Isaac Hayes: Unshackled by History's Chains

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 11, 2008

Somehow, the little country boy grew up to rattle chains.

Isaac Hayes made music, of course, and plenty of it -- soulful and gritty ballads and that disco-heaving soundtrack "Shaft" -- but there was nothing like those chains. They adorned his chest onstage like thick jewels. He wouldn't run from history.

Hayes was a black man born in the South in 1942. And that, of course, is a birth and time period that gives a black man some extra challenges: He has to pick up things along the way; he has to look beyond the cotton fields and the Memphis docks and all the hauling of furniture that so many of his high school friends had to do.

Hayes, who died yesterday at 65, rolled himself out as a musical personification of black manhood. If the '60s shook the nation up -- musically and politically -- the '70s represented a deeper digging in. There were more black fashion models on Madison Avenue. There were more black actors on television. Black was beautiful and cool and defiant.

Music was everywhere and seemingly everything -- at least to the young minds trooping in and out of the record stores, watching "American Bandstand" and "Soul Train," listening to black radio and those convertible Mustangs.

If the north -- Detroit -- had Motown, the South -- Memphis -- had Stax Records, where a whole bevy of songwriters and artists, Otis Redding, David Porter, Isaac Hayes, were cats in the summer heat making their music. They'd write on sketch pads; they'd wolf down fried fish sandwiches between sessions; they'd roll over to the Lorraine Motel to see who was in town; they'd chat about women and love and heartache. And they'd watch that poor child, Isaac, now a man, hone his own image.

Elvis had white satin.

Isaac had those chains.

His "Black Moses" album, released in 1971, got alarming stares from plenty of folks -- especially whites -- but blacks considered it an instant revelation. It was, in one flourish, a kind of iconic art: a muscular black man in flowing robe. The religious merged with the political, all coming alive against a backdrop of thumping music. "People were probably saying to themselves, 'Here is Memphis, the buckle on the Bible Belt, and Isaac Hayes is coming out onstage dressed as black Moses,' " Jim Spake, a Memphis-based sax player who played with Hayes over the years, recalled yesterday. "If you notice, that album opened out [with flaps] kind of like a crucifix. That was seen as pretty heavy for those times. And that was the mystique about him, wearing those chains."

And when he cut the movie soundtrack for "Shaft," the Gordon Parks-directed movie that starred Richard Roundtree and garnered Hayes his Oscar, it seemed as if he had crashed through the strange and Byzantine gates of Hollywood and its racial history. It seemed as if John Shaft was Cagney and Bogart all rolled out from behind a sepia-tinged curtain. The soundtrack had such a propulsive and aggressive beat that it seemed like something ripped from both the urban and rural parts of the Earth -- domains that Isaac Hayes certainly came to know throughout his life.

Michael Toles, a guitarist and Memphis musician, first met Hayes in the 1960s and would later play concerts with him. He remembers the evolution of the chains. "The first few shows I did with him, he didn't wear the chains," Toles says.

Many of the musicians who knew Hayes were aware of how the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel in 1968 affected him. Toles goes on: "But then he started wearing them and I think it represented to him the coming freedom of the black man."

Hayes insisted on traveling with a large number of musicians. Bobby Manuel, also a guitarist, began traveling with Hayes in 1969. "His music represented an identity of what it meant to be black," he says. "It was exciting, in a kind of strength. Of course it all coincided with the civil rights movement. And for a musician, his was a different image, coming out there onstage with no shirt and those chains. Man, it was a whole other world."

Manuel was aghast at the crowds that swooped around Hayes when he left the stage. "I remember we had been on the road and he came offstage and people were howling and grabbing for him. And one of the musicians said, 'Man, you are the black Moses. People will follow you anywhere.' It was really radical."

A whole generation came to know Hayes through his more recent role as the deep-voiced cartoon character on "South Park" and for his continued coast-to-coast live musical appearances. But to his musician friends in and around Tennessee, he remained the soulful cat from the 1960s who was always trying to help them get gigs and always looking forward to his next show.

Sometimes, Manuel says, he and Hayes would go fishing on the Mississippi. Matter of fact, they had a fishing outing scheduled for next week. "He used to hum all of his tunes first," Manuel says. "So everything you hear on his albums, he had hummed to himself first."

And so, he was a musician who liked to fish, who wore chains, who was aware of the politics around him, and who also gave off a menacing image that those who knew him say was quite ironic. "He was such a sweet guy," says Manuel. "And I don't know if people quite realized what he really did."

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