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Presenting Isaac Hayes Superstar

The singer recalls his Memphis roots and insists R&B influence still there

Isaac Hayes

Isaac Hayes, 1970

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Among the Kwottos of Northern Nigeria the King of Panda used to be regarded as an incarnate divinity, who had power over the elements. Nevertheless at an annual festival one of the king’s slaves, a strong, handsome man, was allowed for a single day to wear a leopard’s skin (the badge of royalty) and to adorn his head with a pair of buffalo horns; thus arrayed, and attended by a bodyguard of 50 men, armed with stout sticks, he used to strut proudly about the town, explaining, “I am king at this festival. Let no one dispute my will. . . .” Meantime the real king provided him with as much beer to drink and as many slave women for concubines as he cared to ask for.
– Sir James Frazer, ‘The Golden Bough’

New York – Precisely, Sir James! Isaac Hayes comes on just like a fearsome festival stand-in – even if his bodyguards are armed only with walkie-talkies, his costume is Sunset Strip African, and the ritual he performs is far more Apollo than Kwotto.

After the MC has asked for a “warm round of applause for the Number One Black Entertainer in the World,” and the band has broken into the “Theme from Shaft,” a black Verushka, her icy beauty accented by her gleaming bald head, stalks onto the stage. She prowls about in a red and white imitation zebra poncho, glaring at the audience. A concubine, perhaps?

Finally, she crooks her finger at stage right. A pause as the anticipation builds and then Isaac Hayes enters. Tall and broad-shouldered, he appears to be cleverly disguised as a grass hut. He moves rigidly, as if on stilts, to the woman; upon closer examination he turns out to be wearing a sort of British magistrate’s wig fashioned out of straw, a long mantle of African cloth and a grass skirt. But there is no doubt that he is an imposingly strong, handsome man. He and the woman go through a routine of choreographed lasciviousness that climaxes as she tears off his mantle. He raises his bare arms as if to say, “I am king at this festival,” and the crowd goes crazy.

What follows this bit of theater is an hour of beautifully executed lounge music, supplemented by Isaac’s exhortations (“Is there soul in the hall!”), his droll raps on the twin themes of jealousy and infidelity, his long, monotonous vocals, and his organ playing. As the show progresses he becomes less and less redoubtable. He introduces his vibraphone solo with the words: “If I miss a couple of notes, y’all figure it’s ’cause the sticks are crooked.” The shaman, it turns out, is just folks.

After the stunning entrance, the rest of the show is one long, smooth ride downhill – which is how many observers see Ike Hayes’ career of late. Of course, with both Black Moses and Shaft hovering around the top of Billboard’s LP chart, Ike has never enjoyed greater fame or commercial success. But this is the man who with David Porter created an electrifying repertoire of soul songs for Sam and Dave, including “Soul Man” and “I Thank You”; it is hard to hear any of that rhythm and blues magic in most of the Middle-of-the-Road music that Ike is turning out today.

A prominent black writer privately accuses Ike of perpetrating “the ultimate degradation of black music.” A white critic calls him “the black McKuen.” A jazz musician from Isaac’s hometown of Memphis offhandedly explains the change: “It’s simple. Ike fried his mind on acid and his music’s never been the same.”

When I asked Ike whether psychedelic drugs had caused him to write a new kind of music, he simply shook his head and in his firm, polite way said, “No.”

“The drug thing did not have an effect on me,” he said. “For one thing, I’m not singing the same kind of song because I cannot sing as strong and as hard and as driving as Sam and Dave.”

Ike sat back on the orange sofa in his small suite at the Summit Hotel. With his beard, baldness and shades, he looks of indeterminate age; actually he is 29. He was wearing a long robe of Indian cloth and wine-colored silk socks. Saving his worn voice for two evening shows at Philharmonic Hall, he spoke softly and quickly, with none of his measured stage cadences. He answered all questions with unshakable Southern courtesy. As he addressed himself to the matter of the change in his music he looked into space, occasionally darting his eyes to check for reactions.

“The R&B feeling is still there,” he said. “But the sound might be a bit more sophisticated. You see, just like anything else progresses, sound does the same. The sound spectrum gets broader; a person’s scope enlarges. For instance, ten years ago, a kid 16 couldn’t hear all these things on a record, couldn’t appreciate them. I’m just expressing myself in the way that I know how; I’m not trying to purposely be different. So you hear all these strings or things I put on my arrangements – these are things I heard all my life.”

For the next five minutes, Ike ticked off the kinds of music which influenced him while he was growing up: hillbilly, Hit Parade, be-bop, jazz, classical (“They used to play ‘Toy Soliders’ around Christmastime every year”), and rock ‘n’ roll. Most of all, there was gospel. “Church was right across the road from the house and my mother – she passed away when I was a year and a half – I was told she was one of the best singers around in those parts.

