ONE BAD MUTHA Isaac Hayes

The soul legend passed
on August 10. He taught us more than we’ll ever know.

BY FRED MILLS

 

 

It wasn’t as if I was exactly encroaching or anything, but I still felt vaguely self-conscious
that Saturday afternoon, standing in Mack’s Record Rack and clutching a copy of
Isaac Hayes’ recently-released double LP Black
Moses
. In 1971 my hometown, a tiny N.C. textile mill burg located about an
hour southeast of Charlotte right near the S.C. line, hadn’t fully embraced the
desegregation sentiments of the era, so to be a white kid shopping at Mack’s, a
black-owned vinyl and 8-track emporium located in the basement of a wig and
hair-product salon, frequently meant you’d stand out in the crowd. The fact
that the building the stores were located in was positioned on an uptown street
corner that roughly served as the invisible-but-acknowledged dividing line
between the “white” and the “Negro” business sections was only as relevant at
one made it out to be his or her mind of course. But I distinctly recall
weathering the occasional ribbing from some of my less enlightened peers for
patronizing the shop.

 

Fortunately, I wasn’t so class conscious that such things
bothered me, and I was also naïve enough not to have a sense of my inherent
ofay-ness. And besides, Mrs. McDaniel, the store owner’s friendly, outgoing wife,
had been ordering 45s for me since I was 10 or 11, so I was also a regular
customer and therefore not that an unusual sight in the place. I must have
stared at that album cover for 15 minutes or more: Mrs. McDaniel already had an
open copy behind the counter so she handed it to me at my request, and it
folded out into a cross shape depicting Hayes dressed in biblical robes, his
arms outstretched in a Jesus-like gesture of supplication/embrace. This is the same guy who did the “Shaft”
song?
I thought, incredulously, to myself. Well, he does have those funky aviator shades on…

 

Full disclosure: I bought my 45s at Mack’s, but I bought my
LPs up the street at Roses Five-and-Dime, which had a four-bin LP kiosk shoved
over in one corner of the store and containing, significantly, a small section
marked “Underground” — your Creams, your Hendrix Experiences, your
Steppenwolfs, your Grand Funks, etc. By 1971 I was well on the way to having my
mind blown, and even though I still collected pop singles, acid-, hard- and
hippie-rock albums were, increasingly, where my budget imperatives lay. Mack’s
didn’t carry any Steppenwolf, and not so coincidentally, Roses didn’t stock all
that many LPs by African-American artists. They certainly wouldn’t have stocked
anything bearing a title like Black Moses.
The local Klan members’ wives, daughters and sisters who worked at Roses —
good, God-fearin’ Christian women to a fault — would’ve ensured that.

 

So to spot the LP at Mack’s (motto: “Down in the hole where the records are soul”) was a big deal for me. No doubt
I’d read about it in Rolling Stone or
CREEM or Fusion or some other music rag, and the more I stared at it, the
more I was convinced that Isaac Hayes had to be just about one of the coolest
motherfuckers on the planet. Without even asking Mrs. McDaniel to play a song,
I purchased a copy of the LP and beat a quick path home to my room where I
fired up my drop-down Magnavox stereo, put on the headphones, and settled in
for a good hour and a half.

 

Black Moses is a
sonic marvel no matter what age you are or what era you hear it in. The All Music Guide astutely notes how
Hayes’ “stretched out and well-developed R&B jams, as well as his
husky-voiced sexy spoken ‘raps,’ became key components in his signature sound. Black
Moses
… also reaffirms Hayes’ abilities as an unmistakably original
arranger. Although a majority of the album consists of cover material, all the
scores have been reconfigured and adapted in such a fundamental way that, for
some listeners, these renditions serve as definitive.”

 

Indeed — from silky-smooth opener “Never Can Say Goodbye”
(originally written by Clifton Davis for the Jackson 5) and a dreamysexycool
“(They Long to Be) Close To You” (one of Bacharach-David covers on the album,
once you hear it you’ll never pick up a Carpenters record again) to a
cinematically orchestrated version of Curtis Mayfield’s “Need to Belong To
Someone” and a similarly structured take on Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good
Times,” it’s as if Hayes is determined to recast The Great American Songbook on
his own terms, via selections of his own idiosyncratic personal choice.  That some of the best material is also Hayes
originals — the semi-bawdy, unremittingly funky “Good Love” and three different
“Ike’s Rap”s that marry spoken word and soul singing to astonishingly potent
effect (raise your hand if you recognize the part from “Ike’s Rap II” that
Portishead later borrowed) — only reaffirms the fact that Hayes, already a
composer of hit songs for himself as well as other artists, was utterly
comfortable in his dual skin of stylist and auteur.

 

And to a moderately clueless white teenager such as myself, Black Moses was a revelation, albeit not
of the lightning-bolt type. More of the subtle, sink-hooks-deep kind of
revelation. I wish I could say that right then and there I embarked upon a
life-long quest to consume only the finest in hot buttered soul and steamy
southern-fried funk, but I can’t. The aforementioned hard rock and psych
already had too much of a foothold in my life — my discovery of marijuana was
only a summer away — and it took a good couple of decades before I found myself
at a point when I was hungry to backtrack.

 

All along, though, I hung on to that fold-out copy of Black Moses, and apparently I nurtured a
deep love of Hayes, too, because in the early ‘90s when old-school funk and
soul compilations started flooding the CD market (notably the four-volume Blaxploitation series), and in
particular in ’95 when the Dead
Presidents
soundtrack was released featuring Hayes’ indelible versions of
“Walk On By” and “The Look Of Love,” it felt like coming home. Nowadays, when I
hear a vintage Stax-Volt side or a Motown hit, I realize that I know these
songs via osmosis — they were on the AM radio, or blaring over Mack’s Record
Record Rack’s stereo, as I navigated my way through my pre-teen years, and they
are part of me.

 

A Hayes song simply seals the deal; and his voice,
impossibly deep and full of authority, cool as a cucumber yet sweaty with
suggested sex, remains the most identifiable, iconic tone of them all.

 

***

 

Isaac Hayes passed away yesterday (Sunday, Aug. 10) at the
age of 65. According to media accounts, he was found by his wife on the floor
of his home near a still-running treadmill, and after 911 was called sheriff’s
deputies gave him CPR until paramedics could arrive to take him to Memorial
Hospital in Memphis where he was pronounced dead. (No official cause of death
has been provided as of this writing.) As news got out about Hayes’ passing,
press overviews of his long career began hitting the Internet, all of them
citing his key role as one of the architects of the vaunted Stax sound and
singling out, naturally, his smash Grammy/Oscar-winning “Theme From Shaft” as
one of modern music’s most enduring, instantly identifiable songs.

 

Speaking to the Associated Press, Stax A&R exec Collin
Stanback said, “Isaac Hayes embodies everything that’s soul music. When you
think of soul music you think of Isaac Hayes — the expression… the sound and
the creativity that goes along with it.”

 

While you certainly don’t need me to recap the entire Hayes
saga (it’s all over the web right now and just a quick Google away), I’d like
to add that when I think of Hayes, I think of how I was in 1971. Back then, as
noted above, I was well on my way to having my mind blown. Thanks to Hayes, I
was about to have that mind opened, too. At his gifted hands, I heard music
differently.

 

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