co-credit (with Wes Montgomery) on Norman Mailer’s Maidstone (1970), Isaac combined both atmosphere and hooks on his Grammy-winning soundtrack to Gordon Parks’ SHAFT (1971) {*8}. While the throbbing theme tune deftly incorporated his imposing vocal style and love of orchestration into a killer wah-wah funk groove, scaling the US chart (UK Top 5) and bagging an Oscar, the bulk of the double-LP soundtrack was given over to characteristically raw sexuality.
If the lyrics ain’t aged so well, at least they’re retrospectively amusing; a diverting missive from another world, when blowing your own macho trumpet was an art rather than a diatribe. The real paradox of this album lay in its relative lack of bite – HAYES might’ve fired off the ultimate Blax theme but – in stark comparison with MELVIN VAN PEEBLES’ anarchic cri de coeur – he meandered through much of the rest of the album without ever really breaking sweat. There was no jaw-clenching chase theme, no real soul-searching noir-jazz odyssey, but then this was charting new cine-soundtrack territory; much of the best was arguably yet to come, not least from CURTIS MAYFIELD.
In large part, he doled out the kind of smooth, orchestrated mood music with which he’d made his name at Stax, minus the songwriting muscle, monologues and revolutionary arrangements. Taken at face value, the likes of `Ellie’s Love Theme’ and the lounge-y `Café Reggio’ were enjoyable enough, while `No Name Bar’ flaunted a tougher, jazzier groove and the bluesy `Soulsville’ injected some much-needed grit, both lyrical and musical. The self-styled “Black Moses” only really came close to the calibre of a `Walk On By’ or an `Ike’s Rap’, when he allowed both himself and the BAR-KAYS the space to stretch out on the epic `Do Your Thing’ (a full 19, FUNKADELIC-influenced minutes worth, although the re-mastered CD cuts it down to under 5).
As the first African-American to be bestowed with an Academy Award, HAYES was suddenly hot stuff in the film world and the success opened a door into acting. But prior to this he still had to prove to his disciples that he was the funkiest lounge lizard in town, as he reeled-off a couple of Top 20 albums, the concert double LIVE AT THE SAHARA TAHOE (1973) {*5} – showcasing a couple of BILL WITHERS numbers (`Ain’t No Sunshine’ and `Use Me’), The DOORS’ `Light My Fire’, Clifton Davis’ `Never Can Say Goodbye’, EWAN MacCOLL’s `The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ and CAROLE KING’s `It’s Too Late’, plus the totally self-penned JOY (1973) {*7}.
His screen debut came with a major part in Italian Blaxploitation-marketed effort, Uomini Duri (aka Three Tough Guys), for which he also composed the score. The most obscure of all of ISAAC HAYES’ soundtracks, TOUGH GUYS (1974) {*5}, was also his most concise, clocking in at an incredible – at least for a master of overstatement like HAYES – half hour plus. Theoretically, that should mean it was also his most listenable and it probably was, but while it boasted a rocking main theme – combining the hi-hat foreplay of “Shaft” with the frazzled tropes of psychedelic soul and some exquisitely dated vocal phrasing – as well as a clutch of great instrumentals, it lacked a bona fide killer cut to raise it to classic status. The balmy, GEORGE BENSON-esque jazz guitar lounging of `Hung Up On My Baby’ was indulged more extensively – if not quite as intoxicatingly – on HAYES’ other summer ‘74 OST: TRUCK TURNER {*6}
HAYES once again wallowed in his mandatory four sides of vinyl, although the results, as with abbreviated predecessor, actually outpaced “Shaft”, the record so often touted as his celluloid masterpiece. Over a whopping 17 titles, and with typically studied abandon, Black Moses lived out more of his aural fantasies. While the bulk of the tracks were mellow instrumentals, at least three of them were road-tested juggernauts: the boiling wah-wah, freeway-cruising strings and kitschy call-and-response of the title theme, the funk-rock grind of `Breakthrough’ and the brilliant proto-disco marathon, `Pursuit Of The Pimpmobile’. One of HAYES’ most enduring funk symphonies, `Pursuit…’ was as humorously well-oiled as it is alliterative, as inventive and finely calibrated a balance of the orchestral and the rhythmic as the bald one ever engineered. And, despite a near 10-minute duration, it never ran out of gas. There’s even a 7-minute psychedelic soul/jazz mindbender entitled `The Insurance Company’.
It’s all as sexy and larger than life as ever; even Isaac’s dreams “would blow the average man’s mind”, if you believe his boasts on `A House Full Of Girls’. Yet while `You’re In My Arms Again’ smouldered with downbeat eloquence, the man was rarely at his most compelling in BARRY WHITE mode, at least not within the relatively restricted confines of a soundtrack. And while jazzy, soft-top sketches like `Blues Crib’, `Dorinda’s Party’ and the gorgeous `We Need Each Other Girl’, were effortlessly redolent of cloudless skies and the open road, HAYES couldn’t shake that tendency to labour his point just a bit too coolly for sustained listening comfort.
