Isaac Hayes; Created Memphis Sound, 'Theme From Shaft'

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 11, 2008

Isaac Hayes, 65, the Oscar-winning soul singer and songwriter whose swaggering "Theme From Shaft" became a signature sound of the 1970s, died Aug. 10 at his home outside Memphis.

Steve Shular, a spokesman for the Shelby County, Tenn., sheriff's office, said that Mr. Hayes's wife, 2-year-old-son and a cousin returned from the grocery store shortly after noon and found Mr. Hayes lying beside a still-running treadmill in a downstairs bedroom. A sheriff's deputy who arrived at the home shortly after authorities received a 911 call performed CPR, but Mr. Hayes was pronounced dead about an hour later at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis.

The cause of death was not immediately known. Shular said family members told authorities he had been treated recently for a medical condition, which they did not specify.

With his deep, mellifluous baritone and his gleaming, bald dome, Mr. Hayes, dubbed Black Moses, was one of the first black music superstars of the 1970s. A later generation of fans knew him as the voice of Jerome "Chef" McElroy, the school cook on the animated TV show "South Park."

Isaac Lee Hayes Jr. was born Aug. 20, 1942, in a tin shack in the small town of Covington, Tenn., north of Memphis. His mother died when he was a year old, his father left home, and he and his sister were raised by their maternal grandparents, who were sharecroppers.

Desperately poor, the family moved to Memphis when Mr. Hayes was 6. By the time he was 8, he was picking cotton in the fields, and when his grandfather got sick, he was, for the most part, on his own. He spent one childhood summer sleeping in wrecked cars in a junkyard. He was drawn to music early.

Mr. Hayes dropped out of school as a ninth-grader to take a restaurant job. Back in school, he took up music again and became a soloist with a group called the Teen Tones. He also sang with a gospel group called the Morning Stars and a rock group known as the Ambassadors.

Married in his late teens and about to become a father, he again dropped out of school to seek work. When he finally graduated from Manassas High School in North Memphis at 21, he was offered a number of music scholarships but had to turn them down because of his family obligations.

He went to work in a meat-packing plant but continued his musical gigs at black nightclubs in Memphis and juke joints in rural Mississippi. For a while, he had his own group, Sir Isaac and the Doo-Dads.

On New Year's Eve 1963, a bandleader who recorded for Stax Records in Memphis asked Mr. Hayes to fill in on the piano at a nightclub. Needing the money, he said yes, even though he knew only the key of C and a couple of chords. Luckily, the band was drunk and so was the audience, Mr. Hayes recalled.

Eventually, Stax hired him as a backup pianist. His first sessions were with Otis Redding, whose "Try a Little Tenderness" is accentuated by Mr. Hayes's organ arrangement. He also began writing songs. His first, "You, the Mistletoe and Me," was scheduled to be recorded on the Capitol label by his hero Nat King Cole, but the singer died before the record could be cut.

In 1962, Mr. Hayes began to collaborate with David Porter, an old friend. In 1964, Atlantic Records sent soul-singing duo Sam and Dave to Memphis to record at Stax studios. The Hayes-Porter team wrote "You Don't Know Like I Know" and then "Hold On, I'm Coming," which quickly became a soul standard. Another of their songs for Sam and Dave, "Soul Man," became a gold record.

"Isaac didn't read [music], but you couldn't believe a guy could sit at a piano and come up with the sounds he did," Sam Moore of Sam and Dave told The Washington Post in 1995. "When people talk about the Memphis sound, that was Isaac."

Although Mr. Hayes was winning acclaim as a songwriter, he had not given up on his earlier ambition to be a singer. He got that opportunity in 1967 after a party one evening when he and a Stax executive returned to the studio for a jam session. With Mr. Hayes singing and accompanying himself on the organ, with only a bass player and drummer for backup, he recorded his first album, "Presenting Isaac Hayes."

Mr. Hayes's breakthrough came with his second album, "Hot Buttered Soul," produced in the summer of 1968. The album, which contained only four lengthy songs, sold more than a million copies. Two of its songs, "Big Time Champ" and "Walk on By," became hits as singles.

In 1971, when Mr. Hayes was approached to write the music for "Shaft," Gordon Parks's story of a black private eye battling drug lords, he had never scored a film.

"They said Shaft was a relentless character, and it had to denote some kind of action or drama," Mr. Hayes told The Post. Relying on an old "wah-wah" guitar riff played by Charles "Skip" Pitts to fuel the hard-driving sound he wanted, he recorded the song in two hours. The soundtrack stayed on the charts for 60 weeks.

A year later, Mr. Hayes, his torso draped in gold chains, performed his "Theme from Shaft" at the Academy Awards ceremony. He returned to the podium soon after, this time draped in blue ermine, to accept the Oscar for Best Original Film Score. The song and score also won two Grammys. Mr. Hayes left Stax in 1974 and declared bankruptcy two years later. The Internal Revenue Service auctioned his Memphis estate, gold-plated limousine and designer furs.

He turned to acting in the 1980s. Hehad parts in the blaxploitation parody "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka" (1988), "It Could Happen to You" (1994) with Nicolas Cage and "Reindeer Games" (2003) with Ben Affleck. In the 2005 hit "Hustle and Flow," he played the owner of a South Memphis bar.

The "South Park" role, beginning in 1997, not only broadened his fan base but also revived his music career. He angrily left the show in 2006 after an episode mocked his Scientology religion.

Mr. Hayes was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006. He was married four times and had 12 children. Survivors include his wife of three years, Adjowa Hayes, and their son, Nana Kwodjo Hayes, both of Memphis.

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