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Special Collection, University of Memphis Libraries

Isaac Hayes came from extreme poverty to be one of the most popular musicians of the 1970s. He leapt from vinyl stardom to the silver screen, and also became a huge concert draw. He wore costumes and street garb that inspired a generation in seventies chic, and his early-70s hit single “(Theme From) Shaft” has become a pop music mainstay.

Special Collection, University of Memphis Libraries

Isaac received his musical training in the Memphis City Schools band program, though he would often skip school, embarrassed by his shabby clothes and soleless shoes. He had ambition, though; one yearbook entry read, “See you on television.”

After high school, he worked in a meatpacking plant and played in bands. He auditioned for Stax with three different groups, all of whom were rejected. But when Booker T. Jones left for college in the fall of 1962, Stax was having trouble finding a reliable keyboard player, and Isaac (who’d finally recorded at Stax with saxman Floyd Newman’s band) was enlisted.

Special Collection, University of Memphis Libraries

By 1964, he’d partnered with songwriter David Porter, and the team of Hayes & Porter began a prolific writing and producing career that lasted the rest of the decade and yielded hits for a wide variety of Stax artists. They had early success with Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas, and also the Astors, and Isaac (using the name Ed Lee) wrote “Banana Juice” for the Mar-Keys and contributed to the MG’s “Boot-Leg.”

With Isaac contributing the music and David the lyrics, they struck a groove when Sam and Dave arrived at Stax in 1965. After “I Take What I Want,” they began hitting the charts with “You Don’t Know Like I Know,” and then “Hold On, I’m Coming,” and “Soul Man.” Meanwhile, Isaac and David were also working with the Soul Children, Mable John, and Johnny Taylor—among many others.

Hold On, I'm Coming
Sam & Dave
Soul Man
Sam & Dave
Isaac rehearses with Sam and Dave
A rehearsal with Sam & Dave
Photo © API, Bill Carrier, API Photographers, Inc.

In 1969, when Stax was entering its period of independence from Atlantic Records, Isaac recorded Hot Buttered Soul, a solo album that was unlike anything on the market. Its album art indicated a difference: In an era of gigantic afros, the cover featured a shot of Hayes’ bald head, demure, reflective.

The whole album had only four songs, including his 18-minute treatment of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” a song Glen Campbell had recently put on the country music charts. Though Isaac’s album was conceived without any thoughts for a single, it got late-night FM airplay, and the edited version of “Phoenix” became a surprise hit, as did his interpretation of the Motown song “Walk on By.” The album rose to the top of the sales chart, and Isaac Hayes leapt from writer/producer to star.

Walk On By (Single Version)
Isaac Hayes

Over the next two years, he released four more albums, all of which went to #1 on the R&B album charts. His emphasis was on re-interpreting songs by others, usually as extended slow-jams, featuring his bedroom baritone. His core band was the reformed Bar-Kays, featuring the two surviving members from the original band (the others had been killed in Otis Redding’s plane crash).

Special Collection, University of Memphis Libraries

Isaac took the band to California when Paramount Pictures hired him to score its forthcoming movie. They created the Shaft soundtrack, and its single “(Theme from) Shaft” became one of Stax’s biggest ever successes, as well as cementing Isaac Hayes in the pop culture pantheon. The song not only won a Grammy, but an Oscar as well, making Hayes the first African-American to win the Academy’s “Best Original Song.”

Theme from Shaft
Isaac Hayes

As his success increased, so did Isaac’s involvement in community affairs. He built housing for the impoverished, preached African-American betterment through self-reliance, and helped raise money for community groups like Operation PUSH. On stage, he wore a vest made from chains, subverting the symbol of African-American bondage, taking control of the past to create a new future.

The success of Isaac’s album sales established the R&B album market. Before Isaac, companies focused their R&B efforts on singles. Isaac’s achievement paved the way for socially-driven concept albums from Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield.

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Isaac Hayes

His orchestrations and song arrangements had become outsized, and his lifestyle too. After Shaft, Isaac renegotiated his contract with Stax, and his perks included a tricked-out Cadillac trimmed with gold. But he was unable to repeat the success of “Shaft,” and despite the good sales of his 1973 albums Live from the Sierra Tahoe and Joy, the latter of which quickly went gold, his income couldn’t keep up with his expenses.

Special Collection, University of Memphis Libraries

He scored two blaxploitation movies, playing the lead in one, but they failed to break out. At the same time, Stax was entering financial woes, and the company was unable to pay Isaac what they’d contractually agreed. As Stax lumbered toward bankruptcy in 1975, Isaac was dragged down too; by the end of the decade, he’d lost everything, including the rights and royalties to all the hits he’d created.

He continued to receive acting roles, appearing both on TV and in movies. Later, he became a popular syndicated disc jockey, which led to his strongest comeback: the voice of Chef on the TV series South Park. His song “Chocolate Salty Balls” from the album Chef Aid became a hit in the UK. Isaac continued to release occasional albums.

Special Collection, University of Memphis Libraries

If his sales were not the same, his influence proved heavy—helping shape Barry White’s career in the 1970s, being sampled by hip hop artists from the 1980s on, and performing with many of them. His collaborations included Dionne Warwick, Millie Jackson, and Alicia Keyes. In the 1990s, he became a king in Ghana; as Nene Katey Ocansey I, he helped improve living conditions for the impoverished.

Special Collection, University of Memphis Libraries
Dave and Isaac collaborate at the piano.
Isaac and Dave collaborate at the piano.
Photo © API, Bill Carrier, API Photographers, Inc.

Hayes returned to Memphis in the 1990s, and often was found at vegetarian restaurants, chatting amiably while waiting in line with others. He had a warm smile, was always a fashionable dresser, and seemed to be enjoying his ability to return to a relatively normal life. He still wore the coolest clothes, often with an African influence. Hayes suffered a stroke in 2006, but was able to return to performing. In 2008, he died suddenly at his home, but his vibe still wafts through the Memphis air.

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Photo © API, Bill Carrier, API Photographers, Inc.

What Others are Saying

  1. He continues to ‘waft through global airs’ !!!

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