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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sir David Attenborough
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
Comic miserablist Larry David in 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'
peopleDirector of new documentary Misery Loves Comedy reveals how he got them to open up
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Life and Style
David Bowie by Duffy
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
advertisingVideo: The company that brought you the 'Bud' 'Weis' 'Er' frogs and 'Wasssssup' ads, has something up its sleeve for Sunday's big match
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Vivienne Westwood speaking at a fracking protest outside Parliament on Monday (AP)
Life and Style
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea