Black and White image of Isaac Hayes in the studio at the xylophone
© Bob Gruen

Isaac Hayes


Sophisticated. Smooth. Sexy. There’s no one quite like Isaac Hayes.

He set the stage for rap with his spoken-word monologues and is one of the most sampled artists of all time.


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Isaac Hayes was a multi-faceted talent: songwriter, producer, sideman, solo artist, film scorer, actor, rapper and deejay.

He was hugely influential on the rap movement as both a spoken-word pioneer and larger-than-life persona who influenced everyone from Barry White to Puff Daddy.

Hayes is best known for his soundtrack to Shaft (1971), one of the first and best “blaxploitation” films, and for the song “Theme from Shaft,” a Top 10 hit. But his varied resume boasts everything from backing up Otis Redding and writing for Sam and Dave and others at Stax Records in the Sixties to serving as the voice of "Chef" on South Park in the Nineties. At the peak of his popularity in the early Seventies, Hayes devised the character “Black Moses” based on his public persona.

With his shaved head, dark glasses, bulging muscles, gold chains, fur coats and serious, unsmiling demeanor, Hayes came off as both a potent sex symbol and an icon for African-American pride. Moreover, according to Jim Stewart, founder of Stax Records, “Isaac Hayes is one of the main roots of the Memphis Sound.”

Isaac Hayes was born in Covington, Tennessee in 1942. His mother died when he was young, and his father abandoned the family. As a result, Hayes was raised by his maternal grandparents, who worked as sharecroppers in Tennessee. When he was seven, the family moved to Memphis. He had begun singing in church at the age of five, and he learned to play piano, organ, flute and saxophone. After leaving school, he worked at a meat-packing plant during the day and performed music at clubs and other venues around Memphis at night. He sang doo-wop with the Teen Tones and the Ambassadors and gospel with the Morning Stars. He played blues saxophone with Calvin Valentine and the Swing Cats, rhythm & blues piano with Jeb Stuart and jazz sax and piano with the Missiles and Floyd Newman’s band.

In 1964 Hayes signed on as a sessionman at Stax Records. His first session was for The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads (released on Volt Records, a Stax subsidiary). He and lyricist David Porter became a formidable songwriting team at Stax. Hayes and Porter bonded with the soul duo Sam and Dave, writing and producing a run of hits that included “Hold On, I’m Coming,” “Soul Man” and “I Thank You.” They also wrote “B-A-B-Y” for Carla Thomas and hits for the Emotions, the Soul Children, Mable John and Lou Rawls. As a keyboardist and producer, Hayes was an important element in the Stax/Volt sound. All the while, he was itching to sing and hearing a different sound in his head. “I wanted to sing pop music, easy listening, but Memphis was stone R&B,” he told Rolling Stone in 1970.

The origins of Hayes’ style came following a Stax Christmas party when Hayes, bassist Duck Dunn and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. began playing around in the studio. They hit on a unique approach, recasting pop hits in lengthy arrangements featuring spoken monologues from Hayes and jazzy, orchestrated middle sections. His first album, Presenting Isaac Hayes, appeared in 1967 but failed to chart. Hayes’ breakthrough came with his second solo album, Hot Buttered Soul (1969), which revolutionized soul music by bringing a more silky, adult sound to it—and by interpolating lengthy pillow-talk monologues, which Hayes called “raps.” Hot Buttered Soul contained only four tracks, and two of them—remakes of Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By” and Glen Campbell’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”—ran twelve and nineteen minutes long, respectively. Edited versions of both songs made up a double-sided hit single on the pop and R&B charts in 1969. The album reached Number Eight on the pop chart and went gold.

In 1971 Hayes scored his biggest commercial success when he wrote and recorded the soundtrack to the film Shaft. The double album reached Number One and went platinum, while “Theme from Shaft” topped the charts for two weeks. Hayes won a Grammy and an Academy Award for the soundtrack, becoming the first African-American to win Best Original Song. That soundtrack kick-started the disco movement in music.

From the early-to-mid-Seventies, Hayes released a string of Top 20 albums, including The Isaac Hayes Movement (Number Eight, 1970), To Be Continued (Number Eleven, 1970), Black Moses (Number Ten, 1971), Live at the Sahara Tahoe (Number Fourteen, 1973), Joy (Number Sixteen, 1973) and Chocolate Chip (Number Eighteen, 1975). He also appeared in Wattstax (1973), a concert film and soundtrack spotlighting Stax artists. In 1974 Hayes left Stax and recorded for ABC, followed by Polydor through 1981. During that period, he placed more than a dozen singles on the charts.

Hayes then spent most of the Eighties and early Nineties pursuing an acting career. He appeared in the movies Escape from New York (1981), I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988), Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), Posse (1993) and It Could Happen to You (1994). He also made appearances in The Rockford FilesMiami Vice and The A-Team. In 1997 Hayes landed the part of the voice of “Chef” in the animated TV show South Park. The previous year, he became a morning deejay at KISS-FM in New York.

In 1995 Hayes made a return to recording, releasing the album Branded. Around the same time, he also issued Raw and Refined, an album of instrumental songs.

Throughout much of his life, Hayes was heavily involved in charitable causes. In 1999 he formed the Isaac Hayes Foundation, and in 2006 he appeared in a video for the Youth for Human Rights International organization. He also undertook numerous humanitarian and development efforts in the African nation of Ghana, where he was crowned a chief.

In January 2006, Hayes suffered a minor stroke. He died on August 10, 2008, ten days before his sixty-sixth birthday.

Inductee: Isaac Hayes (vocals, keyboards, production; born August 20, 1942, died August 10, 2008)

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