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An Ode to Hot Buttered Genius

From his days as a behind-the-scenes songwriter, a look back at the man who single-handedly changed the sound of soul music.

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That the career of Isaac Hayes could be neatly packaged into two generationally specific cultural touchpoints like Shaft and the Comedy Central animated series South Park says volumes about the man's longevity. But the timeless soundtrack that Hayes produced in support of Gordon Parks' groundbreaking blaxploitation film, the animated character of Chef (a hammer-like nod to that same film) and the later controversy surrounding Hayes' Scientology-related departure from South Park, provide little context for the genius of the man. At his peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Isaac Hayes' music and image embodied the potency and vibrancy of blackness during one of the most tumultuous eras in American history.

Perhaps the best measure of Isaac Hayes' social and political importance may be glimpsed in an incident in 1972 at the Wattstax music festival at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Modeled on Woodstock, Wattstax was designed to give something back to the black community, especially Watts, in the aftermath of the 1965 riots.

Black music mogul Al Bell and a young Rev. Jesse Jackson came to the concert to expound on the virtues of black politics and black business. But it was clear that the most important person to hit the stage that day was Black Moses, aka Isaac Hayes, who served as the closing act.

Writing about WattStax in his new book, In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era, Richard Iton observed: "Toward the end of the concert as Jackson passed the microphone to Hayes after introducing him, there was an exchange of words between the two. It was unclear what was said, but what was apparent was that Hayes, the show's headliner, had the power, and Jackson looked a bit resentful that that was the case."

Iton's comments are a reminder of how significant a figure Hayes was to black America, despite recent caricatures of him.

Hayes was never comfortable being referred to as "Black Moses," calling the term sacrilegious, but at least on that day in 1972, it was not only true; it was the Gospel.

Born in Covington, Tenn. in 1942, Hayes was just out of high school when Stax, a local recording label in Memphis, began to make a name in the field of soul music. With acts like Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas and Booker T. & the MGs, Stax was poised to become one of the most important producers of soul music by the end of the 1960s, second only to Motown in that regard. With the shadow of Stax all over Memphis, Hayes paid his dues by performing for a time in the group Sir Isaac & The Doo-Dads and putting in time at the Pleasant Green Baptist Church on Sunday mornings.

Hayes, a piano player by trade, began to hang out at Stax's studios and when the label house pianist Booker T. Jones (of Booker T. and the MGs) went off to college, Hayes began to do session work with the label. That work eventually led to a relationship with another local musician David Porter, who became Hayes' songwriting partner. When the Atlantic label, which distributed Stax's music, brought their act Sam & Dave down to Memphis with the Stax musicians it was Hayes' and Porter's songs that they recorded.

When people think back nostalgically on tracks like "Hold On, I'm Coming," "Soul Man" and "When Something is Wrong with My Baby," they recall the recording artists Sam & Dave, but it was the young, hungry Hayes, along with Porter, who tapped the soul and constructed the rhythms that would become mainstays in the soundtrack of the era.

Hayes and Porter became in-demand songwriters and producers. But Isaac Hayes wanted more for himself, and that opportunity came in 1969.