Black Moses 2.0

Gone are the days of Shaft and Chef. Meet the new Isaac.



It's one of those October days in Memphis when the sky couldn't be any bluer and you can actually feel the energy in the air.

On the Soulsville campus that is home to the Stax Music Academy, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and the Soulsville Charter School, there's enough energy to spin one's head. Grammy-winner John Legend is scheduled to arrive today with a camera crew to talk with the students.

But before Legend arrives, a real legend arrives for an interview for Memphis magazine. Isaac Hayes and his entourage turn into the parking lot in a Cadillac Escalade and stop where he parked his fancier and flashier cars in decades past -- such as the 1972 peacock-blue El Dorado with 24-karat gold trim, white fur carpet, refrigerator, and television -- when he was a star at Stax Records. That restored car is now on display in the museum here along with other artifacts that chronicle Hayes' days at Stax.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Hayes' entourage might have included his driver, barber, road manager, back-up singers, and his promotions man. Today, however, the crew consists of just one assistant, his wife Adjowa, granddaughter Elle, and the newest love of his life, his son Kwadjo, born in April and now an almost constant traveling companion to his famous father. Instead of wrestling with gold chains and platform shoes, Hayes and company are unfolding a stroller, making this an official family outing.

Hayes smiles and walks with a clip so fast and determined that he's hard to keep up with. He is here for the third time in just a few weeks, most recently for a photo shoot for a national magazine. Before that, he was here with other former Stax artists for a Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau press conference announcing the city's 2007 "50 Years of Soul" marketing campaign. He came back a bit later with longtime friend and Stax songwriting partner David Porter to greet Stevie Wonder and talk about old times and new as Wonder, in town to receive a Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum, paid his first visit to Stax.

For the photo shoot, Hayes donned a gold satin African tunic that he wore to his 1992 coronation, when he was appointed a king of the Ada coastal region of the nation of Ghana in west Africa. On the day he visits to reminisce with Porter and Wonder, he's wearing a T-shirt bearing the International Association of Scientologists logo, the faith he has embraced in recent years that has garnered him considerable publicity in the past year. He made lots of news when he left his role as "Chef" on the animated sitcom South Park, after the creators aired an episode that poked fun at the religion and another of its celebrity members, Tom Cruise.

Fame is obviously not going to fade away any time soon for the man with the famous voice. In January 2006, when Hayes fell ill in Tunica, Mississippi, and was rushed to a hospital, reporters and bloggers across the country speculated that he was suffering from exhaustion. Others stated that he had a heart condition and was in a coma. Hayes made no statement at all, in part because he couldn't. And even at the recent Memphis CVB press conference, Hayes had trouble speaking and acknowledged he was dealing with a "health issue." But that's as far as he went with it, and his fans continued to speculate what, if anything, was wrong with him.

On this day, however, in a tiny sound room upstairs at Stax, Hayes -- dressed in sweat pants and baseball cap and looking more like the cuddly father, grandfather, and great-grandfather that he is than the 1970s "Black Moses" persona that made him an icon of African-American empowerment -- says he wants the public to know what happened to him and how he is doing.

"I had a stroke, and not a light one," he explains. "When I woke up I didn't know what was going on. I was just lying there in the hospital. I think I had just been working too hard. But I am so much better. I have been and still am having physical therapy and speech therapy, and I am getting better every day. I'm improving all the time and I am going to make a full recovery."

Despite the admission of the stroke, what comes through loudly and clearly is Hayes' ability to overcome whatever obstacle might get in his way. Really, it has been his trademark all of his life, one that came with challenges from the beginning and has kept the 64-year-old in the spotlight as a singer, actor, producer, songwriter, composer, musician, restaurateur, cookbook author, Rock-and-Roll Hall of Famer, Songwriters Hall of Famer, Oscar winner, Golden Globe winner, NAACP Image Award winner, and dedicated philanthropist.

