Had Isaac Hayes’ career extended only as far as being a session musician and songwriter for the Stax/Volt/Atlantic labels (with writing partner David Porter he composed Sam and Dave’s most memorable hits, including ‘Hold On I’m Coming!’ and ‘Soul Man’), he would still merit a pretty substantial footnote in soul music history. Yet his achievements as a solo performer arguably elevated him to the pantheon of greats.
His 1969 debut album ‘Hot Buttered Soul’ reinvented him as a magnificent arranger and interpreter and included brilliant, interpolated versions of Burt Bacharach’s ‘Walk On By’ and Jimmy Webb’s ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’. Both tracks were unashamedly vivid and grandiose, memorable as much for Hayes’ improvised half-rapping as for their flourishes of strings and stylised guitar lines. This lavish approach would greatly influence the later Stax sound that, whilst dooming the label to financial collapse in the short term, has more recently been reappraised for its inventiveness and musical character (particularly see Tony Hester’s arrangements and production for The Dramatics, heavily indebted to Hayes).
Some might have felt he developed the style beyond its logical conclusion with the bloated ‘Black Moses’, but there was actually more genuine emotion there than self-aggrandising. If it was a feat of artistic indulgence, it still stands comfortably with Marvin Gaye’s ‘Here My Dear’ and Stevie Wonder’s ‘Songs in the Key of Life’ as an indulgence worth tolerating.
Along with Curtis Mayfield and Bobby Womack, Hayes bolstered his career with a major soundtrack (‘Shaft’). Whilst the blaxploitation movies have recently been re-examined with fresh favour as cultural landmarks, there’s still little argument against the contention that Hayes’ instantly identifiable wah-wah theme has outlived the film.
Like many before and after him, Hayes overspent in the immediate aftermath of his fame and filed for bankruptcy in the mid-70s. Unlike others, he recovered from this with dignity and artistic credibility intact, continuing to write and perform throughout the 80s and 90s. An album as recent as ‘Branded’ could claim to be a worthy part of his musical legacy.
He may now be remembered as fondly for his good-humoured role as Chef in the controversial but popular animated series South Park, its somewhat unsubtle ‘Chocolate Salty Balls’ single providing him with a late re-appearance in the pop charts. It’s undoubtedly a shame that Hayes could tolerate and even encourage the series’ lambasting of cultural and social targets save only for his hallowed Church of Scientology. The programme’s attack on the religion/cult clearly proved a step too far for Hayes and provoked his resignation from the show. Whilst this doesn’t exactly tarnish his image, it sadly leaves many of us wondering how such a talent could be quite so irrational.
Hayes had been married four times and leaves a pretty impressive tally of twelve children. He obviously lived life with a somewhat reckless intensity. Still, at just 65, he may well have had another grand statement left to offer, although he had apparently already suffered a stroke in 2006.