Live Report: Isaac Hayes

Life, New York, December 31, 1997

Shaft or Chef? Although best known for his music on the legendary Stax label (where he co-wrote such R&B classics as "Soul Man" and "Hold On, I'm Coming"), and as the hot, buttered soulful voice behind the "Theme from 'Shaft,'" it's strange that Isaac Hayes would enjoy a career resurgence thanks to an animated TV show. But by lending his voice to Chef, the seasoned cafeteria cook of Comedy Central's "South Park," Hayes has reached out to a whole new audience -- and a whole new generation.

It makes sense that Hayes would be tapped for the voice of South Park Elementary's guru. Able to aptly vocalize Chef's carnal fixations and observations in sultry song, it's a sure bet even the foul-mouthed kids of South Park would have appreciated the way Hayes tip-toed around the word "motherf---er" (shut yo' mouth) in his No. 1 hit 27 years ago. Still, at a New Year's Eve show at New York's Life, Hayes and his 11-piece backing band served up enough color and animation for any cartoon.

Adorned in sunglasses and a silver-sequinned tuxedo, the Black Moses of rhythm and soul took the stage as his band revved into "Don't Let Go," with Hayes' trademark chrome dome and shimmering jacket visually mirroring the disco ball that floated above the stage. Building from the hypnotic orchestral swirl of Burt Bacharach's "Walk on By," Hayes countered bedroom ballads with disco confections, easing into the sly "Do Your Thing," which found the singer gently recounting a sensuous credo as a hedonistic mantra: "If you want to make love under the stars above, love on, love on."

"It's cold outside, but let's think warm," Hayes said from behind his keyboard as his band launched into "Summer in the City" (although the punchy verve with which Hayes' tight ensemble gave the cover owed more to Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City" than the white-bread blandness of the Lovin' Spoonful's original). Hayes then assumed a conductor's pose for his final number, the mostly instrumental "Theme from 'Shaft'," which sprawled out for an amazing 10-plus minutes and featured the songsmith leading the band through a series of audience-requested vamps.

As the band's frenzied instrumentation crescendoed in the background, Hayes stepped off the stage and strolled into the audience, engulfed in applause and high-fives.