*****

Isaac Hayes was born to a poor sharecropper family in Covington, Tennessee, on August 20, 1942. Orphaned as an infant, he and his sister Willette, who still lives in North Memphis, were raised by their maternal grandparents, Willie and Rushia Addie-Mae Wade. Although poor, Hayes says life was good. The family grew their own crops, raised cattle and other livestock, ground their corn at the grist mill, and hunted for rabbits. His grandmother canned her own foods and put them up for the cold winter months. At the age of 7, Hayes' family moved to Memphis to find work, and his grandfather Willie took a job in a tomato- canning factory. But his health began to fade, and Willie died when Hayes was just 11 years old. Times were harder than ever for the family, and Hayes began picking cotton, mowing lawns, delivering groceries and firewood, and even shining shoes on Beale Street.

While enrolled at Manassas High School in North Memphis, Hayes dropped out for six weeks because he didn't have any clothes that would "attract the girls," he says. But his grandmother and a delegation of teachers, who thought Hayes had too much to offer, gathered up some hand-me-down threads and Hayes decided to stay in school. Years later, when the state of Tennessee honored him with a historical marker, Hayes had it placed near the entrance of Manassas, where it remains today.

Hayes began singing in a church choir at the age of 5, and a guidance counselor at Manassas later persuaded Hayes to enter a talent show, where he sang Nat King Cole's 1958 hit "Looking Back." Hayes says the crowd went wild and he was a sensation, which resulted in lunch invitations the next day from several girls at school. That, he says, made him start pursuing music big-time. The young man voted by his schoolmates as "Most Talented" joined the school band, playing the saxophone. He learned to play the piano by literally faking it during a New Year's Eve gig because he needed the money. While in high school, Hayes performed with several groups -- gospel with the Morning Stars, doo-wop with Sir Isaac & the Doo-Dads, the Teen Tones, and the Ambassadors; and jazz with the Ben Branch house band at the famed Curry's Club Tropicana in North Memphis.

Hayes laughs his deep, guttural chuckle at the mention of Sir Isaac & the Doo-Dads and says, "Oh, yeah. The Doo-Dads! Yeah, I was singing and doing little things here or there. I would play at the Plantation Inn over in West Memphis and some other clubs around town. But when I got out of high school, Stax was my thing. They had the Mar-Keys over there and Booker T. & the MGs, and man, that was what I wanted to do. I had been over there about three times, and [Stax Records founder] Jim Stewart always turned us down. But finally he hired me."

Hayes graduated from Manassas in 1962, the same year that the hits started rolling out of Stax Records, which was housed in the old converted Capitol Theater at the corner of College and McLemore.

Founded in 1957, Stax was something of a makeshift studio in its early years, and Stewart and his sister and business partner Estelle Axton brought in kids from the neighborhood to listen to records and allowed many of them to record. One of them, David Porter, sacked groceries at Jones Big Star across the street. Around 1964, when Hayes started getting paid for session work by playing piano on some of Otis Redding's songs, Porter and Hayes paired up as the label's main songwriters and they -- and Stax -- were never the same. After some modest successes, Hayes and Porter began writing for a new act, Sam & Dave.

"When Jim Stewart chose David and me to produce Sam & Dave," Hayes recalls, "that gave us our first big break. Everything just blew up big-time."

Among the 200 or so songs Hayes and Porter wrote, arranged, and produced in the early years of their relationship were such megahits as "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby," "I Thank You," "Wrap It Up," the R&B Grammy-winning "Soul Man," and "Hold On! I'm Comin.'"

About "Hold On! I'm Comin,'" Hayes laughs about the lyrics: "Yep, the story is true. David and I were trying to write a song in the studio, and he said, 'Man, I got to use the restroom.' Well, after he got through doing what he needed to do, I yelled at him to come on out, and he yelled back, 'Hold on! I'm Comin'!' And he came running out of the bathroom with his pants down, saying, 'That's it! That's it! I got it! Hold on! I'm comin'!' and I said, 'That's good!" and we sat there and wrote the song."

