Gettin' the Shaft

'Black Moses' emerges from the bulrushes with two albums and a broken heart

"Some entertainers want to put up the facade they're invincible and so forth, but I don't mind talkin' about it 'cause I'm not the only one," Hayes says. "When you're goin' through some shit, sometimes it feels like you're the only one in the world it's happening to, but everybody experiences that. And I think that's why my music has such a wide appeal--because it's a human experience, not a black or white or green thing or whatever, but a human experience. And just like music, it transcends all those boundaries, and I just talk about it in my music."

Had Isaac Hayes never released a solo album, had he never stepped into the spotlight wearing those silly chains and singing those sappy songs, he would rank as one of America's musical immortals. Throughout the mid-1960s, Hayes was part of the songwriting team that defined the Memphis soul sound, and with partner David Porter, Hayes crafted some of the greatest songs of any era. The two men, working out of the Stax studios in Memphis, were responsible for singles that still play over and over on the legends' jukebox--such Sam and Dave classics as "Soul Man," "Hold On, I'm Comin'," "You Don't Know Like I Know," and "I Thank You"; "B-A-B-Y" for Carla Thomas; and various hit singles for the likes of Johnny Taylor ("Something's Wrong with My Baby") and Wilson Pickett.

Hayes and Porter were stars in a stable that was one of the greatest assemblages of musicians in one place at one time: Otis Redding, the multi-racial Booker T. and the MGs, Sam and Dave, Rufus Thomas, Eddie Floyd, Albert King, the Mar-Keys. The songwriting partners--who met in 1965, when Hayes was working a day job at a meat-packing factory where Porter once tried to sell him life insurance--built upon Motown's notion of formulaic songwriting and imbued it with something grittier, meaner, funkier.

Where the amazing music coming from Berry Gordy's Motown felt sterile and pop, Stax released singles that sounded as though they were drenched in sweat and gristle; they were wrenching (Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness"), raunchy (Booker T.'s "Green Onions" and "Hip Hug-Her"), and riveting (Sam and Dave's "Hold On, I'm Coming"), with Hayes and Porter often overseeing everything from writing to arrangements to production. And like the best rock and roll of the 1950s and '60s, the Stax singles still resonate with the same passion, conviction, and power as they must have 30 years ago.

"I'm very surprised that stuff doesn't date," Hayes says now. "When we were doin' that stuff back then, we didn't put a lot of importance on it as something that was for time immemorial. We had fun makin' records, makin' our little money. We rose to affluence before I even made a recording. We owned cars and homes and real estate and stuff and just had a good time. It was annoying them for me to do a solo thing and to act, but other than that I was at ease with it.

"It was the song of the common man, from his point of view. We represented that because that's what we came from. And the white guys--'Duck' [bassist Donald Dunn], and [guitarist] Steve [Cropper]--they were the same thing. We all had basically the same backgrounds, so that kind of music came from us. Therefore, it keeps on sellin'."

But Hayes never had much of a taste for the music he was writing, never really wanted to perform the quick hits he was creating for other people. He was raised soaking up so many different styles of music--from country to gospel, classical to blues--that when he began recording his own albums in 1967, he found those influences creeping into his music. And so he left the punchy horns of Sam and Dave behind and began crafting these enormous, dramatic albums that split the difference between easy listening and soul. Hot Buttered Soul--released in 1969, as Stax was preparing to release 26 other albums all at once--is Hayes' classic album, containing only four songs drawn out in the grooves. The record went platinum, as would all of Hayes' albums till the mid-'70s.

"I felt what I had to say or how I wanted to say it could not be said in two minutes and 30 seconds," Hayes explains. "It was a total experience. I didn't know it was an experience at the time, I was just in the middle of doin' it. When it was done, there were only four tunes on the LP. I didn't care. If they didn't play it, I didn't care because I did what I wanted to do. It was a personal act. So when the thing came out and it took off, people think, 'It was a stroke of genius.' Um-hum." He shakes his head.

Hayes would follow up Hot Buttered Soul with three albums that culminated in 1971 with the sound track to the blaxploitation masterpiece Shaft, the title track--all wah-wahed guitar and bursts of horns--heralding the disco sound that would permeate the rest of the decade. And from there, it was all downhill--more of the same, Hayes degenerating into self-parody, the innovator who repeated himself so often he finally found himself struggling to catch up with those he had influenced. By 1988's Love Attack--Hayes' last album till now--he started rapping.

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