Isaac Hayes: Seventies soul superstar who won an Oscar for 'Theme from Shaft'

When the singer and musician Isaac Hayes met MGM executives in 1970, the conversation turned to the Ernest Tidyman novel Shaft, to which the studio had just acquired the film rights. Hayes thought he might be up for the lead role as the black private detective John Shaft, as the studio seemed keen to cash in on the emerging blaxploitation genre.

After years as a session player and songwriter at Stax Records, Hayes had broken through as a solo artist with the album Hot Buttered Soul the previous year. His extended, orchestrated versions of "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and "Walk On By", delivered in his deep voice and relaxed style, had crossed over from the R&B to the pop charts and he repeated the trick in 1970 with covers of "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself", "Something" and "I Stand Accused" on The Isaac Hayes Movement and "The Look of Love" and "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" on To Be Continued. With both albums nestling in the US Top Ten, Hayes felt pretty confident.

A few weeks later, the studio called to say Richard Roundtree had been cast as the lead. Hayes had to be content with a cameo as a bartender, but the soundtrack he composed and recorded for the film became a signature sound of the Seventies. In particular, the "Theme from Shaft" – driven by Charles "Skip" Pitts' wah-wah guitar, with the lyrics "who's the black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks?" and "They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother. . . Shut your mouth!" – captured the mood of the movie's dark yet resilient character beautifully and topped the charts around the world in 1971. The following year, Hayes won two Grammys and the Academy Award for Best Song, the first black composer to receive an Oscar.

"I dedicated my Oscar to my grandmother," he said later. "This was the height of my career. I grew up poor in Memphis. My mother passed when I was a year and a half and my father split, so she [my grandmother] was like a mama to me. When I was young, I prayed to let her live long enough to see me do something big."

The self-styled "Black Moses" – the title Hayes gave to a 1972 concept album inspired by the break-up of his first marriage – became a Seventies soul superstar, driving a gold-plated cadillac provided by his record label. Even if it subsequently became the butt of a thousand jokes, the striking look – shaven head, sunglasses, gold chains, chain vest even – he sported on the cover of Hot Buttered Soul proved as iconic as his music was groundbreaking.

Hayes showed the album format was a viable medium for African-American musicians to explore and paved the way for ambitious releases by Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. He also greatly influenced Barry White who picked up the symphonic soul baton with aplomb. In 1991, the singers duetted on the 10-minute long "Dark and Lovely (You Over There)".

But Hayes's career took in lows as well as highs. Despite scoring a run of 10 consecutive albums on the R&B and pop charts in the US between 1969 and 1976, he had to file for bankruptcy after the collapse of the Stax label. He successfully moved into acting and remained a musical presence throughout the disco and rap eras he had inaugurated. Much in demand for voice-overs, he also presented radio shows in New York and Memphis.

A new generation of fans discovered Hayes when he lent his rich baritone voice to Chef, the school cook and ladies man in the cult animated series South Park. As Chef, Hayes scored an unlikely UK No 1 in December 1998 with the innuendo-laden novelty single "Chocolate Salty Balls" – a knowing reference to Chocolate Chip, his 1975 album.

However, he fell out with the South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker after they made fun of Scientology and he left the show in 2006, though that decision may have had just as much to do with Hayes having suffered a stroke earlier in the year. He signed to the revived Stax label and returned to performing but was a shadow of his former self when he appeared at Womad and other European festivals in 2007.

Hayes grew up in abject poverty in Covington, and then Memphis, Tennessee. He would sing gospel and doo-wop while picking cotton with his friends and in his mid-teens won a talent contest in Memphis. "I was a raggedy kid with holes in his shoes up on stage singing the Nat King Cole song 'Looking Back'," he recalled. "All of a sudden, I win this contest and I'm signing autographs and the pretty girls are noticing me."

Hayes taught himself to play the piano, organ and saxophone and was offered several music scholarships when he graduated from high school. Instead, he got a job slaughtering pigs and cows with a meat packing company in Memphis. In parallel, he played with various small bands, including the Teen Tones, Sir Calvin and his Swinging Cats, and also backed Jeb Stuart with the Doo-Dads.

In 1962, he cut his first single, "Laura, We're On Our Last Go-Round" with the producer Chips Moman, who had a brief association with Stax Records. The Memphis label had turned Hayes down several times when he had auditioned with his groups but, when the keyboard player Booker T. Jones left to attend college in 1963, the label's president Jim Stewart recruited him as staff musician in his stead.