Hayes recorded his first album for Stax in 1967 and, true to his don't-stick-to-the-norm approach to most things in life, it was anything but an ordinary recording session. "It was after a big Stax Christmas party," Hayes recalls. "Me and [Booker T. & the MGs bassist) Duck Dunn snatched some champagne and drank it. And [former Stax Records executive] Al Bell said, 'I want to cut a record on you.' I wasn't feeling any pain and I said, 'Well, roll the machine, man,' and about an hour and a half later we had a record. Duck was on bass, [Booker T. & the MGs drummer] Al Jackson was on drums, and I was on keyboards."

The album, Presenting Isaac Hayes, was a collection of pop hits the three recast in lengthy, jazzy arrangements with spoken-word monologues and very lush, orchestrated middle sections. It failed to make the charts, but Hayes liked the different, longer-than-usual format of the songs, and it was a sign of bigger things to come.

But before bigger things would come, Hayes -- along with the rest of our city -- would suffer a setback. In 1968 during the infamous Memphis sanitation workers' strike, Hayes marched with Dr. Martin Luther King. A riot broke out, and Hayes helped a group of nuns take shelter in a nearby church.

"Awe, man, there was gas and dogs and all that shit and I just helped them get out of the way all I could and they all got into the church but I got locked outside," he recalls. "All that gas and stuff . . . it was terrible, it was terrible."

But the worst blow came about a week later, when King returned to Memphis and Hayes was supposed to march with him again. That was on April 4, 1968, and he drove to Stax that afternoon to pick up a fellow musician. "Just when I got to Stax to meet Toby," he says, "I found out that Dr. King had been shot and killed. It was horrible."

Hayes says he was so devastated by King's assassination that he couldn't work for a year. He finally came to the conclusion that there was nothing he could do about it other than to become successful and powerful enough to have a voice and make a difference. He went back to work and started writing again.

*****

Hayes' next album, Hot Buttered Soul, released in 1969 on Stax's subsidiary Enterprise label, would forever change the way music was recorded. The LP contained just four songs: a remake of the Burt Bacharach/Dionne Warwick hit "Walk on By" at 12-plus minutes, his funky "Hyperbolicsyllabicsquedalymistic" at 9-plus minutes, "One Woman" at a mere 5-plus minutes, and a cover of Glen Campbell's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" at a staggering 18-plus minutes. It featured Hayes' deep and sultry vocals, long instrumental stretches by the Bar-Kays, and other over-the-top elements that made the music industry stand up and take notice of soul music -- especially this particular artist's soul music -- as an art form. It skyrocketed to number one on the Billboard R&B chart for 10 weeks and stayed on the pop chart for 81 weeks.

Was Hayes nervous about the reaction it might receive?

"I didn't care," he says resolutely. "Everybody had been doing the short radio songs and I was out to do something totally different."

According to Bob Davis, an authority on soul music and founder/owner of the influential Web site soul-patrol.com, Hayes changed the way radio treated music and changed the way the public purchased music.

"To truly understand the impact that Isaac Hayes had on black music during his heyday," Davis says, "one must hear his studio albums. He was the very first soul/funk artist to create fully realized 'concept albums,' starting in the late 1960s. . . . Those songs forced black radio stations to break the 'three-minute rule' for song length and caused audiences to evolve from buying mostly singles to buying albums. Thus, the 'high concept' albums of Isaac Hayes changed black radio forever." Davis adds with a laugh, "They also changed the bedroom habits of an entire generation!"

If Hayes' groundbreaking Hot Buttered Soul cemented his image in the music world as the definitive soul music renegade, what came next was nothing short of life-changing. Although he had scored big in 1970 with The Isaac Hayes Movement LP (seven weeks at number one on the charts with the song "I Stand Accused") and ...To Be Continued (11 weeks at number one with "Ike's Rap"), it was his smash hit film score for the movie Shaft that garnered him an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Theme From Shaft was the first LP in history by a black solo artist to hit number one on both the pop and R&B charts and also won Hayes a Golden Globe, an NAACP Image Award, and a Grammy. Hayes was only the third African American to win an Oscar, after Hattie McDaniel for Gone with the Wind and Sidney Poitier for Lilies of the Field.

