The greatness of Isaac Hayes

Isaac Hayes died over the weekend, just 65, apparently while exercising. I heard on Radio 4's Today programme this morning, and it was wonderful to hear a snippet of "Shaft", and the words "Who's the black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks?" interrupt the staid blandness of that august institution of the British middle class breakfast.

When I was about eighteen or nineteen, I bought a copy of Joy from a charity shop (that's a thrift store, to my trans-Atlantic readers). Having been a blues and jazz fan for years, I was very familiar with the founding generation of soul music artists, but was shockingly ignorant of what I now know to be soul's golden age. When I got the record home, I played it on 45 rpm, assuming it was a 12 inch (there's only one track, "Joy", on one side). What I then got was a pretty good upbeat funk record, which could have been Tina Turner. Only after a while did I think about the vocal contribution of the rather overweight, bald, bearded man on the cover, wearing a gold chain mail string vest - and tried playing it at 33 rpm. Although the record is naff - and close to self-parody, almost Theophilus P Wildebeest-esque, complete with the sound of a jacuzzi and of champagne corks popping - I was hooked instantly.

One of the reasons I love Isaac Hayes - and a reason he is both incredibly important and underrated - is that (like Neil Diamond and Carole King) he was essentially a backroom person in the music industry for many years before recording music in his own right. His songwriting partnership with David Porter is up there with Bacharach and David, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Leiber and Stoller, Goffin and King, Lennon and McCartney, or Rogers and Hammerstein in terms of the great song-writing teams. The Sam and Dave classics - "Hold On" and "Soul Man" - are among their better known products, but other songs (like Rufus Thomas' "Sister's Got A Boyfriend") ought to be equally well known.

As a studio musician at Stax, he was as important as Booker T and the MGs in defining the sound of Southern soul. He can be heard, in fact, on Lattimore Brown's "I'm Not Through Lovin' You", which I linked to the other day.

But the single format and relative genre orthodoxy of Stax soul, though loose compared to Motown, was too constricting for Hayes' music genius. His first album, a total flop, demonstrated his musical ambition, exploring jazz. His breakthrough, Hot Buttered Soul, reinvented soul as a genre, extending the length of a soul song, using the spoken monologue that would ultimately mutate into rap music, and with incredibly complex orchestration and instrumentation. The opener, the nearly quarter hour "Walk On By" is amazing. Lots of fancy Bacharach and David covers lose the perfection of the pop versions by pushing them too far - but Hayes pushes them further than anyone could imagine.

And then there was "Shaft", one of the most plagiarised pieces of music ever (not least in Bollywood and the porn industry), which defines Hayes for most people. And, later, of course, Chef in South Park...

Less well-known about Hayes is the Isaac Hayes Foundation, through which Hayes worked to promote literacy, in America's black community and globally, and other good causes. He was also heavily involved in development work in Ghana - where many more publically "afrocentric" African-Americans limit their engagement with Africa to nostalgically recreating some imaginary African civilization of the past, Hayes was involved in the real, here-and-now Africa.

He has been musically active in the last couple of months, performing with the Pittsburgh Symphony, doing benefit shows for a Credit Union, playing Vegas, leading a public health campaign in his hometown Memphis.

Tributes, obituaries and mp3s from: Soul Sides, Bongo Jazz, Funky 16 Corners, LouderSoft, Manifest Destitute.


Anonymous said…
RIP. In memoriam:
Anonymous said…
Very sad. I heard him play here in Brooklyn in June at Prospect Park. He opened the Celebrate Brooklyn summer concert series.
max said…
Another great one gone. Damn! I really liked him.
I can still remember when I bought "Live at the Sahara Tahoe", hearing the never ending crescendo of energy of "Do Your Thing" or hearing for the first time how "never can say goodbye" should be played.

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