“You can look upon me as a sponge in my formative years,” Ike said. “I was absorbing all of this, so when I express myself the way I want to, the way Isaac Hayes wants to express himself, then you hear all these things. People said, ‘Wow, this is a brand new thing,’ but it wasn’t brand new to me because it is what had been in me all the time. But I was restricted with Sam and Dave to write music in their particular bag.”

Ike’s first totally unrestricted album was Hot Buttered Soul, the million-seller he recorded three years ago at the request of a Stax executive. “I felt like what I wanted to say, I couldn’t say it in no two minutes and 30 seconds, because I wanted to speak through the arrangement, I wanted to speak through singing, I wanted to speak through actual monologue. I cut that record with all the freedom in the world and it was a beautiful release for me.”

The drawn-out songs on the albums of Ike’s Hot Buttered Soul period are almost invariably recorded in one take. “You know, I don’t plan it, I just rap, man,” said Ike. “‘Cause if you go over it too many times it just gets mechanical.” I suggested that the musicians might not sit still if they were asked to do a second take of, say, all 19 minutes of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.”

“No,” said Ike, “They don’t mind. Sometimes the tape runs off the spool and we groove maybe five or ten minutes after that. I mean, we just get keyed up that way, man, and just screw. There’s a lot of stuff I’ve cut, man, there hasn’t been lyrics to it or anything, it’s just back there on the shelf at Stax. A lot of stuff in Santana’s bag. And one day I might just put out an album, a double pocket or whatever of all these tracks that we’ve cut, and the grooves are so fantastic you wouldn’t believe it, man.”

For all his conviction in his new music, Ike clearly misses the old R&B “In fact,” he said, “Dave Porter and I are gonna do an album, first of the year, like the old Sam and Dave stuff. We’ll reach back, get that old sound, and put it out. Secretly, Dave and I always wanted to do that, you know; but after Sam and Dave became successful, why should we have jumped in there when they were selling it?”

Porter will sing the high parts that Sam used to take; Ike will do the low vocals a la Dave, plus the keyboard work. As in the old days, Porter will write the words, Ike the music. The same superb band that played on Shaft will provide the backup. “It’s just a changeup, just another part of me I want to try,” said Ike. “If it doesn’t sound good, I’m not gonna put it out.”

Ike began to warm to the subject of Stax’s past glories. “Sam and Dave and Otis,” he let out a low whistle. “Dynamite sessions. Oh, man,” he said longingly.

Ike’s first job at Stax was working as a keyboard sideman on The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads, and the association continued until Otis’ death. “This cat would go behind a mike and compose as we went,” Ike remembered. “We’d get a groove on, rhythm section and horns too, and he’d stand there and the lyrics and melody would pop outa his mouth.

“And when David Porter and I started writing songs for Sam and Dave, those sessions were spontaneous too, most of ’em. Like someone’d say, ‘OK, next week Sam and Dave is comin’ in.’

“‘Oh yeah?’ we’d say, ‘we gonna get some tunes, we don’t have no songs!’

“OK, they’re there for a week, right? First two days we just had them cats in the studio and they sit down in a room and we write. We can write better for the artist when the artist is present. But we also can reach back and relate to experiences which we can write about. So we’d say, ‘That’s a hip title, man – write it down!’ We’d write it down and then we’d get in there and start actually writing the songs. We’d write maybe two songs one night and two songs the next night. Third day we go in the studio, and while we’re writing, they’re learning it. Dave teach it to them while I go teach the band the arrangement and then we just put it all together. And it was live, horns and everything in the studio at the same time.”

Writing for Sam and Dave, Ike drew heavily on his feeling for gospel, a feeling he had picked up in his village church where he sang with his sister as a child, as well as in the Morning Stars, the group he joined when his family later moved to Memphis. But most of his musicianship came from outside the church. As a teenager, he often went into the country to do the backbreaking field work of chopping cotton. “One of these places I chopped cotton, I got with this blues band – Calvin Valentine and the Swing Kings, or something like that. At that time I was playing saxophone. We’d leave Memphis every Friday and stay the weekend in Arkansas. We played store porches, man, with people dancin’ around, eatin’ fish sandwiches, drinkin’ wine.

“And we played out on these plantations where people would come in from the fields on the weekend and they would ball. You had a big barrel of corn liquor, moonshine, there with a dip, you know; and crap tables in all these places, man. I slept on crap tables sometimes. Some of these places, a cat get shot, man, they just drag him off. Owner says, ‘Keep playing!’ and you look up and see the ceiling comin’ down from the blast of a double barrel.” All this for eight bucks a weekend.

