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.
After the tragic death of Otis Redding in December 1967, Stax found itself at a crossroads. The terms of the label's distribution deal with Atlantic Records called for the latter to take ownership of all of the former's recording masters. In 1968, Stax was a label that had no back catalogue and was mourning the death of its biggest star. Though Stax was a white-owned label that specialized in black music, by 1968, it was being directed by an African American named Al Bell. In response to the crisis at hand, Bell called for a "soul explosion" where Stax would flood the market with product, putting out 27 albums in a short period of time. As Hayes told TheWashington Post a decade ago, "[Bell] needed a catalogue." In exchange for Hayes' assistance on those 27 albums, Bell agreed to let the young composer record his own album. That album was Hot Buttered Soul (1969), and it would almost single-handedly change the sound of soul music.
A year after its release, Hayes would remark "I didn't give a damn if Hot Buttered Soul didn't sell because there were 26 other LPs to carry the load. I just wanted to do something artistic, with total freedom." That freedom can be heard on virtually every track on Hot Buttered Soul, as Hayes transformed well-known pop songs like Dionne Warwick's "Walk on By" and Glen Campbell's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" into lengthy excursions through soul.
"By the Time I Get to Phoenix" clocks in at more than 18 minutes, including the nearly 9-minute spoken introduction. Rock groups like The Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin would turn pop-music conventions on their head in the late 1960s with long-playing singles, and Hayes helped introduce that same sensibility into soul music. Hayes' subsequent recordings like The Isaac Hayes Movement (1970), …To Be Continued (1970) and the double-album Black Moses (1971) marked soul music as something that was vital, personal, yet expansive and the resonances of that could be heard in the music of Motown ("Papa was a Rolling Stone"), the fledging Philadelphia International Records ("Back Stabbers") and, of course, the music of Barry White, whose use of strings and spoken-word intros borrowed respectfully from the Isaac Hayes musical playbook.
A signature feature of Hayes' music in this era was his "raps"—spoken introductions to some of his more personal tracks. As he told TheNew YorkTimes back in 1972, "There's nothing fictional in my raps…I might elongate or extend an idea or something like that, but the basic thing that comes through is from experience that I've had." Nowhere was this more the case than on Black Moses, which was, among many things, a trip down recent black musical history as Hayes covered tracks like Jerry Butler's "Need to Belong" and "Never Gonna Give You Up;" "Going in Circles" by The Friends of Distinction and Dionne Warwick's "I'll Never Fall in Love Again." In each case the music offered up something that was unmistakably Isaac Hayes. The highlight of the recording is Hayes's 9-minute version of The Carpenters' white bread pop hit "Close to You" which likely inspired Luther Vandross to tackle the same group's "Superstar" a decade later. Had Hayes never recorded another note at this point, his place as one of the true architects of soul and funk would have been intact, but Shaft changed everything.
There is perhaps no more enduring idea of the early 1970s in black America than of the image of a clean-shaven, sunglass-wearing, gold chain-vested Isaac Hayes with the "Theme from Shaft" playing in the background. It is an image of Hayes that has been dutifully caricatured, as have so many other references to the Black Power Era.
In those heady days, Hayes was simply referred to as "Black Moses"—a name given to him by a Stax recording label staff member—in reference to the larger-than-life figure he cut within black America. In an era that was largely defined by black super heroes like Stokely Carmichael, Huey P. Newton, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Isaac Hayes and his bald head was a marketer's dream, and the Stax label took every opportunity to take advantage of Hayes' real-world appeal. As label-mate Booker T. Jones recalled in the documentary Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story, "Isaac's position to me was more of a social position than a musical position at Stax. Isaac became something of a symbol that was missing in African-American society."
It was the soundtrack to the film Shaft—featuring "the black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks"—that introduced the rest of the world to Hayes. As Hayes recalled to NPR a few years ago, "They wanted a black leading man [Richard Roundtree], a black director [Gordon Parks Sr.], and a black composer. So since I was Stax's No. 1 artist at the time they chose me." Shaft helped establish the genre of blaxploitation film and crossed Hayes over to the mainstream.
The influence of Shaft's soundtrack can be easily detected in that rash of soundtracks that came in its wake, including Curtis Mayfield's soundtrack recording for Superfly (directed by Gordon Parks Jr.), Marvin Gaye's work on the Trouble Man soundtrack and The Mack which featured the music of Willie Hutch. All have remained timeless totems to the blaxploitation era, though Shaft still remains a step ahead in terms of its impact. The soundtrack earned Hayes an Academy Award in 1972, making him the first African American to earn the award for a recording.
In many ways Shaft was the apex of Hayes' career. Hayes' fortune mirrored closely those of Stax, the label that he left in 1974. By the end of the 1970s both had filed bankruptcy and represented a music style and politics that were decidedly out of favor in mainstream America and quite a few African-American households. Nevertheless Hayes continued recording and even dabbled in film, most famously in the parody I'm Gonna Git U Sucka (1990), which helped introduce the blaxploitation era to a younger generation. By the end of the 1990s, hip-hop acts like the Wu Tang Clan, the Geto Boys and Public Enemy were mining the Isaac Hayes catalogue for samples.
Later, his signature baritone became the voice of South Park's "Chef" and the voice of the Nickelodeon's "Nick @ Night." With a new generation of fans, Hayes found advantage in the very caricatures that had come to define him.
Mark Anthony Neal is professor of African-American studies at Duke University and a visiting scholar in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University and a fellow at the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is the author of several books, including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. Follow him on Twitter.