Remembering Isaac Hayes

Isaachayes_lIt would be a shame if Isaac Hayes, who died yesterday at 65, were remembered only as the guy who voiced the cartoon character who sang "Chocolate Salty Balls." Yep, he was great as Chef on South Park, and he was a memorable and charismatic presence in many other TV shows and movies, but he had a long history as one of the most influential soul musicians ever to step on a wah-wah pedal. The "Theme From Shaft" alone should secure his reputation forever, but really, if you listen to just about anything in the last quarter century’s worth of rap and R&B, you can still hear him. Talking to EW in 1995 about his search for a new record deal, Hayes said younger label reps would ask him what he’d done lately. "And I thought to myself, justturn on the radio and listen to some of your hip-hop stuff — that’s what I’ve done lately!"

Hayes got his start as a session musician and songwriter at soul mainstay Stax, the Memphis label that was home to Otis Redding and Booker T. & the MGs. With David Porter, he composed such hits as Sam & Dave’s "Hold On! I’m Coming" and "Soul Man" (the latter also a hit years later for the Blues Brothers). His solo career took off in 1969 with the landmark Hot Buttered Soul album, a collection of just four epic-length tunes (including emotional covers of such unlikely easy-listening hits as "Walk on By" and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix") that established his layered, orchestral approach to funk and his persona as a tough-but-tender master of the bedroom baritone. It also set the template for ’70s soul.

The album’s massive critical and commercial success led to the gig scoring Shaft, the first big-budget blaxploitation film. His Grammy- and Oscar-winning theme song (still the hippest, edgiest track ever to win an Academy Award for Best Song; Hayes was the first African-American composer to win the award) influenced virtually every blaxploitation or crime film soundtrack for the next two years, and while the song was a big hit outside the movie theater, it’s worth remembering just how well it actually complemented the opening scene of Gordon Parks’ movie. Watch the embedded clip after the jump and notice how well the song fits the action, as Richard Roundtree emerges from the subway and strides through the gritty Times Square of 1971; the whole sequence is a masterpiece of coiled tension, propelled by the relentless patter of the hi-hat cymbals at the foundation of Hayes’ track.

addCredit(“Isaac Hayes: Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT/Landov”)

More records followed (notably, 1971′s Black Moses), but Hayes’ interest soon turned to acting. He starred in the movies Three Tough Guys and Truck Turner (for which he also composed the soundtracks), but he’s probably best remembered for his recurring role as Gandy Fitch on The Rockford Files, his role as the Duke in Escape from New York (1981), and his self-parodying turn in the blaxploitation spoof I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988). Oh, yeah, and a cartoon mentor with a penchant for crooning seductive love ballads.

Hayes turned a guest spot on South Park into a recurring character who was a mainstay of the show for several seasons until he quit abruptly in 2006. He cited the show’s lampooning of Scientology as the reason for his departure, though it also came shortly after he’d suffered a stroke. (Trey Parker and Matt Stone dealt with the move churlishly by building an episode around Chef’s disgrace and gruesome demise.)

Meanwhile, he’d never stopped making music; coming full circle with his work as an arranger and session musician on Alicia Keys’ debut Songs in A Minor. In a 2006 interview with The Onion AV Club, he explained his work ethic: "I always keep my head down, working, doing things, moving forward.That’s what I’ve done all my life. Then you stop and realize whatyou’ve done. ‘Damn, I did that!’ I don’t sit back and count up whatI’ve done. There’s just always something else to do. There’s always achallenge ahead. I’ve faced those challenges and hit ‘em, you know?"

Comments (86 total) Add your comment
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  • jcarla

    Thank you for this and helping younger people one of the foundations of today’s hip-hop. Strange, I just finiched reading an articale on theroot.com on Hayes and the auther said that Ernset Tidyman, Auther of the Shaft novels and co-writer of the screenplay HATED the theme. I mean dispised it. But he also had problems with the entire film.

  • jcarla

    Thank you for this and helping younger people one of the foundations of today’s hip-hop. Strange, I just finiched reading an articale on theroot.com on Hayes and the auther said that Ernset Tidyman, Auther of the Shaft novels and co-writer of the screenplay HATED the theme. I mean dispised it. But he also had problems with the entire film.

  • jcarla

    Sorry about the double post.

  • idigress

    Loved Isaac Hayes – he was the soundtrack of my youth. I am listening to “Hot Buttered Soul” on my iPod now as a tribute!
    Thanks for the great post Gary!

  • C

    This is a great piece, and I mourn the loss of Hayes (and to come in the same weekend as Bernie Mac… too cruel). However, I just wanted to take slight issue with the statement that “Theme from Shaft” is “the hippest, edgiest track ever to win an Academy Award for Best Song.” Shut yo’ mouth! If you’d like something hip, maybe “Lose Yourself” by Eminem? For something edgy, maybe “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp” by Three 6 Mafia? Just sayin’.

  • stevenr.curry

    see him at bwi in 2007 ,looked a little older and smaller then when first seen him during the 70′s as a kid on an album cover.
    Seen him in the line for the check point where i worked at for tsa and know who he was right away. “CHIEF” he just left “south park ” maybe months ago He looked good sorry to see him go- “nice dude”

  • Stephanie T.

    Wow. TWO of the coolest men ever gon in two days. Isaac will be terribly missed by all. Take care, Chef.

  • katona

    It seem like it hit me home whenever anyone dies. I just pray that there soul is at rest and he knew the lord. Jesus as lord and savior. God bless the family.

  • slewis

    I loved Mr.Hayes an his music hot buttered soul when i was younger an still do cause his music was whole lot different then the music of todays but dont get me wrong i like it the beat but not the woulds cause of kids today is repeating that all the time an the bad words an its not good for them they up lifting music an what they need too do is bring back the oldies please…………….

  • truthdigger

    The theme from “Shaft”, which won an Oscar and a Grammy for Isaac Hayes, was a work for hire.

  • James

    Issac Hayes was a true original and very gifted.Things are surely different today then back then,it seemed we were looking forward to something uplifting and positive.May he be with god.

  • Chicago

    Shaft will never be forgotten. RIP Isaac. You’re part of the Night Shift now. The rest of our generation will be trickling through the gates in the coming years. See ya then.

  • Belinda Lawton

    Issac Hayes. Your enamour carries thru out this life as few others have. You will always be remembered not only by your family, but also by the many of us who are touched by your soulful sounds. Rest and be asured that your legacy will be as you are to me, everlasting.

  • Blue Ice

    The strange thing is they both( Bernie Mac& Isaac Hayes) were in the same movie that will be out soon

  • El Garee~

    ‘Chocolate Salty Balls’? What a completely lame into by a completely lame writer. Really… Do you know anything? Well, now maybe you know you’re not a writer. Quit and go back into laying tile or doing roofing. Better yet, drywall.
    El Garee~

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