It would be a shame if Isaac Hayes, who died yesterday at 65, were remembered only as the guy who voiced the cartoon character who sang “Chocolate Salty Balls.” Yep, he was great as Chef on South Park, and he was a memorable and charismatic presence in many other TV shows and movies, but he had a long history as one of the most influential soul musicians ever to step on a wah-wah pedal. The “Theme From Shaft” alone should secure his reputation forever, but really, if you listen to just about anything in the last quarter century’s worth of rap and R&B, you can still hear him. Talking to EW in 1995 about his search for a new record deal, Hayes said younger label reps would ask him what he’d done lately. “And I thought to myself, justturn on the radio and listen to some of your hip-hop stuff — that’s what I’ve done lately!”
Hayes got his start as a session musician and songwriter at soul mainstay Stax, the Memphis label that was home to Otis Redding and Booker T. & the MGs. With David Porter, he composed such hits as Sam & Dave’s “Hold On! I’m Coming” and “Soul Man” (the latter also a hit years later for the Blues Brothers). His solo career took off in 1969 with the landmark Hot Buttered Soul album, a collection of just four epic-length tunes (including emotional covers of such unlikely easy-listening hits as “Walk on By” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix“) that established his layered, orchestral approach to funk and his persona as a tough-but-tender master of the bedroom baritone. It also set the template for ’70s soul.
The album’s massive critical and commercial success led to the gig scoring Shaft, the first big-budget blaxploitation film. His Grammy- and Oscar-winning theme song (still the hippest, edgiest track ever to win an Academy Award for Best Song; Hayes was the first African-American composer to win the award) influenced virtually every blaxploitation or crime film soundtrack for the next two years, and while the song was a big hit outside the movie theater, it’s worth remembering just how well it actually complemented the opening scene of Gordon Parks’ movie. Watch the embedded clip after the jump and notice how well the song fits the action, as Richard Roundtree emerges from the subway and strides through the gritty Times Square of 1971; the whole sequence is a masterpiece of coiled tension, propelled by the relentless patter of the hi-hat cymbals at the foundation of Hayes’ track.
addCredit(“Isaac Hayes: Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT/Landov”)
More records followed (notably, 1971’s Black Moses), but Hayes’ interest soon turned to acting. He starred in the movies Three Tough Guys and Truck Turner (for which he also composed the soundtracks), but he’s probably best remembered for his recurring role as Gandy Fitch on The Rockford Files, his role as the Duke in Escape from New York (1981), and his self-parodying turn in the blaxploitation spoof I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988). Oh, yeah, and a cartoon mentor with a penchant for crooning seductive love ballads.
Hayes turned a guest spot on South Park into a recurring character who was a mainstay of the show for several seasons until he quit abruptly in 2006. He cited the show’s lampooning of Scientology as the reason for his departure, though it also came shortly after he’d suffered a stroke. (Trey Parker and Matt Stone dealt with the move churlishly by building an episode around Chef’s disgrace and gruesome demise.)
Meanwhile, he’d never stopped making music; coming full circle with his work as an arranger and session musician on Alicia Keys’ debut Songs in A Minor. In a 2006 interview with The Onion AV Club, he explained his work ethic: “I always keep my head down, working, doing things, moving forward.That’s what I’ve done all my life. Then you stop and realize whatyou’ve done. ‘Damn, I did that!’ I don’t sit back and count up whatI’ve done. There’s just always something else to do. There’s always achallenge ahead. I’ve faced those challenges and hit ’em, you know?”