Isaac Hayes was born on August 20, 1942, in Covington, Tennessee. Raised in the Memphis area, young Isaac absorbed the surrounding musical vibe and started playing piano while still in his teens. His first recording session came in 1964, as a keyboard player backing Otis Redding for Stax Records; with lyricist David Porter, Isaac would become a valuable Stax songwriter. His output produced numerous hits for the label's artists, which included Lou Rawls and the Emotions; but his greatest successes during this time were hits recorded by the duo Sam & Dave, such as "Hold On, I'm Coming," "Soul Man," and "I Thank You."
Throughout the rest of the '60's, Isaac developed a signature r&b sound unique to his own work, which - conversant with the times - was more experimental and trippy than the genre had ever seen previously. Reportedly going into the studio after a wild Stax Christmas party, Isaac - along with bassist Donald 'Duck' Dunn (who later appeared in The Blues Brothers) and drummer Al Jackson Jr. - started grooving on popular tunes of the time, adding spoken-word monologues and extended instrumental sequences.
The first album to make use of the sound - which would be called soul in the next decade - was Introducing Isaac Hayes, in 1967; this compilation failed to gain any interest, however. But the next album, Hot Buttered Soul, created a sensation - and Isaac Hayes instantly became the godfather of the slow, funky, sexed-up soul standard. Hot Buttered Soul, in fact, contained only four songs, rather than the usual ten or twelve - drawn-out, funked-up anthems, two of which were remakes (one of a Glen Campbell tune, of all things). Isaac started presenting himself as a black superstar, dressing himself in tight pants, fur-trimmed boots, and plenty of gold chains - much to the satisfaction of the ladies, according to Isaac himself.
But his biggest hit, and his greatest exposure to mainstream pop culture, came when Isaac was picked by filmmaker Gordon Parks to provide the theme to the detective thriller Shaft. Shaft became an immensely popular movie, especially among black audience members, who were just then being targetted with the first 'blaxploitation' films, and Isaac's funky opening theme set the tone for the entire work. In fact, the Shaft theme can be seen from our modern point of view as delineating the time, and the culture, which created it: the funky soul groove, the waka-chika guitar, Hayes's unmistakably deep voice - the song not only opened a great movie, it opened up the entire 1970's.
Unfortunately, Isaac's career has been uneven since then. Probably owing to the fact that his music lends itself more to the longer format of the album rather than singles, Isaac had few charting singles over the next several years. After forming his own label (Hot Buttered Soul Records), Isaac had a string of respectably-selling albums, but nevertheless was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1976. Taking the occasional role in TV and films, Isaac would not have another charting single until the 1980's.
The next few decades would see new accomplishments for Isaac Hayes; he became a Scientologist - a member of the cult created by ex-pulp writer L. Ron Hubbard - in 1992, and would spend the next several years as a morning radio host in New York City. In 1994, he was crowned a king in Ghana, in recognition of his humanitarian efforts; and in 2002, Isaac would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, alongside the Ramones, the Talking Heads, Chet Atkins, and others.
These days, however, Isaac's greatest claim to fame is as the voice of Chef, a character on the Comedy Central animated show South Park. Hayes quit the show after several seasons following a stroke; the announcement also happened to come after an episode which particularly trashed Scientology. Fans are left wondering whether Isaac quit show due to ill health, or because the show's creators, Matt Stone & Trey Parker, finally got around to spending an entire episode trashing Hayes's religion. Previously Isaac had stated in interviews that he realized that Trey & Matt lampooned everybody, of all political and religious beliefs; speculation was that he was coerced by his Scientological masters into quitting the show anyway - which would be consistent with the cult's past actions.
In any case, Isaac Hayes remains an important figure in the history of modern American music, particularly soul and r&b; coupled with his work as an actor and other media endeavors, he stands as one of the coolest of living pop culture icons. We hope he continues to make the ladies swoon with his gold chains, his dark sunglasses, and his low, smooth-as-chocolate-milk voice for many years to come.
Can you dig it?