Draped in gold chains, with a shaved head and barrel chest, Isaac Hayes was an intimidating presence. He could bench-press 350 pounds, and his voice was as bottomless as the Grand Canyon.
They called him “Black Moses.” It was a persona he reluctantly adopted. One of his bodyguards referred to him that way after a particularly galvanizing performance. Hayes was nonplused: “No, no, no, don’t lay that religious stuff on me.” But a magazine writer overheard, spread the word, “and the next thing I know I’m being introduced that way at the Spectrum in Philly,” Hayes said in a 1995 interview with the Chicago Tribune.
Hayes, who died Sunday at age 65, was a superstar in the early ‘70s. With his “Theme From Shaft,” he was the toast of both the music industry and Hollywood, the first black composer to win an Oscar. Yet the music always aimed deeper. “Shaft,” his ode to a private detective who travels to his own lawbreaking beat, is a warts-and-all portrait of the movie’s hero. The music was equally volatile, a mix of slamming strings, hissing hi-hats, funky wah-wah guitars and dramatic monologue. Hayes was as much a thespian as a songwriter, with an unrivaled ability to go inside the stories he was telling. The key to his art was his ability to listen; his songs didn’t just aim to sell, they empathized. He took listeners inside the heads of the characters he portrayed.
It all started with him getting a job as a pianist at Stax Records in Memphis in the early ‘60s, when he was still in his early 20s. Hayes was self-taught on saxophone and piano, learning on the job with various bands on the Memphis bar circuit. He started writing songs with lyricist David Porter, and together they found a muse in the vocal combo of Sam Moore and Dave Prater: Sam & Dave.
“We hung out and listened to their stories,” Hayes said in the 1995 interview. “We’d get together the night before a session to write, and we liked to have the artists present - especially Sam and Dave - because we fed off them, we tailored songs to them.”
The next day, Hayes would sit at the piano calling out chord changes to the rest of the Stax house band while Sam and Dave sang. Out of this casual atmosphere, the hits started to come. Hayes and Porter co-wrote more than 200 songs, including numerous hits for Sam & Dave (“Soul Man,” “Hold on! I’m Comin’,” “You Don’t Know Like I Know,” “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby”), as well as Carla Thomas (“B-A-B-Y”), Mable John (“Your Good Thing”) and Johnny Taylor (“I Had a Dream”).
Hayes released an album of his own in 1967 to little notice, but his live performances magnified his storytelling skills. Frequently he would be confronted by audiences that were barely paying attention, more intent on partying, drinking and picking up members of the opposite sex. To get their attention, Hayes would improvise spoken introductions to many songs. His tastes were omnivorous. He did not distinguish between soul, gospel, country and blues: “You’re dealing with raw truth, and believe it or not, country and western and soul music are first cousins, because it’s the voice of the common folk.”
He heard that truth in some of the pop hits of the day. He loved Dionne Warwick’s version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Walk on By,” and Glen Campbell’s rendition of Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” Neither song would’ve been particularly well-received on a raucous Saturday night in the South during the ‘60s, but Hayes was determined to perform them both. He began improvising introductions, as if creating a prologue to the story told in the songs of splintered relationships.
Hayes included an 18-minute version of “Phoenix” and a 12-minute version of “Walk on By” on his 1969 album, “Hot Buttered Soul.” With its iconic cover image of Hayes’ bald head, it established the singer as a solo star in his own right.
Two years later, Hayes was a superstar, thanks to “Shaft.” He never again reached those heights, even declaring bankruptcy in the ‘70s after Stax went belly up. But the music he made continued to embrace all styles, and cut across lines of generation and race.
“Every human being on this planet responds on an aesthetic level,” Hayes said in 1995. “Music hovers in that band. It doesn’t matter if it’s Glen Campbell or ‘Shaft,’ if it touches me, I find a way to do it.”