Sunday, August 10, 2008

Isaac Hayes: dead at 65

CNN is reporting that police have discovered Isaac Hayes unconscious "next to a still-running treadmill". He was taken to hospital, but pronounced dead at 2pm.

Hayes was born into a sharecropping family in rural Tennessee. Raised by his grandparents after being orphaned, a move to Memphis at first showed Hayes the possibilities of life, but turned sour when his grandfather died. Poverty forced Hayes to seek work; he wound up as a short order chef. He tried to drop out of school, only to be more-or-less ordered back by the teachers who saw talent in the young man. It was also a teacher who persuaded Hayes to enter a talent contest, his first public performance since puberty had shattered his voice and his confidence. Victory was his; but it was the interest of the girls that the victory brought which persuaded him his future might not be in the kitchens.

When he graduated High School, Isaac had the choice of several scholarships to colleges keen to develop his vocal talents, but instead threw his lot in with a local record label. That label was Stax. Hayes debut was on Frog Stomp, which he co-wrote for Floyd Newman. He played keyboards and soon picked up regular work playing session keyboards for the label's artists and collaborating with David Porter on songwriting and producing.

It was the murder of Martin Luther King on the streets of Memphis which really drove Hayes, though, as he once explained:

"I could not create properly. I was so bitter and so angry. I thought, What can I do? Well, I can't do a thing about it so let me become successful and powerful enough where I can have a voice to make a difference. So I went back to work and started writing again."

It was to be the start of his golden period as a recording artist - from his double-a-side crossover number one, Walk On By/By The Time I Get To Memphis, through a run of twenty albums which hit the top 20. Perhaps the peak of this period was the truly iconic theme from Shaft, one of those rare pieces of musical score which guarantees their host movie a far greater position in the pantheon than it would have had without it.

By 1974, Hayes had fallen out with Stax and Enterprise, the subsidiary for whom he had been doing his solo work, and trying his hand acting - he had a recurring role in the Rockford Files. A deal with HBS records kept him in the charts, but he never quite thrived in the post Saturday Night Fever disco era in the way he had in the early 70s. By 1981, Hayes decided he needed a rest and took a break.

It was the siren call of The A-Team that tempted him back to the public eye, and with it a string of not-very-good movies followed - Paul Hogan's remake of Flipper perhaps being the lowest of a number of low points. His role as Chef in South Park, though, did manage to score him a number one in the UK, albeit with a song about salty balls.

Hayes stropped off South Park when the series - having lampooned every actual religion - dared to have a joke at Scientology's expense. Hayes - one of the members of the cult - decided this was stepping over the line and quit the programme.

Away from grumbling about misrepresentations of his cult, Hayes was generous, working to promote literacy, fighting inner-city crack problems before the mainstream media even realised there was crack, and doing a lot of aid work in Ghana. He continued to record, too, with critical acclaim if not outstanding commercial success.

But this, this will always be remembered as the track which best showed his genius: