Each month, the editors of the Oxford African American Studies Center provide insights into black history and culture by offering specially commissioned featured essays, photo collections, and a selected list of articles to further guide the reader. In this series, we’re exploring the people and musical styles that influenced the development of hip hop. Twice a week we’ll offer additional articles that expand on that topic. Today we examine the career of the man who gave us the theme from Shaft and the voice of Chef on South Park, Mr. Isaac Hayes.
A towering figure in 1970s soul music and a forebear of modern hip hop and rap, Isaac Hayes was born in Covington, Tennessee, on 20 August 1942, but it was in Memphis that the multi-talented Hayes would establish his sound and style. His classic 1969 effort, the sumptuous, deep-grooving Hot Buttered Soul, made Hayes a star and forever cemented his image—smoothly shaved head, eyes forever hidden by sunglasses, covered in gold jewelry—in the minds of a generation of young African Americans, who would later adapt the Hayes look to what would come to be known as gangster rap. In 1971 Hayes cut the hit title track to the legendary blaxploitation flick Shaft, a song for which Hayes became the first African American to receive an Academy Award for a musical composition.
Here is the entry on Isaac Hayes from Grove Music Online:
Isaac Hayes (b. Covington, TN, 20 Aug 1942). American soul singer, keyboard player, songwriter and producer. He first recorded for the Memphis-based Youngstown label in 1962. In the first half of the 1960s Hayes also wrote songs and played sessions for the Goldwax and Phillips labels in Memphis, backing singers such as Jeb Stuart, Dorothy Williams and Spencer Wiggins. As a member of the saxophonist Floyd Newman’s band, he eventually found his way into Stax where he co-wrote one side and played on both sides of Newman’s solitary single in 1963. Hayes was then hired for a variety of Stax sessions to replace the keyboard player Booker T. Jones while Jones was at college.
Soon thereafter Hayes began helping with arrangements and by 1965 had formed a songwriting partnership with lyricist David Porter. Hayes and Porter became the foremost writing and production team at Stax, creating seminal chart hits for artists such as Sam and Dave, the Charmells, Ruby Johnson, Mable John, Carla Thomas, the Soul Children and the Emotions. Their material leaned heavily on gospel roots, some songs, such as Sam and Dave’s Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody (1966), being secular rewrites of traditional gospel material.
Although a successful writer, producer and session musician, Hayes desired to resume his career as a recording artist. His first album for the Stax subsidiary Enterprise, Presenting Isaac Hayes, was released in the spring of 1968 to little acclaim. However, his second album, Hot Buttered Soul (1969), sold over a million copies and in doing so redefined the possibilities for black popular music. Contrary to the beliefs of the major and independent record companies, it demonstrated that black artists could enjoy success with the more prestigious and potentially creative format of the album as opposed to the single. With songs on Hot Buttered Soul as long as 18 minutes, Hayes pioneered the use of extended forms in black popular music. He also initiated the vogue in the first half of the 1970s for spoken monologues, or ‘raps’ as they were then known, and deftly fused aspects of jazz, rock, classical music and soul. With Shaft (1971) Hayes pioneered the black film soundtrack, opening the door for such artists as Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and Bobby Womack to work in that medium.
Alongside Al Green and Stevie Wonder, Isaac Hayes was the dominant black artist in the first half of the 1970s. He continued to record regularly until 1980 and since then has devoted most of his time to acting.
Featured Image Credit: ‘Isaac Hayes dancers perform at the International Ampitheater; October, 1973’, Photo by John H. White, Public Domain via The National Archives and Wikimedia Commons.