“With his lascivious bass-baritone and flamboyant wardrobe,” said Ben Sisario in The New York Times, Isaac Hayes, who died Sunday at 65, was the musical “embodiment of the hyper-masculine, street-savvy characters of the so-called blaxploitation films.” And his songs like “Theme From ‘Shaft,’” which won him an Oscar, “defined the glories and excesses of soul music” in the early 1970s.”
He also “broke down color barriers,” said Bill Gibron in Pop Matters, and helped pave the way for the likes of Stevie Wonder, Prince, Lionel Richie, and even Three 6 Mafia. “He was a member of the famous Stax Records team," and aside from his Oscar, he won “three Grammys and a well deserved place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
But it was a long way to the top, said Joe Holley in The Washington Post. Hayes' family was “desperately poor,” and “by the time he was 8, he was picking cotton in the fields.” He dropped in and out of school, and practically raised himself. He even “spent one childhood summer sleeping in wrecked cars in a junkyard.”
His “big break” didn’t come until 1964, said the BBC News, when Stax signed him as a session musician. “Hayes took over keyboards from Booker T. Jones, and his first paid sessions were with Otis Redding.” But Hayes’ “own work climaxed with his 1969 album Hot Buttered Soul.”
But Hayes’ “innovative sound changed the shape of pop music,” said Ann Powers and Valerie J. Nelson in the Los Angeles Times. And the fact that he co-wrote “Soul Man,” which became a “career defining hit” for “white comedians” John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as the Blues Brothers, “illustrates the paradoxical range” of Hayes’ appeal.
It’s too bad that many young people know Hayes as the voice of “Chef” in the animated TV comedy South Park, said the Times Online, and as the man who left the show in 2006 “reportedly in protest at the way” it satirized his Scientology religion. We’ll always remember him as “a seminal figure in the development of modern black American music.”