"My first session was an Otis Redding album," recalled Hayes. "I was scared to death." He muddled through and became an integral part of the Stax set-up, arranging classics like Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness". He also co-wrote singles for Floyd Newman and the Mad Lads. By 1965, he had formed a songwriting partnership with the insurance salesman turned lyricist David Porter. Hayes remembered: "He said: 'Let's be a team like Holland-Dozier-Holland [the Motown songwriters] or Bacharach-David'. The first thing we wrote was 'How Do You Quit Someone You Love' for Carla Thomas."

Then they began a fruitful association with Sam and Dave, who had been sent to record in Memphis by their bosses at Atlantic Records, Stax's distributors at the time. Their first Sam and Dave single was "I Take What I Want", followed by "You Don't Know Like I Know", "Hold On, I'm Comin'", "When Something's Wrong With My Baby" and "Soul Man". "We had no idea how good we were," said Hayes. "We were just doing something we felt, and the stuff was catching on."

Still, Hayes was itching to record something of his own, altough Stewart kept telling him his voice was "too pretty". Eventually, in January 1968, Hayes and Al Bell, the head of promotion, drank two bottles of champagne and wound up in the studio:

Al says: "Let's cut a record right now." So we get a few of the guys together – Al Jackson on drums, Booker T played a little organ, me on piano – and we do an album. Well, we do "Misty", "Stormy Monday Blues", "Goin' to Chicago", "Rock Me Baby". We finish it, play it back and we go our separate ways.

Three weeks later, the musician was amazed to find himself having his photo taken wearing a tuxedo and holding a top hat for the cover of Introducing Isaac Hayes, his début album. Having formed his own group, the Isaac Hayes Movement, he worked on Shaft, his first soundtrack assignment, while touring. The composer aimed to reflect "a lot of what happened in the Sixties, the civil rights struggle, the Vietnam issues and so forth. Society was more liberal and having more fun at that time." He'd only been given a 16mm copy of three scenes but once he locked the funky wah-wah groove he had been toying with for months over the opening credits everything fell into place.

Hayes' use of dynamics reflected the movie's shifting moods and was nothing short of breathtaking. "There was a lot of freedom," he said.

You were disciplined because you had to match a lot of dramatic cues on the film. But you had creative freedom to interpret how you felt that should be played against the scene. Since I did not have formal training, I was not restricted in what I could hear, what I could imagine. That's why the sound is so unique. Almost everything that followed for almost a decade had that same kind of sound like Shaft.

For a while, he seemed unstoppable. Black Moses followed the Shaft soundtrack up the charts and Hayes took part in the Wattstax music festival – the "Black Woodstock" – at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1972. Yet, he was now the only major selling artist on Stax and, in 1974, had to resort to suing the label to collect royalties. Within a couple of years, the whole Stax operation collapsed. Hayes lost millions of dollars in past and future publishing income, as well as his home, and had to declare bankruptcy.

He picked himself up and signed to ABC and then Polydor, and scored a Top 10 hit in the UK with "Disco Connection" in 1976. He also issued duets albums with both Dionne Warwick (A Man and a Woman, 1977) and Millie Jackson (Royal Rappin', 1979) but his recordings increasingly relied on a well-worn formula. He had already appeared in Three Tough Guys and Truck Turner in 1974, and recorded soundtrack albums for both films, and he combined acting with music-making for the rest of his life. He appeared in various episodes of television series including The Rockford Files, Starsky and Hutch, The A-Team and Miami Vice, as well as John Carpenter's Escape From New York (1981).

Hayes attempted several comebacks and cut a wonderful version of the Sting composition "Fragile" on Branded, one of two albums he released in 1995. Four years later, he launched the Isaac Hayes Foundation in order to assist literacy and health programmes in the United States and Ghana.

In 2002 Hayes was inducted into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame. He was comfortable with his status as soul legend and elder statesman of black music and often stressed the part luck had played in his success. "The rappers have gone in and created a lot of hit music based upon my influence," he said. "And they'll tell you if you ask. I knew nothing about the business, or trends and things like that. I think it was a matter of timing. I didn't know what was unfolding." He recently finished filming Soul Men, loosely based on the story of Sam and Dave, and featuring Samuel L. Jackson – who played John Shaft in the 2000 film remake – and Bernie Mac, who died on Saturday.

Pierre Perrone

Isaac Hayes, singer, songwriter, producer and instrumentalist: born Covington, Tennessee 20 August 1942; four times married (12 children); died Memphis, Tennessee 10 August 2008.

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