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In Memory of Isaac Hayes

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11:30 p.m. Aug. 11--

If any black cats were coooler than Isaac Hayes, they didn't cross my path.
The hot buttered silky smooth singer-songwriter died suddenly Sunday at his home in Memphis. He was 65. I spoke to Hayes a few times over the years, touching on his appearances as Chef in television's "South Park" and his restaurant operations in Chicago and Memphis (both since closed). But on April 3, 1988 I spent more than an hour with Hayes at a hotel near the Atlanta (Ga.) Civic Center. He was part of a disorganized package tribute to Stax Records that included Luther Ingram, Johnnie Taylor and Rufus Thomas. They are all dead now, too.
Hayes was on the comeback trail 20 years ago. His record sales had slowed and his "Shaft" imagery was out of time. But eye to eye, I saw how soul embodies the man.
Here's an edited, up-to-date version of my time with Hayes..

Accompanied only by an imposing bodyguard-driver, Isaac Hayes swaggered into the gazebo of a hotel on the outskirts of downtown Atlanta. The barrel-chested Hayes wore a loose fitting red Gold's Gym sweatshirt and tight, mirrored sunglasses, which he never removed. His head was as smooth as a newborn's bottom and his easy baritone boomed like a full moon in Dixie.
Sir Isaac Hayes was one the most once-in-a-lifetime figures in pop music........

...Hayes and David Porter were co-writers of Stax nuggets as Sam & Dave's "Soul Man" and "Hold On, I'm Comin," Carla Thomas's "B-A-B-Y," and Johnnie Taylor's "I Had a Dream." Together, the songwriting team of Hayes-Porter contributed to more than 200 Stax records, and they produced most of them.
As a solo artist, Hayes was bronzed in antipathy. Many of his 23 albums were weighed down by waterbed love raps and wildly excessive arrangements that played havoc with an honestly soulful heart and voice. His debut solo album, "Hot Buttered Soul" (1969), featured only four songs. Yet his wandering spoken word interludes were the beginning of what he called "rap."
Hayes' appearance at the 1988 Easter Sunday Stax reunion in Atlanta marked his first U.S. concert since 1978 and his first performance anywhere since 1981 (when he sang in Spain). Absent from the Atlanta set were the narcissistic trappings that used to Technicolor a Hayes concert. When he sang a rapturous version of "Never Can Say Goodbye," or a richly tender cover of "Windows of the World," Hayes didn't wear a purple cape or a gold robe or rhinestone glasses, and he wasn't backed by a superfluous band and 20-piece orchestra once appropriately known as the Movement. He traded in all of that for a sweet black-and-white tux and a couple of synthesizers.
"This show was a test for me," Hayes said in the hotel gazebo. "After awhile, it felt good to be out there again. I didn't have a grasp on things until I was out there for a while and then things start coming back. I tried out some things, saw what worked and know what I need to do to make some changes.
Except for an appearance on "Miami Vice" in 1987 and recording his "U-Turn" album on Columbia Records in 1986, Hayes had been in what he described as a "dormant" period. He had been working out at Gold's Gym in Marietta, Ga., riding stationary bicycles, bouncing on trampolines, bench-pressing up to 350 pounds and generally resting easy. After a celebrated bout with bankruptcy, three divorces (he is survived by 12 children) and a brutal battle with his management firm, Hayes left the United States in 1982 to live in London briefly before settling in the Atlanta area in 1983.
"If I don't feel good working, I just don't work," Hayes explained. "Even if it means to live in poverty, I'll do that. Once I have my priorities in order, then I can go forward."
When Hayes filed a $6 million bankruptcy petition in 1976, the press widely reported the subsequent auction of his leopard coat, $35,000 diamond watch and gold albums, playing up the tag of Hayes as a manic spendthift.
"People are always inclined to believe the flair," he said. "They never know the real story. The real thing was I had real bad financial management. You see, it was my dream to have a big, big business. I wanted to own tall skyscrapers. That was my ambition in life. I was going about it the right way, but the wrong way as far as trusting people on handling money. It was naivete on my part. I've since learned how you have to divide the time between creative and business."
Perhaps the most remarkable artifact of this period is found in the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis. You will see Hayes' 1972 gold-plated Cadillac Eldorado. It is Stax's answer to Webb Pierce's ostentatious 1962 Pontiac Bonneville in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.
When Hayes negotiated a new contract, one perk wa his $26,000 peacock blue Cadillac. Stax leased the car for Hayes and it was insured by Lloyd's of London. The car included a refrigerated bar, televison set and 24-karat gold exterior parts--including windshield wipers.

