Isaac Hayes is gone. And not to Phoenix, this time. It’s a hard goodbye for this listener. Inspired by the great artists who sampled him — Public Enemy on “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”, Big Daddy Kane on “Smooth Operator”, The Jungle Brothers’ on “Behind the Bush”, Massive Attack on “One Love”, Compton’s Most Wanted on “The Hood Took Me Under”, The Geto Boys on “Mind’s Playin’ Tricks on Me”, etc. — I started seeking him out sometime in the early 90s, and his music became formative to my appreciation of soul music.
Hayes was the whole package. A writer of great songs, especially the early sixties when he and co-writer David Porter provided Sam and Dave with their two biggest hits, “Soul Man” and “(Hold on) I’m Coming.” A fine instrumentalist, especially on the keyboard. But first and foremost he was a composer, arranger and producer, notable for taking often relatively banal material and crafting soul masterpieces from it. And then there was his voice. Though never a singer of great nuance, he brought a form of high pathos to his love songs that imbued the emotions expressed with an epic sense, without ever losing that loving feeling.
At the same time, he was one of the most iconic personifications of black power in music, not just in his self-styling — shaved head, sun glasses, bare chest bound in chains — but through the emancipatory expressive character of his almost symphonic arrangements. He could make a love song sound revolutionary by the intense conviction he brought to his performance. It’s no coincidence that he quickly earned — and came to embrace — the moniker Black Moses.
His music from the early 70s issued on the seminal Stax label and most of it recorded with the tightly-knit and edgy rhythm section of the Bar-Kays, represents a singular achievement in soul music. The eccentric debut Presenting Isaac Hayes (1967), the magnum opus Hot Buttered Soul (1969), the double codex of The Isaac Hayes Movement and … To Be Continued (both 1970), his signature soundtrack for the film Shaft (1971), and his live performance at the legendary WattStax concert in 1972 were instrumental in cracking open a hitherto rather restricted popular genre to a freer and much wider range of expressive possibility.
This is supremely exemplified by his covers of songs written by others. His versions of classics such as Jimmy Webb’s incontrovertible “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” Jerry and William Butler’s emphatic “I Stand Accused”, and Bill Withers’ gripping “Ain’t No Sunshine” are sprawling explorations of the raw material provided by the given words through compositions utterly transcending the pop standards to which they were originally written.
Most notable in this respect, however, were his renditions of several of Burt Bacharach’s most pristine pop songs, especially “Walk on By” and “The Look of Love” — polished and rather cheesy pop songs, which he turned into symphonic soul epics. Since the words were, in a sense, secondary, these recordings are of a piece with his own pieces of the time, not the least the excursional 20-minute manifesto “Do Your Thing” and the tune he is most famous for, the “Theme from Shaft”, which remains one of the enduring musical statements of black empowerment from that fraught, politicised era of outrage and optimism.
His subsequent recording career saw a waning of his musical prescience and an increasing reliance on manners derived from his early musical discoveries. It’s already apparent on the magnificently produced, but slightly overconceived double album Black Moses (1971), the energetic but fairly inconsequential Joy (1973), and the blaxploitation soundtracks Tough Guys and Truck Turner (both 1974). All of these records would be exceptionally strong had they come from almost any other artist, and they contain classic material, but following as they did the tour-de-force of his first years as a solo artist, they can’t help but underwhelm somewhat.
In the late 70s and beyond, he descended into disco and like so many of his peers — great and not so great — lost his way somewhat. But never mind, already established as a legend, he remained amongst the coolest cats of his generation until the very end, becoming something of a icon beyond the music. He was cool as The Duke in John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981), and he was cool as Chef in South Park (until his decidedly uncool departure from the show), and he remained a terrific live performer to the very end. Both times I’ve heard him live in concert were authoritative displays of both professionalism and presence, and especially his show at Roskilde in 1997 was an uplifting affirmation of the Power of Soul.
To paraphrase Ossie Davis’ famous words, Isaac Hayes was the living black manhood of soul music. His admonition at the end of “I Can’t Go to Sleep” (2000), the Wu-Tang Clan’s inspired re-configuration of his version of “Walk on By,” would have been fitting last words: “Don’t like the game, nigga use your head/ You should be callin’ the shots instead/ The power is in your hands/ Stop all this cryin’, and be a man.”
Photo: Hayes with Jesse jackson at WattStax.