Ironically, when he was approached by the producers, he wasn't even sure what they needed him to do.

"See, first of all I wanted to act, always had," Hayes explains. "So they asked if I knew anyone who could act and I said, 'Yeah, let me do it.' When I went back home I was bragging to all the fellas on the corner, not about singing or anything. I was talking about acting." Later, the producers explained that actor Richard Roundtree would play the role of John Shaft. "I was like, 'What?' Then they reminded me that I promised to do the music and I was like, 'Aw, man. Okay, I'll do that, but damn!'"

On April 10, 1972, Hayes took his grandmother Rushia to the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles. Hayes kept telling his grandmother, "I ain't gonna get it. I ain't gonna get it," but Rushia kept assuring him that he would win. When they called his name, he says, "I was shocked. I don't remember walking up to the stage. I got up and said thank you and all that and thank you to the Stax organization, but the most important thing I wanted to do was thank my grandmother and I did that."

That was the year the Academy presented Charlie Chaplin with a Lifetime Achievement Award. "He, Charlie Chaplin, summoned me over and congratulated me and told me how happy he was for me, and that was a really big thing to me," Hayes says, still with a touch of wonderment in his voice.

Hot Buttered Soul and Shaft brought with them Hayes' new image as "Black Moses" (as well as his third album by that same name) -- the tall, strong, serious man with the shaved head, omnipresent sunglasses, gold chains, and almost militant demeanor. But longtime friend and songwriting partner David Porter says that was anything but what Hayes was -- and is -- really like.

"There's that strong, unapproachable persona that really works in the marketplace," Porter explains. "Part of that is the mystique that goes along with it. But he is really nothing at all like that stern Black Moses because he is so kind and so giving. He has always been that way no matter what. Everyone who knows him well knows that and they all love him."

Porter's relationship with Hayes has flourished for decades, sharing good times and bad, and the two remain very close today, often making appearances together. Porter was with Hayes when he had the stroke in January 2006.

"I was in the emergency room with him when he was in the full throes of the stroke and it was frightening," he says. "I was very afraid for him. But Isaac is a fighter. Isaac had purpose. He had a new wife and a new baby on the way and he was hell-bent on getting through this from the very start. You could see in his eyes that he was fighting. His strength has been evident throughout this. He still has some progress to make but he can now perform, and I believe he is on his way to making a full recovery."

Porter explains the success and longevity of his friendship with Hayes this way: "I was hired at Stax before Isaac was, but we became close really quickly when he came on board. I had some episodes in my life back then and needed Isaac and he was always there for me. Certainly, there were circumstances that could have caused us to split up but we were serious about our commitment to each other."

After the success of Hot Buttered Soul and Shaft, Porter says that many people thought the two had gone their separate ways.

"But that wasn't the case," he says. "I encouraged Isaac to go out and be himself and let people fall in love with him. And when people talked about us splitting up, it didn't bother us because we had our own understanding about our careers and our friendship."

*****

After the immense success of Shaft, Hayes recorded a string of hit albums on the Stax/Enterprise label before the company was forced into bankruptcy in 1975. He then formed his own record company, HBS, and recorded four albums that all reached the top 20 on the charts, including three disco-influenced LPs and a live double LP with good friend Dionne Warwick. He has continued recording ever since, but from the early 1980s until now, he has also concentrated on his film and television career, appearing in more than 60 movies and television shows, including his famed 10-year role as "Chef" on South Park.

He has also authored two cookbooks -- Cooking with Heart and Soul: Making Music in the Kitchen with Family and Friends and Kidney Friendly Comfort Foods: A Collection of Recipes for Eating Well with Chronic Kidney Disease, the latter written after the death of his good friend and fellow soul music legend Barry White from kidney failure. He has opened two restaurants, Isaac Hayes Food-Music-Passion, one in Memphis and one in Chicago, both offering live entertainment. He also opened an Isaac Hayes Cooks and Wares store near each restaurant, where, among other kitchen accoutrements, he sells his own secret-recipe barbecue sauces.