While the shades-obsessed auteur could’ve conceivably gone on making great soundtracks indefinitely, the mid-70s implosion of the genre steered HAYES (The Rockford Files actor) into the disco market and million dollar debts. The singer left Stax’s Enterprise offshoot in ‘75 following a disagreement over non-payment of royalties, signing to HBS/ABC the same year. However, as he experimented with disco (a genre he’d laid the foundations for) on his Top 20 return, CHOCOLATE CHIP (1975) {*6}, his subsequent work such as DISCO CONNECTION (1976) {*4}, GROOVE-A-THON (1976) {*3} and JUICY FRUIT (DISCO FREAK) (1976) {*4}, lost impact; his concert double-set with DIONNE WARWICK, the Top 50 entry A MAN AND A WOMAN (1977) {*5}, served only to tie up his contract.
Amid mediocre album sales and bankruptcy in ‘77, HAYES shifted base to Polydor. A string of albums, NEW HORIZON (1977) {*4}, FOR THE SAKE OF LOVE (1978) {*5} and his final Top 40 gate-crasher, DON’T LET GO (1979) {*5}, proved patchy by comparison to his work of a decade past, but they still had moments to savour. Pairing America’s most raunchiest solo acts might’ve seemed a good thing on paper, but MILLIE JACKSON and ISAAC HAYES’ ROYAL RAPPIN’S (1979) {*4}, was to say the least, an anti-climax. Yes, the move failed to resurrect his flagging career and by solo sets, AND ONCE AGAIN (1980) {*4} and LIFETIME THING (1981) {*3}, the funk man was itching towards breaking into other territories.
While he hadn’t exactly turned musical burglar, Isaac did serve a brief jail term for drug offences, but became more interested in film acting. 1981 saw him playing a baddie (what else!) in the film, Escape From New York, while the mid-80s were marked by cameo appearances in TV series: The A-Team, Miami Vice and Hunter. Comeback sets for Columbia Records: U TURN (1986) {*4} and LOVE ATTACK (1988) {*5}, did little to re-ignite the unique HAYES experience.
Presaging a more prolonged acting career in low budget crime dramas and spy thrillers such as Mace (1987), Nightstick (1987), Counterforce (1987), Dead Aim (1988), Prime Target (1991), Deadly Exposure (1993) and Illtown (1996), a more high-profile was his unlikely return to the ghetto-cruising days of yore, albeit with tongue planted firmly in cheek for Keenan Ivory Wayans’ Blaxploitation send-up, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka! (1988). More satirically-themed fare followed in the shape of Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men In Tights (1993) and rap satire, CB4: The Movie (1993), the latter especially timely given the avalanche of HAYES-sampling hip hop/trip-hop tracks.
The HAYES legend had been given a bit of a dusting down in the late 80s when numerous hip hop and house tunes sampled “Theme From Shaft”. Trip hop artists such as MASSIVE ATTACK, TRICKY and PORTISHEAD borrowed from the singer’s back catalogue, coinciding with HAYES’ best album since his early 70s heyday, BRANDED (1995) {*7}. With the singer back on smoking form, he puts in typically elaborate readings of STING’s `Fragile’ and The LOVIN’ SPOONFUL’s `Summer In The City’ (not as ridiculous as it appears on paper), as well as updating classics like `Soulsville’ and `Hyperbolicsyllabicsequedalymistic’. The latter showcased a guest spot by PUBLIC ENEMY’s Chuck D; things coming full circle and illustrating the pivotal influence of HAYES on the development of rap. It was duly tracked by The ISAAC HAYES MOVEMENT’s instrumental set, RAW AND REFINED (1995) {*5}.
This renewed interest of sorts met with critical approval, although there was no wholesale return to the charts just yet. At least not until his unlikely adoption as much loved character, Jerome “Chef” McElroy, on subversive TV animation, South Park. As the show’s top school dinner meister and in-house lothario, the singing Chef revisited HAYES’ late 60s/early 70s golden era, with the man himself doing the voiceovers and handling the vocals. As well as appearing in the series’ feature length movie in ‘99, he also featured on the spin-off “Chef Aid” album, belatedly re-entering the UK singles chart and scoring an unlikely British No.1 with his inimitable contribution, `Chocolate Salty Balls’. He apparently bailed when they poked fun at Scientology, from which he converted to in 1995.
While his 90s acting CV included weightier material such as Mario Van Peebles’ revisionist western, Posse (1993) and Tim Reid’s deep south race relations drama, Once Upon A Time… When We Were Coloured (1996), the “South Park” exposure subsequently led to bigger budget roles including John Landis’ Blues Brothers 2000 (1998), and inevitably, the millennial remake of Shaft (2000). It also engendered the even more belated return of his film composing skills, with HAYES concocting a revised “Shaft” theme tune (a minor UK hit) and sharing the composing credits on similarly nostalgic Afro-American drama, Ninth Street (1999), in which he also played a supporting role. As well as overseeing the arrangements on ALICIA KEYS’ sassy debut album, “Songs In A Minor”, he subsequently landed a part in John Frankenheimer’s Reindeer Games (2000); Hustle And Flow followed in 2004.
Whether there were plans to return to the studio for a further album, ill health curtailed his immediate comeback. Sadly, due to high blood pressure, HAYES died of a stroke on August 10, 2008; his most recent wife (his fourth in all) had just given birth in April ’06 to his 11th child.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/BG-LCS // rev-up May2013

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