The soul musician and Georgia Music Hall of Fame inductee Isaac Hayes broke new ground in the 1960s and 1970s with his unmistakable “Memphis soul” sound, which continues to influence artists today.
Hayes was born on August 20, 1942, in Covington, Tennessee, to sharecropper parents who died while he was still an infant. He and his younger sister, Willette, were reared by their maternal grandparents, Rushia Addie-Mae and Willie Wade, in Memphis, Tennessee, where Hayes started singing in the church choir at the age of five. By the time Hayes was a teenager he had taught himself piano, organ, and saxophone, and had begun playing in a number of local rhythm-and-blues bands, including Sir Calvin and His Swinging Cats and Sir Isaac and the Doo-dads.
Hayes was married four times and had twelve children; at the time of his death in 2008, he was married to Adowja Hayes.
Hayes’s first break came in the early 1960s, when he was hired as a keyboardist for the house band at Stax Records in Memphis. He cut his professional teeth by playing on recordings for such notables as Otis Redding and Booker T and the MGs. Soon he was writing songs with his partner, David Porter; together they wrote more than 200 songs for Stax, including several hits for Carla Thomas and Sam and Dave (among them, “Soul Man” and “Hold on, I’m Coming”).
Hayes released his first solo record, Presenting Isaac Hayes, in 1967, but it was his second album, Hot Buttered Soul (1969), that went multiplatinum and proved to be his breakthrough. The album, with its unusual format of four lengthy songs (“By the Time I Get to Phoenix” is eighteen minutes long), features sultry monologues and a cutting-edge sound that spawned the term and genre “Memphis soul.” In 1970 Hayes released two more albums in quick succession.
The Black Moses
In 1971 Hayes reached the pinnacle of his musical career with Shaft, the soundtrack to a movie about a tough, streetwise private eye in New York City. The soundtrack and the single, “Theme from Shaft,” were an instant sensation, and Hayes won an Academy Award for Best Original Song, making history as the first African American to do so. Hayes also won two Grammy awards for the song and the film score.
In the 1970s the man known as the “Black Moses” (a nickname given to him by the Harlem minister Dino Woodard and immortalized by Hayes’s 1971 album of the same name) moved to Atlanta and added actor to his resume, when he starred in several “blaxploitation” movies, including the lead role in Truck Turner (1974). Hayes also appeared in other feature films, including the blaxploitation parody I’m Gonna Git You Sucka! (1988), and on television.
During the 1990s Hayes hosted a radio show in New York City, and in 1997 he gained a new audience when he became the voice of Chef for the animated television satire South Park. Hayes left the series in 2006, citing what he described as the show’s participation in the media’s “growing insensitivity toward personal spiritual beliefs.” His widely publicized departure followed the airing of an episode lampooning the Scientology movement, of which Hayes was an adherent.
Hayes left Atlanta in 1992 and returned to Memphis. There he performed in 2003 at the “Soul Comes Home Concert” to commemorate the opening of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and in 2005 he joined the board of the Soulsville Foundation, which raises funds for the museum and the affiliated Stax Music Academy.
As of 2008 Hayes’s son Isaac Hayes III, a hip-hop producer working under the name Ike Dirty, lived in Smyrna. He and his father coproduced an online radio program, Dirty’ N the Bess, which was recorded in the Atlanta area.
Hayes was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1994, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005. He died at his home in Memphis on August 10, 2008. The film Soul Man, starring Hayes as himself, was released in November of that year.
Hayes’s deep, ultra-smooth voice changed the nature of rhythm and blues in the South, guiding such artists as Barry White, Marvin Gaye, and Curtis Mayfield into a new soul genre, while his spoken-word monologues paved the way for today’s rap music.