Isaac Hayes, dubbed “Black Moses” during the height of his popularity, revolutionized soul music, leading it out of the era of the three-minute single into two new areas—the completely-orchestrated concept album with extended cuts and the black motion picture soundtrack. Hot Buttered Soul, released on the Enterprise label in 1969, contained only four cuts, and one, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” was over 18 minutes long. It not only became the first album to go gold for Stax Records, it hit platinum.
The soundtrack from the 1971 motion picture Shaft was Hayes’s fourth consecutive platinum LP and the “Theme from Shaft” earned him an Academy Award for Best Original Song. That success opened the door for others, like Curtis Mayfield and Norman Whitfield, to write for the screen.
“I was knocked by some critics at that time saying, ‘Who does he think he is, taking horns and strings and putting them on top of funky rhythm tracks?’ But that was the way I felt and now it’s the going thing,” Hayes recently told Black Music & Jazz Review’s Adam Finn.
Hayes was born on a farm in Covington, Tennessee, 30 miles north of Memphis. While still an infant, his mother died and his father deserted Isaac and his older sister, who were left to be raised by their sharecropping grandparents. As a child, Hayes learned to live with an empty stomach and loneliness. “I remember dreaming about having decent clothes to wear, a warm place to sleep, and a nice square meal,” he once recalled. He moved to Memphis with his grandparents when he was seven. Then his grandfather died, and at age ten, Isaac suddenly became the man of the house. “I worked and went to school simultaneously,” he remembered. “In school, I joined the junior high school band just to have access to the musical instruments.”
As a Brook Benton imitator, Hayes began his recording career in 1962, cutting a couple of sides (one as “Sir Isaac and the Do-Dads”) for obscure Memphis companies. They were flops and the poverty continued until he met insurance salesman David Porter.
Hayes began playing piano on sessions for Stax Records, while he and Porter wrote and produced songs for such Stax/Volt artists as Johnnie Taylor, Mabel John, Carla Thomas, and, particularly, Sam and Dave. The Sam Moore-Dave Prater singing duo joined the Isaac Hayes-David Porter songwriting/producing duo to form a team that wouldn’t stop making hits—”You Don’t Know Like I Know,” “Hold On! I’m Comin’,” “You Got Me Hummin’,” “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby,” “Soul Man,”, and “I Thank You.”
Hayes’s first solo album, Presenting Isaac Hayes, was a low-budget, jazz-influenced set recorded on the spur of the moment following a Christmas party with only bass and drums accompanying his piano and voice.
The second, Hot Buttered Soul (with a close-up cover shot of his shiny beard-to-ear scalp), was something altogether different—a husky, very masculine baritone rapping and crooning intimately against a massive backdrop of strings and horns from the Memphis Symphony and a solid backbeat by the Bar-Kays. His new fans weren’t satisfied with the three-minute version of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” issued on a 45; they had to have his whole sexy rap in order to be satiated. Many who had never invested in an LP before rushed to get all 18 minutes and 40 seconds of Hayes’s epic performance of Jim Webb’s tune and also discovered an equally sensuous 12-minute reading of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Walk On By” with its compelling fuzz-toned guitar riff.
Other classic albums followed—The Isaac Hayes Movement (featuring “I Stand Accused”), To Be Continued (featuring “Never Can Say Goodbye”), Shaft (a two-disc set), Black Moses (the poster cover, which depicted Hayes in a long, hooded robe standing on river bank with arms outstretched, unfolded in the shape of a cross three feet wide and four feet tall), and Joy.
Isaac Hayes had become soul music’s first superhero. He was a young black man who had risen from poverty to prove he could do everything musically—sing, play (keyboards, vibes, alto sax), produce, compose, arrange, and score motion pictures. Following his triumphant appearance in the Wattstax extravaganza, Hayes launched an acting career. He played in Truck Turner (also handling the score), Three Tough Guys, and It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, and was seen as a semi-regular in NBC-TV’s Rockford Files.
After leaving Stax, Hayes recorded three solo albums for ABC and one for Polydor, plus a double album of duets with Dionne Warwick for ABC. Stax revived this year by Fantasy/Prestige/Milestone, recently issued Hotbed, an album of previously unreleased Hayes material.