Saturday, August 16, 2008

Passings: Isaac Hayes--Musician, Actor, Badass

Chef died.

That's probably what all too many people thought when presented with the news that Isaac Hayes passed away at the age of 65. But remembering Hayes for South Park alone is a little like remembering Orson Welles strictly for doing the voice of Unicron in that 1986 Transformers movie. Long before he good-naturedly winked at his iconic persona in the guise of Chef, Isaac Hayes left a seismic impression on popular music.

I can't remember a time when some aspect of Isaac Hayes wasn't tincturing my life, whether it was hearing the immortal theme from Shaft at age five on the tinny car radio buried in my parents' old Chevy, watching the man menace the president of the USA in Escape from New York on my 14th birthday, combing used record racks for vinyl copies of the Truck Turner soundtrack and Isaac Hayes at the Sahara Tahoe in college, or watching him bring a crowd of apathetic Seattleites to a booty-shaking frenzy at Bumbershoot a few years back.

Enclosed please find a Petri Dish 101 devoted to the finest moments that Isaac Hayes committed to posterity, on vinyl and on film. And most of them do not include Eric Cartman or Mr. Hanky.

Essential Isaac Hayes recordings:

Hot Buttered Soul (Stax Records, 1969): Hayes composed some 200 tunes with co-writer David Porter, including the immortal "Hold on, I'm Coming" and "Soul Man" for Sam and Dave, but he made the leap from house composer to trailblazer with his second solo LP, 1969's Hot Buttered Soul. On the face of it, it was an unlikely commercial prospect: The album contained only four tracks (one of which clocked in at a whopping eighteen minutes), and with it Isaac Hayes effectively chucked the Three-Minute-Hit-Single format out the window. But Stax, Isaac's label, had just lost most of their back catalog to Atlantic Records, and--desperate for product to create a new catalog rapidly--the soul label gave him full creative control. Ultimately, the can't-miss melodies and throbbing grooves couldn't be denied and Hot Buttered Soul became a massive hit.

Hayes and his band boldly deconstructed and reimagined pop standards like the Bacharach/David chestnut "Walk on By" and Jimmy Webb's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" as soul epics, alternating between cascading strings and dirty fuzztone guitars while Hayes' bass-baritone wrung every bit of wounded pride out of the lyrics. Hot Buttered Soul proved to be the template for his work for several years, and its importance can't be overstated. Emboldened by the barrier-breaking of Isaac Hayes' work, other black artists began stretching their wings: I'd be willing to argue that without Hot Buttered Soul, there'd be no What's Going On, no Free Your Mind...And Your Ass will Follow, no Talking Book. And if you need evidence that the ripple effect leads squarely to today's music charts, look no further than this great Jamsbio page that showcases some of the hip-hop tracks that sampled The Man's work to hit-making effect.

...To Be Continued (Stax, 1970): Hayes followed Hot Buttered Soul with another atmospheric masterwork. To these ears, it's the most perfect synthesis of the Cinemascope Isaac Hayes Sound, from the evocative opener "Monologue/Ike's Rap I" to the impassioned slow burn of the climactic "Running Out of Fools". Hayes and his band, the Movement, psychedelicized another Bacharach/David number, "The Look of Love," stretching the song's sultry hooks like aphrodisiac taffy and essentially creating Barry White's entire career in eleven languid and sensual minutes.

Shaft Original Soundtrack (Stax, 1971): It's far from perfect, descending to the merely serviceable at times, but Shaft features the essential, full-length four-and-a-half minute workout of the immortal title track (not on any of Hayes' other albums as far as I know) , the classic jam "Do Your Thing," and several prime slabs of jazzy Hayes organ and instrumental shading. Best-kept secret of the soundtrack: The menacing, stacatto-guitar-spiked "Walk from Regio's."

Isaac Hayes Live at the Sahara Tahoe (Stax, 1973): Two solid hours of Isaac Hayes live during his Black Moses prime. It's actually pretty ragged in places, with the man's vocals veering way off-key during the super-sized cover of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine". But if Hayes wasn't as virtuostic a singer as fellow basso profundo Barry White, Black Moses took way more chances, reaching for notes that White woulda never bothered breaking a sweat on. The funky professionalism of his backup band The Movement--his soul-sister backing vocalists Hot Buttered Soul--likewise can't be denied, especially in this live setting. Hunt it down on vinyl if you can: The tiny compact-disc format pert near neuters the original issue's amazing gatefold photography and picture sleeve.

