The smooth funk and social consciousness of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder have made them the holy trinity to neo-soul artists such as D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and Maxwell. However, today’s tortured soul music by the likes of Drake and the Weeknd points to another major, yet less celebrated titan of ’70s soul: Isaac Hayes.
From the time he started writing, arranging and playing piano at Stax studios in Memphis in 1963, Hayes had a penchant for baroque drama. It was his imaginative arrangement that framed Otis Redding’s powerful vocals in "Try A Little Tenderness" (1966), recycled to great effect in Kanye and Jay-Z’s "Otis".
However, what cements Hayes’ relevance to contemporary soul music is the period from 1969-72. Hayes’ first fully-fledged solo album, Hot Buttered Soul (1969), shattered conventions of black music. Several years after rock LPs had become coherent artistic statements, R&B albums remained collections of three-minute singles and throwaway filler. Hot Buttered Soul contained just four long songs. Hayes’ baritone talk-singing dominated hypnotic, minimal grooves slathered in huge string sections and pillowy reverb.
Hot Buttered Soul surprised many with unlikely covers of songs by Burt Bacharach and Jim Webb. In Hayes’ hands, "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" turned into a plushly produced 18-minute proto-rap odyssey equal parts grandiose, self-involved and upwardly mobile. It introduced the template still used by many of today’s soul artists sampling indie-rock and navel-gazing about lost love.
For the next few years, Hayes, with his bald pate and dark sunglasses (bold fashion statements during the long-haired hippie era), became a major force in black music and consistently hit the top 20 on the pop albums chart – a rarity for soul artists.
In 1971, he moved into movie scores with the soundtrack to Shaft. This became the pinnacle of his career – the first double album in soul music history and a #1 single and album on the pop, jazz and R&B charts. Hayes won two Grammys and "Theme From Shaft" became the most performed song of 1971, thanks to its popularity with marching bands.
Even more importantly, Hayes won the first Oscar ever awarded to a black man in a non-acting category. He made an indelible impression on the Academy Awards telecast, performing shrouded in fog and dressed in chain mail. Hayes’ taste for fashion excess – the zebra patterns and fur busting out everywhere – became symbolic of ‘70s style, while his propensity for lots and lots of bling – especially thick gold necklaces – shaped hip hop’s iconography.
Hayes’ visibility extended beyond the music world when he became one of the first black entertainers to get involved on an ownership level in sports, buying into a Memphis basketball team. Financial overextension brought Hayes to bankruptcy in the mid-’70s but didn’t bring him down creatively. Unlike most other soul stars, Hayes successfully transitioned to disco, with tracks like "Zeke The Freak" (1978) presaged house music.
When the TV show South Park came calling in the ’90s, Hayes became better known as "Mr. Chocolate Salty Balls" (a #1 hit in the UK). Unfortunately, his reputation suffered when he split with the show in a dispute over his belief in Scientology. The incident’s a sad end to his career, particularly considering it transpired after he’d had a stroke.
It’s the power of Hayes’ ostentatious yet angst-ridden early ’70s material that makes him a muse for the wounded soul artists of today. Strip away the grandeur and what remains are relentless head-nodding beats fronted by a plaintive voice wallowing in love’s travails.
on Feb 06, 2012