Wikimedia Commons/John H. White
As a singer, Isaac Hayes – who died five years ago – achieved many of his greatest hits by reinterpreting songs other people had written. "Walk on By" and "The Look of Love," along with many other songs Hayes recorded, were written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. "Let's Stay Together" was first made famous by its songwriter, Al Green. Clifton Davis's "Never Can Say Goodbye" was recorded by The Jackson 5 before Isaac Hayes took it on.
Hayes always put his mark on these songs, making them something very different from the original recordings – but anyone who didn't know better might wonder if the charismatic performer was not so skilled when it came to putting pen to paper and creating a song from scratch.
But we know better. In reality, Isaac Hayes was also a talented and influential songwriter, whose compositions are widely known. As a writer, he helped shape the innovative soul sound coming out of Memphis in the early 1960s, and he was a driving force behind the evolution of disco and rap. He crafted perfect hit singles, but he also moved beyond pop, composing award-winning movie scores. Hayes may have enjoyed interpreting other writers' music, but the truth is that he was a songwriter to the core.
Hayes's most frequent songwriting customers were Stax Records stars Sam & Dave. Early in Hayes's career, he became a session musician for Stax, a gig that evolved into an influential role writing songs for a variety of the label's artists. With his compositions for Sam & Dave, he defined the duo's hitmaking career. Their hottest singles were almost exclusively creations of Hayes and his songwriting partner, David Porter:
When Something Is Wrong With My Baby
Hold On, I'm Comin
Hayes wrote hits for others as well, like Stax recording artist Carla Thomas, the "Queen of Memphis Soul"…
And Lou Rawls, who had a hit with "Your Good Thing (Is About to End)", originally performed by Mabel John…
Not to mention Dionne Warwick, who won a Grammy for her performance of "Déjà Vu."
Isaac Hayes may have given some of his greatest compositions to other artists, and maybe he often preferred to take on other songwriters' material when he sang himself. But there were times when his two talents came together – and when they did, the result was something very special. The proof is in his score for the movie Shaft. Its theme song, written and performed by Hayes, is one of the most enduring funk songs of the 1970s. The now-iconic song hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and won both a Grammy and an Oscar, making Hayes the first African American to win an Academy Award for music. And on top of all that, it’s blisteringly cool.
Isaac Hayes: Singer? Songwriter? Both? We say all of the above. Whether listening to his songs performed by others or Hayes performing someone else’s songs, we hear a true musical legend at work.
Written by Linnea Crowther