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Isaac Hayes was called the Black Moses, but he would always let it be known that he was the Moses of Music and nothing more. As one of the leading artists for Stax Records, Hayes not only sang and performed, but he also co-wrote some of the Stax’s biggest hits including “Soul Man,” “Hold On I’m Coming” and “I Thank You” which placed Sam and Dave on the map as a dynamic duet, and Hayes as an accomplished songwriter along with lyricist, Dave Porter.
Starting in the mid 1960’s, Hayes struggled to release a hit as his 1967 debut album, “Presenting Isaac Hayes,” was not a commercial success. But he was not one to give up or give in to a temporary setback—which was how he looked at his debut album. Hayes went back to the recording studio and two years later, he released “Hot Buttered Soul.” It was a success for Hayes and for Stax Records who had recently lost one of its top artists, Otis Redding. It also introduced a revolutionary quality to soul music by producing a more silky sound, punctuated by pillow-talk monologues, that Hayes described as “raps.” (He was rapping long before the present day rappers. Fans would say, “Just put Hayes on and you won’t have to talk; he’d talk for you”).
Hayes added to the mystique of his performances by sporting a shaved head at a time when “Afro” hairstyle was in vogue and wearing chains on his bare chest, gold jewelry and sun-glasses. His deep baritone vocal renditions added an air of ornate showmanship that captivated audiences from coast to coast. On his first successful album, Hayes introduced a version of two hits, “Walk on By” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” that were twelve and nineteen minutes long respectively, and that set a standard and the introduction of lengthy versions into the music world.
In 1970, Hayes released two albums, “The Isaac Hayes Movement” and “To Be Continued” which added to his stature as a bona fide player in the music world. This was followed by Hayes’ biggest hit that became his signature masterpiece and for which he won an Academy Award—the theme from “Shaft.” He became the first Black man to receive the Academy award for a movie soundtrack and it catapulted him to super stardom. The “Shaft” album not only contained the hit song named for the movie, but it also had several songs from the movie that were all single hits including “Do Your Thing,” “Soulville” and “Move On.” It also won two Grammys, a Golden Globe and the NAACP Image award.
Immediately after “Shaft,” Hayes released another hit, his “Black Moses” album. For his live performances, he made a grand entrance on the stage, part showman starting slow and building up to a crescendo, and throwing off his cape to display a bare body dressed in chains, jewelry and sun-glasses—usually to a rowdy audience. Hayes’ next big event was Wattstax, an African American music festival held in Watts, California.
The name, Wattstax, was a hybrid of Watts and Stax Records and it brought together some of the biggest names in the Black entertainment world at that time. It was called the Black Woodstock and held at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1972. After an invocation by Reverend Jesse Jackson, Hayes headlined the day-long concert to a sold-out crowd of about 100,000 people. The following year, a documentary film about the concert was produced and in 1974, it was nominated for a Golden Globe award for best documentary film.
By the end of 1974, Stax Records was in deep financial troubles and as one of its premier artists, its troubles extended to Hayes. (Many artists have often made [and make] lots of money but without proper management their money is either not rooted in solid investments for their future, or is squandered in a lavish wasteful temporary lifestyle). Hayes was caught up in a combination of both and by 1976, he was forced to file bankruptcy. He lost his house and much of his personal property including the rights to future royalties from the music he had written, recorded and produced.
Looking back at Hayes’ humble beginnings, his rise to the top was nothing short of spectacular. He was born the second child of Isaac Hayes Sr. and Eula Hayes on August 20, 1942 in Covington, Tennessee. Having lost both his parents as a child, Hayes was brought up by his grandparents, “dirt-poor” field laborers, who picked cotton to survive. He was forced to leave school before graduating in order to help his grandparents eke out a meager livelihood.
After rising to the top of the music world and losing it all, Hayes reorganized his life and redirected his talent towards movies. Though “Shaft” was a milestone, like all hits, its commercial quality faded with the passing of time. However, it placed Hayes among the talented few who scored themes for movies and television. His multi-faceted career included being a songwriter, a producer, a solo artist, an actor and a radio personality. Sources say he never read music but he played the piano, keyboards, flute and saxophone.
Hayes released a live double album “Live at Sahara Tahoe” just before he made a string of B-movies including “Three Tough Guys” and “Truck Turner” for which he also recorded their soundtracks in 1974. The “Truck Turner” soundtrack has since been used as the opening theme for a Brazilian radio show, “Jornal de Esportes.” In 1978, he signed up with Polydor Records and did a string of duets with Dionne Warwick; the album did fairly well commercially notwithstanding, it also had a hit single. Hayes also had a recurring presence in a popular television series, “the Rockford Files.”
In 1978, “Shaft II” came out and Hayes recorded a sequel to his Oscar-winning theme but it did not come close to the previous one in hit popularity or commercial success. By 1979, he returned to the Top 40 with a disco-style hit single, “Don’t Let Go.” Throughout the 80s and into the 90s, Hayes appeared in numerous movies and television episodes most notably “Escape from New York,” “Johnny Mnemonic,” “the A-Team” and “Miami Vice.”
He switched to the Virgin label in 1995 and made a successful comeback with “Branded.” It was considered vintage Hayes, and received raving reviews in the music press. At its 17th annual dinner, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted him into its exclusive membership.
Hayes has also made significant contributions as a humanitarian outside of the music world. He was one of the most well-known celebrities who were members of the Church of Scientology. In one of the church’s books, he is quoted, “If you really want to know about the mind, the spirit and life itself, read “Scientology: The Fundamentals of Thought.” Hayes is heavily involved in the economic development of Ghana where he reportedly helped to build a school, which earned him the honorary title, “King.” To further his humanitarian work, he founded the Isaac Hayes Foundation through which other such projects can be funded. In addition, he has used his celebrity status to lend a voiceover for the “Chef” animated series on television.
As a family man, Hayes was married four times and was the father of twelve children and fourteen grandchildren. He died on August 10, 2008, at his home just east of Memphis, Tennessee where he resided with his wife and youngest son, Nana Kwedjo.
Ironically, Hayes was presently working on a movie, “Soul Men” starring Samuel L. Jackson and comedian Bernie Mac, who died the day before Hayes. According to one of the founders of Stax Records, “Hayes was one of the main roots of the Memphis Sound.”
“Legends” is the brainchild of Danny J. Bakewell Sr., executive publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel. Every week it will highlight the accomplishments of African Americans and Africans.