Hayes wasn't at all reluctant to share his stories about the Stax salad days.
"I had always wanted to work at Stax," he admitted. "In 1963, I played keyboards in a band with a baritone sax player named Floyd Newman who was a staff musician at Stax. He was to do a record for Stax, and they needed a keyboard player because (house keyboardist) Booker T. (Jones) was off at school. (Stax producer and co-founder) Jim Stewart asked me if I wanted the job and I jumped at it. I had been there three times before, auditioning with other bands, and I had been turned down each time."
In Peter Guralnick's magnificent 1986 book Sweet Soul Music (which is essential reading for detailed information on Stax), Hayes said he tried to crack Stax with a rock band (Sir Isaac and the Do-Dads), a rock vocal group (the Teen Tones) and a blues band (Sir Calvin Valentine and His Swinging Cats).
Those crazy monikers were a mere indication of the flamboyance to come.
The commercial magic clicked when Hayes teamed up with David Porter in 1964. Both songwriters attended rival high schools in Memphis, and they sang in rival groups around town. Porter, who was already on board at Stax when Hayes arrived, knew what they could do together.
"David said that since I played keyboards and he was a lyric man that we should hook up and form a team," Hayes recalled. "Holland and Dozier were doing it (at Motown), so I thought why not? One of the first things we wrote was for Carla Thomas - `How Do You Quit Someone You Love?' Then Sam & Dave came to town (from Miami), and they checked out all the writers and producers and decided to work with me and David. The first thing we wrote for them was `I Take What I Want' and then `You Don't Know Like I Know.' After their success, we started writing for everyone on the label."
Both he and Porter would get ideas for songs, especially for a title or a wordplay hook. "We wrote mainly when the artists were there," Hayes said. "If Sam & Dave were due in for a session, we'd sit them down at night in front of the piano in the little room where we wrote. They'd be right there on the spot. We felt the artists that way. Now, if we had a burst of inspiration, we'd do it without their presence. I remember we wrote `When Something Is Wrong With My Baby' at my apartment. I had one of those old Wurlitzer pianos - the same model Ray Charles did `What I'd Say' on - and David came over to my house with the idea that something was wrong with his baby. So I started with a real slow thing, and we did it right there."
The monumental Hayes-Porter composition was "Soul Man," which was the first Stax song to break onto the nation's Top 10 pop music charts. "That was during the time when blacks were rioting and burning," Hayes said. "And the password was always soul. Even though it was a time of upheaval, there was also a unity among blacks because we had a common cause in fighting for freedom, justice and equality. I thought that `Soul Man' was what it was all about. That idea was all David needed."
The meaning of the song has obviously changed over the years. In Chicago, it deteriorated to the image of a couple of white suburban guys badly copying the Blues Brothers (who imitated Sam & Dave, at least with the blessing of Steve Cropper) at Chicago Bulls games.
"I know," Hayes said with a resigned smile. "I've seen them on television. When you write a song, after it's done, you have no control over it. People interpret it in different ways. I don't mind. At the time it was done, it served its purpose because it had relevance."
The same could be said about Stax as a social cornerstone of Memphis's black community. "Stax represented the true essence of R & B," Hayes said. "Of blackness. Of soul. Motown was black, but they were also targeted to white teenagers. This country still had a racist attitude. So if the (Motown) music catered to them (a white audience), they were more inclined embrace it, rather than a Stax song that dealt with soul music and soul people. (Whites) couldn't understand it. They felt the beat, but how could they understand the philosophy or subject matter? They couldn't, because it was about black experience. Whether it was personal, romantic or social, it was still a black experience. The only thing (white audiences) could relate to was music and emotion of the sound." Hayes was a master at placing the emotion within the music.
At the time of his death Hayes was an advisor to the Concord Music Group and its 2007 reactivation of the Stax imprint. In 2000 he released one of my favorite cookbooks "Cooking With Heart And Soul" [Putnam, $27.95] and by all means check out Olympian Carl Lewis's Jerked Catfish Woven on Cinnamon Kabobs. Hayes was also in the process of recording a new album for Stax.
In a statement released Monday John Burk, executive VP and chief creative officer of Concord said, "Isaac had a profound and multifaceted impact on the Stax label, contributing to its legacy as a writer, producer, arranger, studio musician, A&R executive, and of course, one of its most successful artists. I came to know the man behind the music and his deep love for humanity. He was an extraordinary individual who used his talents to inspire and unite people from all walks of life."

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1 Comment

nice article and well written - thank you!
gave me a little insight into the man Isaac Hayes was!

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Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. His collection of Sun-Times travel columns, "Ticket To Everywhere," was published in 2000 by Lake Claremont Press. He was lead writer for "Farm Aid: Song for America" (Rodale Press, 2005) which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Willie Nelson inspired effort.
He won a 1987 Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick O-Type Award for Column Writing. Hoekstra wrote and co-proudced the WTTW-Channel 11 PBS special: "The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement," nominated for a 2001-02 Chicago Emmy for a documentary program/cultural significance.
He lives in Chicago.

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