Monday, August 11, 2008

In praise of Hayes

"Well some girls like to be bad girls, with whips and chains and leather/ Well I forget what it's called, but uh... the freakier the better"
- Isaac Hayes, from the song "I'll Do Anything to Turn You On"

Last week the music world lost a giant of soul music - Isaac Hayes, dead from suspected stroke at age 65. The casual music fan knows Hayes primarily from his deep chocolate bass voice on his biggest hit, "Theme from Shaft", and for his role as Chef in the animated series South Park. But Hayes should also be remembered as a pioneer who expanded the boundaries of black music, and as a writer who helped pen some of the greatest songs of all time. In sample form, his music became the foundation for some of hip-hop and R&B's great hits too; if you've ever listened to Dr Dre, Massive Attack, Public Enemy, Portishead, Wu-Tang Clan, Notorious BIG, 2Pac, Tricky, Erykah Badu or Geto Boyz, you've no doubt heard Isaac Hayes in there somewhere.

Hayes at his early 70s peak was totally pimpin', owning a basketball franchise and decking himself out in phat gold chains, yet he came from humble beginnings; after dropping out of high school, he picked cotton and worked in an abbatoir. He had sung in church from age 5 and taught himself a number of instruments, which eventually led him to work as a session keyboardist at Stax Records in Memphis. But it was a chance meeting with budding songwriter David Porter that truly sparked Hayes' music career into life; Porter apparently tried to sell him insurance, but then ended up talking about music instead.

The two co-wrote some of the standards of Southern soul - Carla Thomas's B.A.B.Y., as well as Sam & Dave classics like "Hold On, I'm Comin". These were songs that exemplified the best of the Stax Records catalogue - raw yet catchy enough for crossover appeal, all over in less than 3 minutes.
Yet Hayes the songwriter and Hayes the performer were very different. Much of his output consisted of covers of pop and country standards, yet interpreted almost to the point of unrecognisability. His breakthrough solo album, Hot Buttered Soul (1969) consisted only of 4 songs, each far longer than anything on black radio at the time. It opens with Hayes' 12-minute version of "Walk On By", a song that blew the doors wide open for soul music. Originally a Burt Bacharach and Hal David tune, Hayes epic treatment (psychedelic guitar, thudding rhythmic pulse, orchestral dramatics, gospel organ and tormented bluesy vocal) ushered in an era of new possibilities for black performers. The album itself arguably turned Hayes into soul's first "album artist". It was a bold statement of intent, which allowed legends such as Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder to follow in his footsteps with album masterpieces of their own.

That album also featured an 18-minute cover of "By the Time I Get to Phoenix", which opens with an 8-minute spoken monologue over piano chords. These "Ike's Raps" would become a trademark, and he was one of the very first performers to popularise the idea of speaking over a beat (although his raps are nothing at all like hip-hop).

Hayes' biggest hit though was his soundtrack to the blaxploitation flick Shaft, which also netted him a number one hit and an Academy Award. His musical output gradually waned in quality as the 70s wore on, and his lavish lifestyle and no-holds-barred approach to making music led to his bankrupcy. He began to focus more on acting, and has appeared in a number of films and series throughout his career, most notably in the recent Hustle and Flow.

Hayes' resurgence in the public eye came in the late 90s, in the form of Chef, South Park's kindly dispenser of wisdom and school lunches with a propensity for breaking out into songs about making sweet lurrve to the laydeez. For all of the show's frequent vulgarity, Chef was a wonderful character and it is hard to imagine anyone but Hayes being able to pull it off so well. Unfortunately he left the show in 2006 after a disagreement relating to his membership of the Church of Scientology.

As befits a man who recorded his fair share of songs devoted to lovemaking, Hayes had 4 wives over his lifetime and fathered 12 children, the most recent in 2006.

Classic Isaac Hayes compositions
Sam and Dave - "When Something is Wrong With My Baby"
Sam and Dave - "Soul Man"
Sam and Dave - "Hold On I'm Coming"
Carla Thomas - "B.A.B.Y."
The Charmels - "As Long As I've Got You"
The Emotions - "So I Can Love You"

Classic Isaac Hayes albums
"Hot Buttered Soul" (1969)
"Movement" (1970)
"To Be Continued" (1970)
"Shaft Soundtrack" (1971)
"Black Moses" (1971)

Classic Isaac Hayes songs
"Walk On By"
"The Look of Love"
"I Stand Accused"
"Theme from Shaft"
"Do Your Thing"
"Never Can Say Goodbye"

Classic Isaac Hayes samples in other artists' songs
"Ike's Rap III" - sampled in Portishead's "Glory Box"
"Bumpy's Lament" - sampled in Dr Dre's "Explosive" and Erykah Badu's "Bag Lady"
"Hung Up On My Baby" - sampled in Geto Boyz' "Mind Playin Tricks On Me"
"Ike's Mood I" - sampled in Mary J Blige's "I Love You" and Massive Attack's "One Love"
"Walk On By" - sampled in Notorious BIG's "Warning"
"Our Day Will Come" - sampled in Massive Attack's "Exchange"
"Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic" - sampled in Public Enemy's "Black Steel"