Skip to page content

Isaac Hayes

Performer

About this Artist

ISAAC HAYES was born in the rural poverty of a sharecropper's family on August 20, 1942, in Covington, Tennessee, about 30 miles south of Memphis. Orphaned in infancy, he and his sister Willette were raised by their maternal grandparents, Willie and Rushia Addie-Mae Wade. They instilled love in Hayes for the simple pleasures of country life. "We raised our own foods," he says, "we raised most of our crops, we had cattle, we had pork…. When we came to the city of Memphis, we didn't have anything to compare it to."

To an adolescent, the poverty was stifling, Hayes secretly dropped out of Manassas High School. After six weeks, a delegation of teachers arrived at the house and told his grandmother the news. "God, I felt like I had gone through the floor, but they said, 'This young man has too much to offer, we cannot afford to lose him'." The teachers gathered their hand-me-down clothes for Hayes, who resolved to stick it out and get his diploma. The experience left an indelible mark on him for life, and Hayes' dedication to literacy, education, and teaching initiatives is an outgrowth of what those teachers did for him.

Hayes sang in church since age five, but stopped when his voice cracked in adolescence. Years later, "when I started back singing, my voice was in the basement." He was persuaded by his high school guidance counselor to enter a talent show, singing "Looking Back," Nat King Cole's 1958 hit. "When I finished, the house was on its feet, man, and I was a hit."

He joined the school band and learned to play saxophone from Lucian Coleman (brother of hard-bopper George Coleman). Hayes sang gospel with a group called the Morning Stars, doo-wop with Sir Isaac & the Doo-Dads, the Teen Tones, and the Ambassadors, even some jazz with the Ben Branch house band at Curry's Club Tropicana out in north Memphis. He started playing sax and singing blues with Calvin Valentine and The Swing Cats, and doing prom dates with The Missiles. He took a crash course learning piano by literally faking it for the first time on a New Year's Eve R&B job at the Southern Club with Jeb Stuart, "because I needed the money."

Hayes finally graduated at age 21 from Manassas, Class of 1962. It was the year after the first releases began to trickle out of a new label called Stax Records, part of the Satellite Records company and Satellite Record Store that started back in '57, housed in the old Capitol Theatre on the corner of College & McLemore. Hayes had won seven college scholarships for vocal music that he chose not to pursue. Instead, he became adept enough at the piano to land a job with baritone saxophonist bandleader Floyd Newman at the Plantation Inn across the river in West Arkansas. Newman was also the staff baritone musician on Stax recording sessions and was up for a date himself with his own working group in late 1963: "Frog Stomp," the only solo single ever cut by Newman, was co-written by and features Hayes (on piano), the first major notch in his discography at Stax Records.

"During the time that I was there," Hayes recalls of the session, " Jim Stewart, the proprietor of Stax looked at me and said, 'Look, Booker T. is off in Indiana U., from Booker T. & the MGs, and I need a keyboard player so you want the job?' 'Yeaaa!' I jumped at it." His first paid sessions were with Otis Redding in early 1964, and Hayes was soon a ubiquitous presence at Stax. Not long after, singer and lyricist David Porter suggested to Hayes that they collaborate as songwriters. After a few modest starts for Porter ("Can't See You When I Want To"), Carla Thomas ("How Do You Quit [Someone You Love]"), and Sam & Dave ("I Take What I Want"), "everything just blew up big time," Hayes says.

As writers (under the name 'Soul Children'), arrangers. and producers, the Hayes-Porter duo became Stax's hottest commodity starting in 1966-67. Sam & Dave's "You Don't Know Like I Know," "Hold On! I'm Comin'," "Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody," "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby," "I Thank You," "Wrap It Up," and the R&B Grammy award-winning "Soul Man" were among some 200 Hayes-Porter compositions that became standards.

Hayes' work with Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Booker T. & the MGs, the Mar-Keys, the Bar-Kays, Rufus & Carla Thomas, and virtually the entire Stax roster created what was known as the Memphis Sound. It transformed popular music, was absorbed by everyone from Elvis Presley and Ray Charles to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. History notes that, with the exception of Booker T. & the MGs, Isaac Hayes worked on more Stax sessions and tracks than any other musician.

On April 4, 1968, as Stax Records was finalizing its sale to Gulf & Western Corporation, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Hotel in downtown Memphis. Hayes, who had marched for Civil Rights with King, was scheduled to meet with him that very day. "It affected me for a whole year," Hayes told Rob Bowman in Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records. "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."

