From the Archives: Singer-songwriter Isaac Hayes Dies at 65
Isaac Hayes, the musician, composer and producer whose innovative sound changed the shape of pop music and whose shaved head, bejeweled outfits and regal demeanor embodied African American masculinity in the 1970s, has died. He was 65.
Family members found Hayes unresponsive Sunday afternoon next to a treadmill in a downstairs bedroom in his home just east of Memphis, Tenn., said Steve Shular, a spokesman for the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office.
For the record:
8:40 p.m. Nov. 30, 2023The obituary of Isaac Hayes said that after the 1975 album “Chocolate Chip, “Hayes didn’t release new material until “Love Attack” in 1986. In fact, Hayes released several albums in that time period.
Hayes’ wife, Adjowa, told investigators that her husband “had not been in the best of health recently,” Shular said. No autopsy is planned.
With albums including 1969’s “Hot Buttered Soul” and the double-disc, Grammy-winning “Black Moses” in 1971, Hayes laid the groundwork for both disco and hip-hop.
His rich, baritone voice backed by gently unfurling, string-laden arrangements showed how R&B could be both funky and ornate. His famous ruminative interludes on such songs as his cover of Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” set the stage for rap’s elevation of the black male speaking voice.
He was most famous for his 1971 soundtrack for the blaxploitation classic “Shaft,” which brought him an Academy Award for best song as well as two Grammys, but Hayes had a long and storied career beyond that Hollywood high point. In 2002, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
His music and his image as a black artist had a titanic power, especially during the apex of his fame. With his shaved head, omnipresent sunglasses and equally ever-present gold jewelry, he cut a strong, marketable figure.
In the 1970s, he released a string of albums for Stax Records, a label that offered a grittier counterpoint to the Motown sound. Hayes’ recordings expanded the playing field for soul and R&B artists, proving that an album-oriented market existed for his experimental sounds.
“Hayes’ story is one of epic proportions,” wrote ethnomusicologist Rob Bowman in “Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records” (1997). “In the first few years of the 1970s he single-handedly redefined the sonic possibilities for black music, in the process opening up the album market as a commercially viable medium for black artists such as Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Funkadelic, and Curtis Mayfield.”
Before finding his own voice as a solo artist, Hayes was a primary architect of Southern soul as part of the Stax Records writing and production team. Stax was home to Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MGs and other hit-makers.
Hayes’ collaborations with David Porter, a fellow session musician and lyricist at Stax, gave the Memphis-based label some of its biggest hits, including “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” for vocal duo Sam & Dave and “B-A-B-Y” for Carla Thomas. “Soul Man,” another of the songwriting duo’s compositions for Sam & Dave, was an early statement of black power that later became a huge crossover hit in 1978 for John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as the Blues Brothers.
The fact that Hayes projected such a powerful sense of African American dignity, yet also co-wrote a career-defining hit for two white comedians, illustrates the paradoxical range of his appeal.
Headlining Wattstax in Los Angeles — the 1972 festival that some called “the Black Woodstock” — Hayes took the stage in gilded warrior garb. The crowd greeted him as a king. As a performer, Hayes embraced this role of ambassador of Afrocentric cool.
The shaved-head look that was central to his image developed in 1964 when the style among some African Americans was to straighten their hair. Tired of the effort that took, Hayes told his barber to cut it off.
“People stared and pointed, but I liked the breeze on my head. It felt great,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1995.
After a concert one night, when the crowd was screaming for him, a former boxer named Dino who was part of his security team said: “These people love you, man. They’ll follow you anywhere. . . . You’re like Moses. Black Moses!”
A writer from Jet magazine picked up on the phrase, and Hayes had mixed feelings at first as Black Moses became his nickname. He came to like the fact that people “didn’t say I’m the Black Moses of the black world, they said of the music world.”
But the music Hayes offered was as eclectic as any pop artist’s. He covered songs by the Carpenters, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and Jimmy Webb, transforming those “vanilla” hits into slow jams that would appeal to black and white listeners alike. Bacharach and David’s “Walk on By” got a 12-minute reading from Hayes on “Hot Buttered Soul.” Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” ran 18 minutes.
“Music is universal [but] sometimes presentation will restrict you or limit your range,” Hayes said in “Soulsville U.S.A.” “Glen Campbell and Jim Webb were targeting the pop audience. But when I did it, I aimed to the black market, but it was so big, it went all over.”
Hayes’ popularity as a recording artist waned in the mid-1970s, and he filed for bankruptcy in 1976.
He found a new focus as an actor in the 1980s, landing a recurring role on “The Rockford Files” and appearing in such films as “Escape From New York,” playing the lead villain “The Duke” in the 1981 film, and 1995’s “Johnny Mnemonic.”
A new generation came to know him from “South Park,” the animated series that gave him his most famous role as the voice of Chef. Hayes used the role of the suave cafeteria master to poke fun at his macho image and broaden his audience.
