Gettin' the Shaft

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

Isaac Hayes answers the door, his bald head down and his eyes sagging. By way of introduction, he yawns and apologizes for being so damned tired, and ushers his guest into the room with a limp raising of his left arm. He wears black pants and a black pullover, and on his feet he sports black-and-blue shoes that are either for hiking or jogging. But now, as his eyes droop to half mast, those shoes are for dragging. He drags himself through the room, his once imposing frame--over which he used to drape gold chains that glistened against a showman's sweat--now surprisingly small and hunched over. He is so tired, it seems, he can barely breathe.

"I haven't had time to sleep," he explains, "been to a couple of radio stations today and been tourin' to promote these new albums and been...just lotsaplacesinthesepastfewdays." His words begin to slur, and his voice trails off.

Hayes is in town, staying at the Stouffer Hotel, to promote the release of two new albums--Branded, all sexy whispers and growls, and the schizophrenically instrumental Raw and Refined, which bounds from amazingly funky Memphis soul to music that sounds left over from old Love Boat episodes. They are the first albums he has released in seven years--spending most of his time lately acting in such B-grade dreck as Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Posse, Guilty as Charged, and I'm Gonna Get You Sucka--and he is schlepping around the country talking it up to radio stations and record store owners, convincing them to give this 52-year-old legend one more shot. And it has worn him out.

As he moves toward a couch on which to stretch out his weary body, he points toward a window.

"I can't believe they stuck me in this hotel," he says, his voice rising. "See that?" He walks toward the window and pulls back the white curtain, motioning toward the hotel complex just across Stemmons Freeway. "The Anatole? Damn, man. The love of my life used to work there. Lot of heartache when I see that, man. Damn."

The woman, Hayes explains, used to live in Memphis, then took a job in Florida, then went to work for the Anatole. Then she split to parts unknown, leaving no forwarding address.

"I've had many involvements, some very intense," Hayes sighs, stretching himself on the couch. "But that girl that was at the Anatole"--he pauses--"I let her get away. It was my fault. It's worse when it's your fault, man. It's harder on you. But, anyway..." He looks toward the window, sighs, then turns his head back toward his interviewer and forces a weak smile.

"People think, 'Oh, he's an entertainer, he can get women anytime he wants,'" Hayes says, continuing his never-ending tale of heartbreak. "But it's not the ones that want you, but the ones you want. Of course, when I was much younger I used to run up and down the road and knocked off everything in sight. It didn't matter then. But when you get older, you start gettin' serious and your values shift. You want something that's real. When you take that shot, man, I understand that.

"I was in Hamburg two weeks ago, and this girl, whew, beautiful girl--part Ecuadoran, part German. We dated and we broke up, and I don't know why. She cooled it off and never did explain to me why. Then her number changed, and I moved and we couldn't get in touch anymore. Then when I got there, I asked the lady from Virgin Records in Hamburg, 'Can you find so-and-so?' and she found the number. There was a guy livin' there--she was rentin' out to him--and she was living in London with her fiancŽ who she's going to marry in October. They're going to Costa Rica and make weddin' plans. Aw, man."

It is, at the very least, an odd thing to hear Isaac Hayes relate such sad stories. After all, throughout the 1970s, he was perhaps the greatest sweet soul singer alive--his music drenched in strings and sweat and sex, his whole persona that of a man who was the sex machine to all the chicks. In such songs as "Never Can Say Goodbye" (a sweet hit for the Jackson Five, recast as a bedroom groan by Hayes), "(If Loving You is Wrong) I Don't Want to Be Right," "Walk on By," the 18-minute epic "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," and the immortal "Theme from Shaft," Hayes paved the way for the likes of Barry White and Luther Vandross and disco. Hayes didn't perform love songs; he lived them. He didn't sing; he seduced.

He became his characters, casting himself as ladies' man, the deep-and-dark-voiced Black Moses moanin' and groanin' above a lush R&B sound that was all strings and horns, givin' his ladies his hot buttered soul as they craved his shaft (can ya dig it?). Hayes may not have possessed the voice of fellow Memphis resident Al Green, who was the most natural singer since Otis Redding, or the total presence of Marvin Gaye, but Isaac Hayes reshaped soul music, for better or worse--making it softer, more romantic, more seductive, with less emphasis on the beat and more on the groove. "Sweetness, there's a name for you--sugar," he sang on the 16-minute "Joy" in 1973, horns blaring and violins purring in the background. "Lips to lips, heart to heart, ain't no way we'll ever part. Keep on teasin' me." The song fades out into one long moan.

"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.

As such, Hayes was left behind on the list of influences, relegated to a period piece though his best work at Stax and as a solo artist ranks up there with anything from Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, even Stevie Wonder; at the very least, Luther Vandross and R. Kelly owe a debt of gratitude. If nothing else, his two new albums--one of which contains the astounding "Birth of Shaft," the other a remake of his 1969 "Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic" with Public Enemy's Chuck D--will serve as a reminder that Isaac Hayes deserves to be remembered fondly.

At least, that is what Hayes hopes.
"When I was out of the business--when I was out of the mainstream--I would see stuff on TV, on various shows, and my name was never mentioned," Hayes says without any bitterness, "and sometimes people who contributed less than I did were mentioned. And sometimes, friends would get upset: 'Man, with all that stuff you done?' And I would say, 'Aw, don't worry about it, eventually the truth will surface.'

"The reason with this record and doin' all the press is it gives me an opportunity to speak on these things and to enlighten. It gives me a chance to inform because a lot of kids out there buyin' records have no idea that to a great extent, my efforts are behind a lot of things they're listening to or has contributed to a lot of trends or contributed to inspiring certain artists that have done well. And I don't want to sound like Little Richard--'I invented that! I did this!'--and that's why I never said anything. I figured it would happen.

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