Originally published on Obit-Mag.com.
It's easy to see Isaac Hayes as a monolith, standing bald-headed, sporting gold sunglasses and wearing the robes of a warrior from the future. The chugging guitar from his Oscar-winning and era defining blaxploitation hit, “Shaft” rumbles in the background, while his own molten-voiced basso affirms, “You’re damn right.”
For younger generations, perhaps it’s easier to know him as the voice of Chef, a character on the subversively profane animated TV series South Park. Hayes is both of these impressions and more, an icon of the late 20th century, and his death on August 10, 2008 at his home near Memphis offers a moment to revel in the largess of his legacy.
One needn’t look too far from his home in Tennessee to unearth the origins of this legacy. It was in the mid 1970s that Hayes found his most productive streak as a composer, songwriter and singer while toiling away in the studios of Stax Records in Memphis. He collaborated with David Porter and wrote songs for the duo Sam and Dave, including the ever-popular, “Soul Man.”
Of course, it was John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd who made the song a huge mainstream hit in 1978 as The Blues Brothers. The Los Angeles Times, in their excellent obituary for Hayes, ruminates on the transportation of black identity into popular culture:
“The fact that Hayes projected such a powerful sense of African American dignity, yet also co-wrote a career-defining hit for two white comedians, illustrates the paradoxical range of his appeal.”
Before Stax, Hayes had carved out a powerfully masculine, definitely black image for himself and his music. The 1969 album “Hot Buttered Soul” featured a reworked 12-minute version of Burt Bachrach’s song, "Walk on By." Hayes’ 1971 album, “Black Moses” established an assured, practically regal stage persona. These albums did more than just sell, according to Rob Bowman author of "Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records" (1997):
"In the first few years of the 1970s he single-handedly redefined the sonic possibilities for black music, in the process opening up the album market as a commercially viable medium for black artists such as Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Funkadelic, and Curtis Mayfield."
Quite an appraisal. Isaac Hayes will be missed, but of course, his music lives on…
Here’s an amazing television session of the Burt Bachrach song “Walk on By.”