He was Black Moses, creator of some stellar Hot Buttered Soul. He gave Shaft his Oscar winning authority, and broke down color barriers in the highly conservative - and Caucasian - film composer’s club. He was a member of the famous Stax Records team, ushering in hits as writer, producer, arranger, and artist. He earned an Academy Award, three Grammys, and a well deserved place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Class of 2002). And now, sadly, at age 65, legitimate legend Isaac Hayes is gone, found dead in his home by his fourth wife, Adjowa. It’s a depressing end for a man who overcame so many obstacles and inspired so much devotion, even among those who didn’t understand his own personal philosophy.
He was born Issac Lee Hayes Jr. in Covington, Tennessee. After his parents’ death, he was raised by his grandparents, and the young boy spent his early years picking cotton. After dropping out of high school, he headed to Memphis. There, his self-taught skills on the piano and organ earned him a slot in the famous Stax factory backing band. Soon, he was stepping from behind the mic to write such classic songs as “Hold On, I’m Coming” and “Soul Man” (along with partner David Porter). At age 25, he released his first album, the mostly improvised Presenting Isaac Hayes. It was not well received. But it would be his fantastic follow-up, Hot Buttered Soul, that would finally announce his rising star.
With its combination of long form covers (Hayes was notorious for turning tracks like “Walk On By” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” into extended jams and spoken word epics) and stunning originals, it helped a lagging label that had just lost Otis Redding to a plane crash. It reestablished its prominence in the process. Hayes would parlay that success into a pair of 1969 hits - The Issac Hayes Movement and To Be Continued. Again, he explored the classic catalog of Burt Bacharach and Hal David for a take on “The Look of Love” and “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself”. But it would be the opportunity to score a seemingly unimportant blaxploitation film that would change Hayes, and the face of Hollywood, forever.
1971’s Shaft remains significant for many important reasons. First, it was one of the first mostly minority films to take the groundwork laid by Melvin Van Pebbles with his indie masterpiece Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and turn it into a mainstream mandate. Second, it established the viability of the genre to those outside the urban setting - especially among the critical counterculture. Finally, it gave a soundtrack voice to the growing influence of R&B and soul. Hayes’ now classic wah-wah peddle tinged theme, containing lyrics that today are just as outrageous in their considered cool, became an instant smash. It earned the then 29 year old a much coveted gold statue, the first ever awarded to an African American outside of the AMPAS acting category.
This is monumental for reasons that reach beyond Hayes’ own career. It opened the door for musicians of color, paving the way for Stevie Wonder’s win in 1984, Prince’s score prize the same year, Lionel Richie’s award the year after, and perhaps most remarkably, the Three 6 Mafia’s stunning upset in 2005 (Hayes actually appeared in Hustle and Flow). His reward was not without controversy, though. When Hayes agreed to appear at the 1972 Wattstax concert, MGM refused to allow his performance of “Shaft” to be included in the resulting documentary. Claiming outright ownership of the theme, as well as the soundtrack song “Soulville”, it was an issue that wouldn’t be resolved until the film’s 2004 DVD release.
It was just the beginning of troubles for the talented troubadour. By 1974, Stax was in ruins, and Hayes sued his studio for several million dollars. Unable to pay, they agreed on a settlement which saw the formation of HBS Records. While he continued to release albums - Chocolate Chip, Disco Connection, Juicy Fruit - he was no longer a guaranteed chart topper. In 1976, he filed for bankruptcy, claiming nearly $6 million in debt. He lost most of his publishing royalties in the process. It was indeed darker times for the performer. While his albums maintained good critical buzz, the changing face of the industry - and music itself - meant more than a few years in entertainment exile.
He supplemented his music by well received turns as an actor. He got his start in another exploitation classic, Truck Turner (where he starred and also wrote the score) and had a recurring role on the Jim Garner hit TV series The Rockford Files. He got another major break from fan John Carpenter, who traded on Hayes gold chain and bald headed badass-ness to feature him as The Duke in the post-apocalyptic classic Escape from New York. Throughout the ‘80s he took minor roles here and there, working on making a comeback as a musician. Virgin signed him in 1995, and his subsequent albums Branded and Raw and Refined reintroduced him to a whole new fanbase.
So did his accidental casting in Comedy Central’s anarchic South Park. After debuting in 1997, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s crude cartoon cavalcade became an almost instant classic, with Hayes’ Chef the show’s voice of recognizable reason (and the occasional sex-based song). Over the course of 10 seasons and one sensational film, Park provided a wonderful outlet for the aging icon. It made him instantly cool among the younger crowd, while confirming that he still had the authority and command that made him a talent and trendsetter decades before.
All seemed fine with the Park partnership until Parker and Stone decided to take on Scientology. As they had with Christianity, Judaism, and Catholicism before, the show scalded L. Ron’s revisionist faith in an episode which also tweaked Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Hayes had joined the ersatz religion in 1995, and did not appreciate the series satirizing his beliefs. He argued that his newfound conviction had helped reestablish and center his success, and unless Parker and Stone abandoned the idea, he would be forced to leave. He did just that in 2006, and the split remained acrimonious up and until his death.
While there are many sides to the story (for their part, Parker and Stone stand by their decision), what’s clear is that, once outside the limelight again, Hayes’ fortunes failed. In 2006, he suffered a stroke, though many inside his camp denied it initially. This past April, his appearance on Adam Corolla’s radio show suggested that he was losing some of his faculties. He found it hard to answer questions and blamed his blankness on aphasia, a disorder driven by his diminished capacity. Some four months later, he was discovered motionless alongside his treadmill. He was pronounced dead upon arriving at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis.
As with any loss, the tragedy tends to temper the particulars of the past. Eulogy wipes out the bad while amplifying the already known good. In the case of Isaac Hayes, we need both sides of the story. For everything he did right in his benchmark career, he made mistakes that added even more mystery to his outsized enigma. He could be suave and smooth. He could also be cold and very calculated. Combined together, they explain how Hayes could break down the color barriers of Hollywood. They also clarify his late in life conversions and out of character choices. The good thing is that Isaac Hayes will always be remembered as the prophet of soul. The bad thing is that the very things that made him an indisputable icon will probably be lost to legend - and maybe that’s where they belong.