He emerged in the summer of 1969 with the landmark Hot Buttered Soul, and the career of Isaac Hayes would never be the same again. The LP was uniquely composed of four lush, sensual arrangements, framed by the opening 12-minute version of "Walk On By" and the closing 18-minute take on "By the Time I Get To Phoenix." Both were edited into a double-A-sided single, and both sides became top 40/R&B crossover hits. #1 on the Billboard R&B chart for 10 weeks, the LP stayed on the Pop chart for an amazing 81 weeks.

Hot Buttered Soul was issued on the new Stax subsidiary label Enterprise (yes, named for the "Star Trek" spaceship) for which Hayes would record for the next five years, and deliver a record-setting seven #1 R&B albums - more #1's than any artist of the period. In fact, Hayes charted a phenomenal 20 albums on the R&B and Pop charts between 1969 and '80 - not a week went by in the early '70s without two Isaac Hayes albums on the charts, and sometimes three. There can be no overstating his impact on popular music, reflected in his first ballot vote into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The arrival of the Shaft movie, soundtrack double-LP, and theme-song single in the summer 1971 was a career-defining event - the image of Isaac Hayes loomed at least as large as the film's star Richard Roundtree or director Gordon Parks, and all three embodied a new era of Black empowerment. At the Academy Awards the following year, Hayes became the first African-American composer to win the Oscar for Best Musical Score. In addition to generating three Grammy awards, the music from Shaft won a Golden Globe award, the NAACP Image Award, and the prestigious Edison award, Europe's highest music honor.

On the music side, Hayes had returned to the forefront in late 1986 with a new record deal (Columbia) and a new album, U-Turn, which boasted his first top 10 R&B single in some 13 years, an update of "Ike's Rap." The rap's strong anti-crack message resonated to the extent that its lyric, "Don't be a resident of crack city" was adopted as the slogan of a rehab center in Detroit. By the time his second Columbia album showed up in 1988, Love Attack, the crack epidemic had become so pervasive that Hayes agreed to become a lecturer at colleges and prisons, inspiring students and inmates to fulfill their lives' potentials without drugs.

Hayes' role as a humanitarian began to take sharper focus in late 1991, when he and Barry White traveled to the Ivory Coast in Africa to shoot a video for Dark & Lovely (you over there), the single from White's comeback album Put Me In Your Mix. The following year, Hayes and Dionne Warwick accepted an invitation by the Cultural Minister of Ghana (Ivory Coast's eastern neighbor) to visit the Cape Coast and Elmina slave castles. Walking through the dungeons, listening to the horrifying stories told by the guide, Hayes was overwhelmed with emotion.

When the weeping was done, Hayes realized it was not enough to help finance the renovation of the castles, there was bigger work to be done in Africa: He asked how much it would cost to build a school. Returning to America, Hayes took his energy on the road, speaking to African-American community groups and Black expos around the country. He encouraged everyone he met to visit Africa if they could, to interact with the people, or at the very least to support economic development.

One speaking engagement in Queens, New York, was attended by princess Naa Asie Ocansey of Ghana, who phoned a week later. "Mr. Hayes," she asked, "would you like to be a king?" She had told her father, Nene Kubi III, a 'king-maker,' of Hayes' commitment and he said, "We need to honor this man." The coronation rituals that usually took up to two weeks were condensed to two days in late December 1992. The spectacle was attended by Public Enemy, who did concerts with Hayes at Cape Coast Castle and in Accra, Ghana's capital city.

There is little to match Hayes' devotion to spreading the message that literacy and education are the keys to freedom and prosperity in this world. In 1993, he stumbled into Scientology and the study technology process it teaches. That same year he was named the international spokesman for Applied Scholastics' World Literacy Crusade, which currently has over 20 literacy programs in five countries with more than 1,800 people participating.

Soon after, he started the Isaac Hayes Foundation, whose mission is to enable people around the world to become whole by promoting literacy, music education, nutritional education, and innovative programs that raise self-esteem among the underprivileged and teach young people how to study. True to his promise, and thanks to the hard work of the IHF, Hayes was able to return to Ghana in the summer of 1998 and officiate at the groundbreaking ceremony for the school, as part of the Asafotufiami Cultural Festival in Ada. The 8,000-square-foot facility, called NekoTech, enjoyed its ribbon-cutting two years later.

His concern with literacy at home is well-known. The IHF continues to partner with other nonprofit organizations to support global causes that serve community needs, actively promoting celebrity benefit concerts (like the Jam For Literacy at the House Of Blues in Los Angeles), Literacy Links 2000 (a middle school program in Memphis), and the Crusaders, a volunteer team of exhibition basketball players from all over the country who put on benefit shows for various causes.

07/07