When he was offered the part by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, “South Park’s” creators, Hayes thought they were playing a joke on him, but they assured him they were not.
Hayes said he responded, “You all some crazy white boys!”
In 2006, Hayes quit “South Park” after an episode mocked Scientology, the religion that Hayes practiced. He felt the episode showed bigotry and intolerance toward his religious beliefs. Stone responded by saying that Hayes had no problem with the episodes that made fun of Christians. Later, the character of Chef was seemingly killed off.
At the same time he was rediscovered through “South Park,” younger musicians such as soul singers D’Angelo and Alicia Keys and the hip-hop duo Outkast began making music inspired by Hayes. Already much-sampled by hip-hop artists, Hayes enjoyed a renewed influence as R&B artists came back toward his lush, adventurous style.
Keys called Hayes’ effect on her “major.”
“One of the reasons ‘You Don’t Know My Name’ is six minutes and six seconds is because of Mr. Isaac Hayes,” she once said on VH-1. “He’s really changed the face of music in so many ways. . . . The way he just kind of extended songs to the point where they would be strings for three minutes before the song even began.”
Hayes was born Aug. 20, 1942, in a tin shack in rural Covington, Tenn., the second child of Isaac and Eula Hayes. When he was about 18 months old, his mother died and his father left the family, so Hayes and his older sister were raised by his sharecropper grandparents.
At 5, he made his public singing debut in church.
Trying to pull themselves out of bitter poverty, his grandparents moved to Memphis when he was 6 but remained poor. To help support his family, Hayes alternated between going to school and working in the cotton fields on nearby plantations.
“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 to wear,” Hayes told Ebony magazine in 1970.
For a while, Hayes lived on the streets after his grandfather became ill. Hayes spent one summer sleeping in empty cars in a junkyard, according to the 1972 edition of “Current Biography.”
Self-conscious about his shabby clothes, he briefly dropped out of school in ninth grade to earn money to replace them. His teachers tracked him down and persuaded him to return to school.
A self-taught musician, he began to play piano, organ and saxophone. As a ninth-grader, Hayes won a school talent contest with his rendition of a song by Nat “King” Cole, whom he idolized.
By his late teens, Hayes was married and about to become a father, so he left school again to earn a living. But he earned his high school diploma in 1962 after attending classes at night.
After leaving school, he started appearing with local R&B groups on the Memphis club circuit in a series of short-lived groups with such names as Sir Isaac and the Doo-Dads, the Teen Tones, and Sir Calvin and His Swinging Cats.
One evening, a friend asked him if he could play piano in her brother’s band at a New Year’s Eve party because he was away in the Air Force.
“I said, ‘Sure,’ even though the extent of my musical knowledge was ‘Chopsticks’ and ‘Heart and Soul,’ ” Hayes said in the 1995 Chicago Tribune article. “I felt like I was heading for the Inquisition.”
He was told the band sounded “pretty good,” a compliment Hayes later attributed to the noisy, drunken clientele who “were gonna dance to anything.” But it led to a regular gig that made Hayes confident enough in his piano playing to move on.
In the early 1960s, Stax Records hired Hayes as a session pianist and organist. He teamed up with Porter and began writing songs.
It took them “about a year to get in a groove,” Hayes recalled in 2001 in the South Bend, Ind., Tribune.
Once they did, they penned about 200 songs, some of them R&B classics.
“We’d get together the night before a session to write, and we liked to have the artist present — especially Sam & Dave — because we fed off them,” Hayes told the Chicago Tribune.
Hayes’ early method of calling out chord changes to the musicians who were fanned out around him remained central to the way he worked.
“It was record-making at its most casual and rough-hewn, yet it produced hit after hit,” Chicago Tribune rock critic Greg Kot wrote.
At the time, Hayes later recalled that “nobody had any idea that we were producing legendary stuff. We were getting a check and royalties and having fun and trying to impress girls.”
In 1967, he issued his debut solo LP, “Presenting Isaac Hayes,” a “loose jazz-flavored effort” recorded in the early-morning hours after a raucous Stax party, according to the All Music Internet database.
Two years later, he broke through with his second album, “Hot Buttered Soul,” considered adventurous for including only four — albeit lengthy — songs.
Unhappy with his royalty arrangement with Stax, Hayes had severed ties with the label by 1975 and started his own imprint, which didn’t last.
After the 1975 album “Chocolate Chip,” Hayes didn’t release new material until “Love Attack” in 1986.
In the intervening years, he pursued acting, eventually appearing in more than 60 movies and television shows. He recently completed work on the film “Soul Men,” with Samuel L. Jackson and Bernie Mac. Mac died Saturday at age 50.
Through the Isaac Hayes Foundation, Hayes built a school in Ghana. The country recognized his humanitarian efforts by crowning him a king.
Hayes was married several times and had several children.
Times staff writer Ari B. Bloomekatz contributed to this report.
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