(In his own life, however, Hayes is a health-food fanatic. In fact, during a November 3, 2004, appearance on Tavis Smiley with newly elected Illinois senator Barack Obama, Hayes told the audience he had been on a 15-day fast and was trying for 30.)

In 1996, Hayes joined the KISS radio station family in New York City and was one of the city's most popular disc jockeys. He also hosted The Isaac Hayes Top 20 R&B Countdown show and the nationally syndicated, five-hour Hot Buttered Love Songs show that aired in Memphis on WRBO 103.5 Soul Classics.

In addition to all these business ventures, Hayes became very active in humanitarian work in 1991, when he and Barry White shot a video for White's Put Me In Your Mix LP in the Ivory Coast. A year later, the cultural minister of nearby Ghana invited him and Dionne Warwick to visit that country and tour the Elmina slave castles. He was so moved by the experience that he felt he needed to do more work there. As he traveled across America speaking of the need for better education in Africa, Princess Naa Asie Ocansey of Ghana phoned Hayes and told him her father would like to make him a king, and in 1992 he was appointed in a large coronation.

"It was my music that got me over to Ghana," Hayes says, "but then they made me a king and gave me an island. It was a big thing, a big gathering, and they gave me the key and the title."

While most expected Hayes to build a house on the island, he had more ambitious plans. After raising funds and gathering enough sponsors, Hayes opened an 8,000-square-foot-school, NekoTech, in 1998 that focuses on literacy, education, computer technology, and other modern ways to help underprivileged young people in the region.

His journeys to Africa have brought other benefits. Five years ago, while on a trip to Ghana, Hayes noticed a young woman at his hotel. He sent someone to invite her to dinner, but she declined. Today, his 36-year-old wife, Adjowa, laughs about that first encounter, saying, "I didn't even know who he was!" After a lot of persuasion from his friends and hers, Adjowa agreed to have dinner, only if it was a group dinner.

"At dinner, I didn't say a thing," she laughs. "Just 'yes, no, maybe,' that was it."

On May 15, 2005, the two were married and their son Kwadjo was born almost a year later on April 10, 2006. Hayes chuckles when asked how many children he has and just agrees when asked if it is 12.

"I've had sons and daughters before," he says, "but I was so busy all the time and working and all that. But this time when I had the stroke, I slowed down. Kwadjo's a real blessing. I was there for his birth. I cut the umbilical cord and everything. It was so amazing."

How long Hayes will remain slowed down, however, is anyone's guess. He plans to play an active role in the yearlong celebration of Stax Records' 50th anniversary in 2007 as a trustee on the board of the Soulsville Foundation, the organization's fund-raising arm. He says he has new film, television, and other commercial projects in the works, but he prefers not to discuss his departure from South Park, other than to say, "I just moved on. It was fun while it lasted and it was good for me, but we have just parted ways."

He also prefers not to discuss Scientology, saying only that it involves "some basic values that helped me realize a better way of life." He has Kwadjo to raise and plans to "let him have his way, not put any guards on him, and give him a lot of love, a lot of love."

And Hayes can likely expect a lot of love coming his way, as the case has always been. On October 27th, Hayes performed in public, in San Antonio, for the first time since his stroke. The following day, the headline in the San Antonio Express read, "Hayes, Band Thrill with Soul and Funk." Music critic Jim Beal noted, "The master of Memphis funk and soul proved he can still shake the rafters and challenge speakers with his deeper-than-deep voice. And, in his first post-stroke concert, he can still rouse crowds with a repertoire of songs that define funk music."

During the concert, Hayes acknowledged that he had some problems back in January and that this was his first night to perform since. Someone in the crowd yelled, "Everybody loves you!" Hayes, always determined and optimistic, replied, "Okay. So we're all gonna have a good time." 

 

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