People who only associate
Isaac Hayes with Chef, the smooth-talking, sweet-love-making, roly-poly cafeteria cook from
South Park, may not understand that the Memphis songwriter, producer, musician and performer who came to fame in the 1970s was the very embodiment of the once-popular phrase "black is beautiful."
Hayes was monumental. With his instantly recognizable bald head, dark beard and glasses and masculine physique, he appeared as resplendent and exotic as a genie escaped from a bottle. But this son of Tennessee sharecroppers never really "escaped." Like another famous and flamboyant Memphis resident, Elvis Presley, he never cut himself off from his Southern home base or forgot his roots in rural poverty.
Elvis, of course, was the King. Hayes was known as "Black Moses." With its origin in the book of Exodus, the name Moses suggested Hayes was a liberator as well as an entertainer - a very glamorous liberator. (If Hayes had come across a golden calf, he probably would have mounted it by his swimming pool.)
In the 1973 concert documentary Wattstax, filmed in Los Angeles, Hayes throws off his coat to reveal a "vest" made of linked gold chains. The symbolism was obvious and apt: When he flexed his powerful arms in the air, his pose demonstrated that chains and the legacy of slavery could not hold back Hayes - or hold back black America. Empowerment was here - or black power, to cite another popular phrase of the era.
Even better: Hayes' wardrobe and attitude demonstrated that the chains were no longer objects of imprisonment and intimidation, but of fashion. If Black Moses wanted chains, by God, he'd have them on his own terms - and they would be made of gold.
Of course, there was an element of illusion to the invincible pose - this was show business, after all. Stax - the legendary Memphis record label where Hayes honed his craft in the 1960s - filed for bankruptcy in 1975, and Hayes followed suit. By decade's end, he had lost the rights to the royalties on much of his most significant work.
At Stax, Hayes co-wrote classics like "Soul Man" and "Hold on I'm Comin'" before becoming the label's top superstar with the 1971 release of the soundtrack for Shaft. It would be Hayes' only No. 1 album on the Billboard Pop charts.
TV played a big part in Hayes' ascendance: It was his "bad mother" of a performance of the Oscar-winning "Theme from Shaft" during the 1972 Academy Awards telecast that cemented his status as a pop culture icon in "mainstream" (i.e., white) as well as black America.
Backed by the sounds of a funky wah-wah guitar and clothed in far-out garb as well as the exuberant smoke effects of a dry-ice machine, Hayes demonstrated that songs no longer needed to be "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" to gain Academy recognition - they could also be "Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic" (to cite a song on the Hayes album Hot Buttered Soul).
After "Shaft," Prince, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Eminem and Hayes' fellow Memphians in Three 6 Mafia would win songwriting Oscars.
After the Oscars, Hayes began to be recruited not just as a composer but as an actor whose presence could lend über-cool cachet to any project. He was a slick cab driver in John Carpenter's futuristic action picture Escape from New York (1981), and James Garner's street-smart pal in episodes of The Rockford Files. He played a bounty hunter caught in a "pimp civil war" in the 1974 "blaxploitation" film Truck Turner. (In 1971, Hayes sang: "Who's the black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks? - Shaft!" The musical question posed by this theme for Truck Turner proved less memorable: "There's some pimps in their graves/Who blew those pimps away? - Truck Turner!") Purrs one impressed prostitute, when she casts her peepers on Turner: "Check out that big piece of chocolate cake!"
It is perhaps unsurprising that Hayes made the transition to movies. His epic arrangements of such originally simple pop numbers as "Never Can Say Goodbye" were cinematic in scope - they transformed anecdotes into narratives. As recorded by Dionne Warwick, "Walk on By" is a short; as reimagined by Isaac Hayes, it's a feature film. Glen Campbell's 1968 hit version of "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" ran 2:44; Hayes' widescreen reinterpretation the next year stretched to 18:42. These recordings are journeys - what else would you expect from a Black Moses? - John Beifuss