The ultra-cool musician whose sound was pure soul
For much of the 1970s, Isaac Hayes was widely considered the embodiment of the soul sound. An award-winning composer whose best-known work was “Theme From Shaft,” he coupled driving, funky tunes with a cool, glitzy persona that earned him the nickname “the Black Moses.” White audiences grooved to him, too. “I aimed to the black market,” Hayes said, “but it was so big, it went all over.”
“Hayes was born in a tin shack in rural Covington, Tenn.,” said the Los Angeles Times. Early on, his poverty-stricken family moved to Memphis, where Hayes worked on nearby cotton plantations while attending school and teaching himself sax, piano, and other instruments. “I used to dream, just dream, about being able to have a warm bed to sleep in and a nice square meal and some decent clothes,” he recalled. In 1964, he joined Stax Records as a backup musician, and collaborated with David Porter on such hits as “Hold On, I’m Coming” and “Soul Man.” His big breakthrough came in 1968, when Hayes released his groundbreaking album Hot Buttered Soul. It sold more than a million copies.
Three years later, Hayes composed the soundtrack for the film Shaft, “Gordon Parks’ story of a black private eye battling drug lords” that was one of the first blaxploitation movies, said The Washington Post. Hayes also auditioned for the lead role, and though he lost to Richard Roundtree, he took his musical cue from the producers’ description of Shaft as “a relentless character.” Hayes’ score “had such a propulsive and aggressive beat that it seemed like something ripped from both the urban and rural parts of the earth.” He recorded the urgent title tune in two hours, “relying on an old ‘wah-wah’ guitar riff played by Charles ‘Skip’ Pitts” and a hi-hat cymbal pattern taken from Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.” With Hayes’ rumbling baritone voice oozing such lyrics as “Who’s the black private dick / Who’s a sex machine to all the chicks?” it went to No. 1, earned two Grammys, and won the Academy Award for best song.
“Bald and bearded, Hayes was an imposing figure,” said Daily Variety. He often performed in dark glasses and bare-chested, and his appearance onstage draped in gold chains “only added to his mystique.” Though his music became less popular as the disco era dawned, and he suffered some serious business reversals, Hayes continued to record and appeared in several movies, including Escape From New York, in 1981, and the spoof I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, in 1988. In his later years, he was best known as the voice of Chef in the cartoon series South Park. “He left the show in late 2005 after the program attacked Scientology, the religious movement of which he was a member.”
Elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, Hayes was found this week collapsed by his treadmill at his home in suburban Memphis. He was married four times and had 12 children.