Sunday, August 10, 2008

Isaac Hayes: Soul Man, 1942-2008

By sheer serendipity, a few blog entries ago I wrote about Isaac Hayes' "Theme From Shaft" as being one of the more famous instances of rock songs that used the wah-wah pedal. Thus I was saddened to hear the news that Hayes died today at the age of 65. Apparently a family member found Hayes unresponsive near a treadmill and he was pronounced dead an hour or so later at a Memphis hospital. While the cause of death was not released to the media, my guess is that it was caused by a heart attack. A session pianist for Stax Records in Memphis beginning in the early 60s, he began co-writing songs with David Porter, composing hits for Sam and Dave such as "Hold On, I'm Coming" and "Soul Man." But before achieving fame in the 1960s, apparently he held down a number of low-paying jobs, including shining shoes on Memphis's famous Beale Street.

Isaac Hayes anticipated the cool romanticism of crooners such as Barry White by virtue of his sensuous, laid-back records like Hot Buttered Soul (1969), the jacket cover for which consisted, memorably, of the top of Hayes' bald head. As a black musician, he struck a powerful image, looking rather like an Egyptian pharaoh with his shaven head and ornate, vaguely oriental multiple gold chains regally draped around his neck. At the 1972 Oscar ceremony, Hayes performed the "Theme From Shaft" decked out in lots of gold, subsequently receiving a standing ovation. According to the Los Angeles Times obituary, TV Guide "later chose it as No. 18 in its list of television's 25 most memorable moments." He also won a Grammy that year for his 1971 album Black Moses, next to Shaft one of his best known works and perhaps his best.

But it was the "Theme From Shaft," which became a #1 hit in 1971, that cemented his fame and made him a household name. A few years ago we visited Memphis--the primary purpose for which was to visit Graceland--and stayed at the Memphis Peabody Hotel in order to see the famous "Peabody ducks." While staying there, a member of the hotel staff told us that Isaac Hayes' restaurant was within short walking distance of the Hotel, so we thought we would try it out. Our dinner at his establishment became one of the highlights of our trip--a soul food extravaganza.

It is easy to forget that Hayes also had an extensive film career--for me, one of his more memorable roles being that of "The Duke" in John Carpenter's Escape From New York (1981)--and in 1997 he became the voice of Chef on TV's South Park. He quit the show in 2006 after an episode of the show apparently mocked Scientology, his religion. "There is a place in this world for satire, but there is a time when satire ends and intolerance and bigotry towards religious beliefs of others begins," he said. Apparently a subsequent episode of the show killed off his character, suggesting there was a degree of animosity between him and the show's creators.

Elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, Isaac Hayes was an influential figure in rock music, the co-creator of several R&B hits and sole (soul) creator of a handful of significant records in the late 60s and early 70s. Ironically, his death occurred at the beginning of this year's annual "Elvis Week," reminding us that Memphis has lost another of its famous sons.


Fred said...

I'm sure you had a good meal at Isaac Hayes's restaurant. I was fortunate to be able to dine on his cooking when he was a guest chef at a corporate cafetaria in New York. He was there selling his cookbook and I had the pleasure of meeting him. He will be missed. I'll be travelling to Memphis next week with my family, and plan to pay my respects at Stax Records.

Brad Smith said...

"The Duke." He was "A-number One!"