Off the Charts

Isaac Hayes: Soul Chef

Issue 146

Isaac Hayes had an inauspicious start. Born in 1942 in rural Tennessee, he was raised on a farm by his sharecropping grandparents. He would go on to become one of the most influential singers, producers, and songwriters in the soul genre.

Hayes started singing and teaching himself musical instruments as a child, relegating music to an evening hobby into his 20s. But once he got started as a pro, there was no stopping him. He was hired as in-house songwriter for Stax Records in Memphis, the center of blues, R&B, and related styles at the time. With his creative partner David Porter, he made hits for the performing duo Sam & Dave, most famously the song “Soul Man.” He also became interested in producing, working on albums by Sam & Dave and Carla Thomas.

In 1968 he made his own debut album, Presenting Isaac Hayes. No one paid much attention to that jazz-influenced first effort. His second solo album might never have happened if an emergency situation at Stax hadn’t thrust Hayes back into the studio on the non-desk side of the glass. In 1968, Atlantic Records took over the entire Stax back catalog, making it urgent that all the signed Stax artists record new material to give the company something to sell.

For Hayes, the result was the groundbreaking Hot Buttered Soul (1969), an exploration of the potential of soul music as an amalgam of blues, pop, funk, gospel, and jazz; it also demonstrated that soul could be brainy, complex, and emotional all at once.

The R&B/funk band The Bar-Kays were his backup, helping him spin out massive, meandering versions of a mere two songs per side, including a 19-minute exploration of Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” On the full album, Hayes’ recording of Burt Bacharach’s “Walk on By” lasts 12 minutes, but it was cut down to 4 1/2 minutes to become a successful single.

The shortest track was the five-minute “One Woman,” composed by saxophonist Charles Chalmers with lyrics by Sandra Rhodes. Hayes’ voice is not the silkiest in the genre, but it’s always gentle and irresistible.

 

The Isaac Hayes Movement (1970) followed the same format, with two long tracks on each side. The album reached No. 1 on both the soul and jazz charts. Also, like the first album, the second one included covers of Burt Bacharach and Chalmers/Rhodes songs.

Side A features “I Stand Accused” by Jerry Butler, and George Harrison’s “Something.” The rich, imaginative arrangements are by Dale Warren, who had helped to sculpt the Motown Sound. In an interesting genre-bending move, Hayes had jazz violinist John Blair play as guest soloist on “Something.” The contrapuntal piano introduction (probably by Sidney Kirk of the Bar-Kays) is worthy of George Martin himself.

 

In 1971, Hayes turned his talents to another type of project: he wrote the soundtrack for Gordon Parks’ film Shaft. The combination of Black action movie and funky music was a revelation to many. For his efforts, Hayes won both a Grammy and an Academy Award. The album version was released as a double LP by Stax.

Black Moses (1971) was his next studio album, which soared to the top of the R&B charts and won him another Grammy. Its big single was “Never Can Say Goodbye,” a Jackson 5 cover. But the real powerhouses of the album are the two Curtis Mayfield songs, “Man’s Temptation” and “Need to Belong to Someone.” On the latter, the sound balance of the many textures – keyboards, brass, strings, drum kit, backing singers – is exquisite, including the choice to remove all those factors when Hayes’ deep voice first enters.

 

Hayes released a live album in 1973, followed later that year by the studio recording Joy. This five-track collection is distinct from the previous ones for focusing on Hayes’ own songwriting. The arrangements, as usual, are thoughtful and dramatically impactful; arranger Johnny Allen knew just where to drop in a chorus of female backing singers or some stirring brass harmonies.

On his composition “The Feeling Keeps on Coming,” Hayes shows how he’s figured out how to combine the power of funk, the sexiness of soul, and the harmonic interest and rhythmic variety of jazz.

 

The next couple of years brought a string of albums, including two that embraced disco, the trending subgenre of funk taking over the dance clubs: Disco Connection (1975) and Juicy Fruit (Disco Freak) (1976).

Groove-A-Thon (1976) finds Hayes’ star starting to wane. But the low-key, disco-influenced album, written entirely by the singer, has some nice moments. “Rock Me Easy Baby” is especially interesting for its use of Latin percussion, most notably the purring scrape of the guiro on every downbeat.

 

After Hayes signed with Polydor, the albums kept coming, about once a year, among them New Horizon (1977), featuring the single “Out the Ghetto,” and Don’t Let Go (1979), which briefly got him back into the Top 40 with its highly danceable title track. When Lifetime Thing (1981) failed to sell well, Hayes decided to take a few years off from recording and pursue an acting career. During this period he appeared in Escape from New York and the TV series The A-Team, among other projects.

Aptly titled, U-Turn (1986) was his fresh start in the studio. Released by Columbia Records, this album suffers from oddly mismatched layers of sound, particularly in the discord between Hayes’ grainy voice and the smooth sheen of Gerald Jackson’s synths. Love Attack (1988) is an underwhelming experiment using drum machine and leaving behind acoustic strings.

After another hiatus, Raw & Refined, and Branded, both from 1995, were Hayes’ last trips to the studio. The former was all instrumental, mostly recorded many years before. Branded, on the other hand, contained new material, in what turned out to be a noble farewell from Hayes to his music fans.

Among that album’s best moments is his cover of the song “Fragile,” written by Sting for his 1988 solo record …Nothing Like the Sun. Hayes spins it into a 13-minute meditation, with spoken word, singing, and instrumental passages.

 

Although he made no more records, Hayes kept himself in the public eye as an actor, taking small roles in films and television until his death in 2008. And while he found a new fanbase as the voice of the character Chef on South Park for about a decade, it was the way he had expanded and re-defined the genre of soul 30 years earlier that secured his place in the American musical pantheon.

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