“We played a raw country blues that a lot of these record companies went out into these rural areas to get. Well, I know exactly where to put my hands on all these cats. I mean, unheard-of cats that really sing that blues and, hey, man, I played with a lot of them. I thought about one time goin’ out and gettin’ these cats and recordin’ them but I didn’t want to do that ’cause it seems like I’m exploitin’ them. Let ’em stay there and be happy and sing their blues, ya know? Leave ’em alone. But that whole scene is part of my musical education. I paid my dues on all these levels.”

Graduating from high school at 19, Ike had to pass up the musical scholarships he had won in order to support his pregnant wife. He worked in a packing house slaughtering pigs and cows but walked out on the job after a labor dispute.

“I was singin’ here and there, pickin’ up a little change, just barely survivin’,” he said. Finally a local black vocalist asked him to play piano in a backup combo. “I said, ‘Yeah, man,’ and after I got home I realized I can’t play no piano. But I needed the gig. So it was New Year’s Eve and we opened up at this white club called the Southern Club. I didn’t know how to play piano. I said, Goddam, they’re gonna find out, they’re gonna fire me. But when I got there I found out the other cats couldn’t play either. Beautiful thing, man. Everybody was drunk so they thought we were groovy. The club owner was impressed and hired us and we improved fast.”

Within a couple of years, Ike had landed a steady piano-playing job with a nightclub band led by Floyd Newman, a charter member of the Stax house band, the Mar-Keys. Newman took his nightclub band to record at Stax, and Ike got his break.

“I’d been to Stax about three other times auditioning, but we were always turned down. This time I said, ‘Hell, I’m in here now, I’ll use the Trojan horse trick.'” The president of Stax liked his keyboard work and asked him to fill in for Booker T. Jones, who was away on sabbatical. Thus he began his career as sideman, composer, and producer – functions which he performed in various permutations for the Emotions and the Soul Children as well as for Sam and Dave and Otis. Trying to emulate Nat King Cole and Billy Eckstine, he even cut a vocal single; it flopped and he gave up thoughts of stardom.

“But then later on,” he said, “I put out an album called Presenting Isaac Hayes. Well, I wasn’t satisfied with it, I didn’t think they were going to release it ’cause at that time I wasn’t in full control of my mental and spiritual facilities because I was under the influence of alcohol.” Isaac raced his words. Evidently he was still uncomfortable at the thought of the session, which took place with drummer Al Jackson and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, both Stax regulars.

“We had a birthday party,” he continued, “so we had a few drinks and some guy said, ‘Let’s cut a record.’ OK. Duck and I’d drunk about two bottles of hot champagne. So it was a fun thing, unrehearsed, completely impromptu. Still, they put it out.”

Presenting Isaac Hayes, a bizarre and highly personal amalgam of blues and jazz, did not sell well. Ike retired once again as a soloist until the making of Hot Buttered Soul, the success of which elevated him to his present status as the first and most famous composer of easy-listening soul music, not to mention an executive position at Stax.

Now, when he is not making four or five appearances a week on the road, playing to increasingly white audiences, he is trying to keep up with a killing schedule at Stax. “I go in the studio at say nine o’clock at night and come out at six the next morning. Then I have to go into the office at ten in the morning to take care of administrative things.”

He also serves as Vice Chairman of the Memphis Black Knights, an organization formed after the assassination of Dr. King to work against police brutality, job discrimination and inadequate housing for blacks. During last year’s Memphis riots, he was part of a delegation that convinced the mayor to lift an imprudent curfew that might have caused more bloodshed. A year ago he performed at Hunter College in New York for a Soledad Brothers benefit. “I contributed my talents to that because they were political prisoners,” he said. “This is where I’m at. I’m not the turn-the-other-cheek kind of person, no. But I believe in using tact and intelligence.”

For all his success, Ike has stayed remarkably loyal to his Memphis roots. His musical staff includes two friends from his bluesband days, and his road staff of 28 is said to be liberally padded with hometown friends. Some of these serve in the security force that always surrounds him during concerts. There is also the masseuse/barber/manicurist who gives Ike’s pate its bi-weekly close cropping. “It’s no gimmick or anything, I’ve done it since 1964,” Ike said a little defensively. “It’s just so my scalp can breathe.”

“For the future,” he said, “I feel I might be of more value to Stax abroad rather than being there in the office, so I might just give it up. I’ll produce, write and arrange, but it’ll be on a limited basis.

“I would love to play great black figures in history, in films. I’ve seen them played, but played by white men, which I didn’t knock at that particular time. But now is the time when they’re telling it just like it is. So I would like to play Hannibal, a figure like that. Also I would like to play a dramatic role. I don’t know if I’m capable, but I’d like to know. I’ve always wanted to do that.” 

In This Article: Coverwall, Isaac Hayes

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