Branded (Point Blank Records, 1995): Isaac Hayes segued smoothly into the disco era of the late seventies with simpler, more beat-heavy variations on his soul stylings (documented on the interesting-if-inconsequential The Best of Isaac Hayes: The Polydor Years), and he parlayed a more watered-down synth-choked style throughout the eighties. But then came this late-career highpoint, an unforced return to the lush sound of his early seventies prime. "Let Me Love You" stands as one of his finest, most sensual jams, and he manages the seemingly impossible by rendering Sting's sorry ass soulful on a sharp cover of the ex-Police-man's "Fragile".

Ultimate Isaac Hayes--Can You Dig It? (Stax, 2005): This sizeable best-of covers Hayes' plum years at Stax, unearths some ace B-sides, and pulls up solid tracks from underrated mid-seventies platters like Chocolate Chip and Groove-a-Thon. Add to that a bonus DVD with Hayes in full early-seventies splendor during his incendiary Wattstax show (and, yes, a music video of that South Park sing-along "Chocolate Salty Balls"), and you've an ace starter kit for the man's unique body of musical work.

Isaac Hayes on Film:

Beginning in the early seventies, Isaac Hayes' larger-than-life image--shaved head, shades seemingly permanently affixed to his face, frequently shirtless--translated to a distinctive presence in front of the camera.

Isaac Hayes--The Black Moses of Soul (1973, on DVD with Sofa Entertainment/Goodtimes Video): The sound's a bit muddy and the direction uninspired, but this special stands as the most lengthy documentation of Hayes' elaborate, epic concert presentations during his Black Moses prime. His entrance alone--striding to the stage in psychedelic cape and floppy hat, and shedding the colorful cowl with messianic confidence to reveal a jacket forged of gold chains--makes every rapper and soul singer of the last twenty years look like a gawky wallflower.

Three Tough Guys (1974, Madacy Entertainment DVD): You can catch this unexceptional little wet fart of an action flick on Madacy Entertainment's first Grindhouse Experience box set. It moves like molasses uphill, but marks Hayes' first feature film lead. He acquits himself capably as a disgraced cop who joins priest Lino Ventura to recover $1,000,000 in stolen mob money. Fred "The Hammer" Williamson pops up to wear a snazzy red leather suit and be a badass, too.

Truck Turner (1974, MGM/UA DVD): Now THIS is more like it. Roger Corman protege/future multiple Emmy nominee Jonathan Kaplan directed this extremely entertaining blaxploitation effort starring Hayes as an ex-football star-turned-badass bounty hunter. He and his partner in skip-tracing (Alan Weeks) get targeted for a hit by Dorinda (Nichelle Nichols!), a foul-mouthed madam who sics rival pimp Blue (Yaphet Kotto) on Turner. Hayes makes a terrific action hero (and he wields a Magnum the size of an elephant's trunk with real authority), the script's rife with tasty pulp dialogue ("Anybody asks you what happened, tell 'em you been hit by a truck--Mac 'Truck' Turner!"), Hayes' score totally cooks, and Kaplan keeps things moving like a mutha. Absolutely essential for several reasons, including hearing Lieutenant Uhura turn the air blue with an industrial-strength load of profanity.

Escape from New York (1981, MGM/UA): One of the great joys of John Carpenter's political allegory in futuristic action clothing is the gallery of great character actors on hand. That Hayes' coolly tough turn as the Duke of New York stands proudly alongside the colorful work of Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, and Harry Dean Stanton speaks volumes about Hayes' charisma (and Carpenter's canny use of that badass image).

I'm Gonna Git You, Sucka (1988, MGM/UA): A decade before he endeared himself to South Park fans as Chef, Isaac Hayes sportingly took potshots at his image in Keenan Ivory Wayans' broad but frequently very funny blaxploitation spoof.

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