Isaac Hayes

The Innovators: Stax Artist Spotlights
Isaac Hayes

One of Stax’s most influential creative forces, GRAMMY®- and Academy Award-winning singer, songwriter, producer, and actor Isaac Hayes not only shaped the label’s “Memphis Sound,” but also revolutionized soul music, paving a path for Black artists along the way.

Hayes’ life exemplified the American dream. Born into poverty in rural Tennessee and brought up by his grandparents, the young artist showed musical talent early on. At five, he began singing in his church’s choir, picking up the piano, organ, flute, and saxophone along the way. Relocating to Memphis in the ’50s, the young man spent his days working in meatpacking plants; at night he pursued his passion, performing at local clubs. Hayes’ perseverance paid off: Despite two failed auditions for Stax, the label eventually hired him to replace their in-house keyboardist, Booker T. Jones, who was away attending college.

Although Hayes lacked formal training, his virtuosic talent quickly became apparent as he backed sessions for the label’s stars, including Otis Redding. Before long, he branched out into songwriting, partnering with David Porter. Together, they became a hitmaking powerhouse, writing (and often producing) best-selling singles like Sam & Dave’s GRAMMY®-winning “Soul Man” and “Hold On! I’m Comin’,” Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y,” and Johnnie Taylor’s “I Got to Love Somebody’s Baby.”

But Hayes yearned to record his own material. While his jazz-forward 1968 debut, Presenting Isaac Hayes, failed to perform on the charts, Hayes wasn’t deterred. One year later, he followed with Hot Buttered Soul.

In Rob Bowman’s Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records, Hayes attributed the assassination of his friend, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as the impetus for the album. “It affected me for a whole year. I could not create properly,” he told Bowman. “I was so bitter and so angry. I thought…I can’t do a thing about it so let me become successful and powerful enough where I can have a voice to make a difference. So I went back to work and started writing again.”

And make a difference he did. Hot Buttered Soul found Hayes delving into four lengthy ruminations—his signature baritone vocals standing out amongst lushly arranged orchestration. The groundbreaking album included a nearly 19-minute cover of Jimmy Webb’s ”By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and a 12-minute rendition of Burt Bacharach’s “Walk on By.” The LP jacket, meanwhile, was a declaration of Hayes’ arrival, featuring an overhead shot of his iconic shaved head and massive gold chains.

While creative freedom was Hayes’ driving force behind Hot Buttered Soul, the album became Stax’s biggest hit to date, selling over a million copies, topping the R&B chart, landing in the Billboard 200’s Top Ten, and spawning two hit singles. Although the record wasn’t political in nature, it was rebellious. In an era of single-driven records, Hayes challenged the music industry with his progressive soul—and won.

He continued to shift the musical landscape with The Isaac Hayes Movement (1970) and …To Be Continued (1970)—the latter of which found him delivering his first of many spoken word monologues in “Ike’s Rap I.” It was nearly a decade before the emergence of hip-hop.

1971’s Black Moses—a name bestowed on Hayes by a Stax executive—stood as a bold declaration of Black pride and power. The LP’s inventive gatefold jacket unfolded into a large cross, displaying the artist (as the title character) with his arms out wide. Isaac Hayes was one of the biggest names in the industry and Black Moses proved his prowess once again, as it sat atop the R&B Albums chart for nearly two months.

With his larger-than-life persona and best-selling music, Hayes delivered an empowering message to Black listeners. But offstage, he put his words to work as an activist—particularly on a local level. In addition to establishing a food bank and helping to register Black voters, he also fought against police brutality and discrimination through the Memphis-based Black Knights, which he co-founded.

Hayes also proved the power of the Black audience—particularly when he scored the soundtrack to 1971’s Shaft. The GRAMMY®-winning soundtrack landed at the top of the Billboard 200, while its supremely funky “Theme from Shaft” became an instant classic—hitting No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Hayes’ work on the film earned him two barrier-breaking achievements at the 1972 Academy Awards, as he became the first Black composer to win for Best Original Song (“Theme from Shaft”) and Best Original Score. That success opened up a variety of new opportunities for the artist in Hollywood, including starring roles in 1974’s Truck Turner and Three Tough Guys (Hayes also provided the music for both films).

After Stax closed in 1975, Hayes continued to grow as a multi-talented force in the entertainment industry, releasing albums like Chocolate Chip (1975) and New Horizon (1977), and expanding his work as an actor, appearing in such blockbusters as Escape from New York (1981) and Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), plus shows like The A-Team and Miami Vice. In the late ’90s, he found a new fanbase as the voice of Chef in the animated series, South Park.

Before his death in 2008, Hayes was able to see, and hear, the impact that he had on younger generations of musicians—particularly when it came to hip-hop. As one of the most sampled artists of all time, Hayes’ songs have appeared in hundreds of recordings, including those by Dr. Dre, Wu-Tang Clan, Portishead, Snoop Dogg, Destiny’s Child, Massive Attack, 2Pac, Notorious B.I.G., and TLC. In more recent years, artists like Kanye West, BROCKHAMPTON, and Alessia Cara have all given his songs new life through sampling.

Among his many honors and awards, Hayes was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005. In 2004, he was named a BMI Icon for his prolific and influential work as a songwriter, while in 2020, he was celebrated with a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award by the Recording Academy.

 

STAX FAX

  • In 1972, Isaac Hayes became the first Black artist to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song (for “Theme from Shaft”). He also stood as the first Black artist to win in a non-acting category and was the third Black person ever to win an Oscar.
  • Hayes’ philanthropic work expanded far beyond Memphis. In addition to establishing The Isaac Hayes Foundation in 1999, the artist spent much of his time in Ghana, where he sought to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic, promote literacy, and establish educational programs. In 1992, he was crowned as an honorary king in the Ada region to commemorate his work.

Essential Tracks

Theme from Shaft

In 1971, Hayes was commissioned by director Gordon Parks to write the dramatic and soulful score to While the film remains a cult classic and a defining moment in the era of “blaxploitation” films, its soundtrack is just as enduring—particularly the instantly recognizable “Theme from Shaft.” The iconic track not only became a massive, award-winning hit for Hayes but was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2014 for its cultural significance.

Walk on By

In 1969, Hayes turned this Burt Bacharach classic (first made famous by Dionne Warwick) into a lushly orchestrated, 12-minute-long masterpiece. An edited version of the song—off Hot Buttered Soul—became one of the artist’s first solo hits—landing in the Billboard Hot 100’s Top 40 and at No.13 on the R&B chart. Sit back, relax, and enjoy.

Ike’s Rap I

Hayes delivers an intimate, softly-spoken monologue to his lady over a building instrumental track in this cut off 1971’s …To Be Continued. While the song doesn’t necessarily resemble modern-day rap, it and was one of the first uses of the word “rap” to describe speaking over music. Nearly a decade later, artists like Grandmaster Flash and Kurtis Blow would take the genre to the next level.

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