Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Soul Legend Isaac Hayes, From 'Shaft' To 'Chef'


One of the defining voices of 70's soul music has died. The signature sound of Isaac Hayes laid the groundwork for the lush orchestrations of disco and the hip vocals of rap. NPR's Audie Cornish has this appreciation.

(Soundbite of song, "Theme from Shaft")

AUDIE CORNISH: "Theme from Shaft" is the definitive Isaac Hayes tune, and it's not just because the 1971 movie theme song won him a Grammy, or the fact that it made him the first African-American to win an Oscar for songwriting. No, "Shaft" has every hallmark of a Hayes classic, from that high-hat and wah-wah guitar, to the sweeping orchestral arrangement.

(Soundbite of song, "Theme from Shaft")

CORNISH: And of course there's Hayes's sexy, smooth baritone.

(Soundbite of song, "Theme from Shaft")

CORNISH: Hayes broke down his formula in this 2000 MORNING EDITION report.

Mr. ISAAC HAYES (Singer): Just, you know, you can't put bread in a cold oven. You know, you've got to take your time. You've got to heat it up. So that's what, that's what I like to do with my music. I like to build it, and build it into a maddening, exciting crescendo.

(Soundbite of song, "Theme from Shaft)

CORNISH: Isaac Hayes rode that crescendo through the 1970s in a series of hits for the Memphis label Stax. Hayes taught himself to play the piano, and after cutting his teeth on the Beale Street club scene, he worked his way into a gig as a house musician at Stax. Hayes soon went from house musician to house writer.

(Soundbite of song, "Soul Man")

Unidentified Man (Singer): (Singing) I'm a soul man. I'm a soul man.

CORNISH: For example, Stax stars Sam and Dave recorded "Soul Man," but Hayes co-wrote the song. In a 1994 interview with WHYY's FRESH AIR, Hayes said the idea came to him from watching news reports of the 1967 Detroit riots.

Mr. HAYES: And all you had to do was write about your own personal experiences because, you know, we - everybody, all African-Americans in this country, during those times especially, had similar experiences.

So we did that but realized that in addition to being an African-American experience, it was a human experience. So therefore it cross the board, and then the groove and all, everything else that went with it.

CORNISH: In 1969, Hayes's first solo album, "Hot Buttered Soul," put him on the map. In 1972, the "Theme from Shaft" and Hayes's gold-studded Oscar-stage performance made him a star. Hayes said winning an Oscar was probably the most important moment of his career.

In the decades that followed, Hayes put out more albums and took up acting. In the 1990s, Hayes's hot-buttered voice was re-introduced to a new generation as the character Chef in the raunchy animated TV show, "South Park."

(Soundbite of television program, "South Park")

Mr. HAYES: (As Chef) For once, can't you just come in here and say, hi Chef, nice day, isn't it.

Mr. TREY PARKER (Actor): (As Eric Cartman) Hi, Chef. Nice day, isn't it?

Mr. HAYES: (As Chef) It sure is.

CORNISH: But in 2006, Hayes had a falling-out with the cartoonist after they penned an episode mocking his religion, scientology. Hayes quit the show, but he kept on moving. He wrote a memoir, put out a soul-food cookbook, and occasionally hit the stage at his Music Food Passion barbecue restaurants in Chicago and Memphis.

In 2005, Hayes told NPR's NEWS & NOTES that was just his way.

Mr. HAYES: There's always hurdles. So I just keep moving, just constantly redefining myself. That's how you stay in the race.

CORNISH: Isaac Hayes described himself as an adventurer, a hopeless romantic, and first and foremost a songwriter. He was also a father of 12 and a husband four times over. Hayes died in his home in Memphis. He was 65. Audie Cornish, NPR News, Nashville.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. HAYES: (Singing) I never can say goodbye. I never can say goodbye, even though the pain and heartache seem to follow me wherever I go. Though I try and try to hide my feelings they always seem to show. Then you try to say you're leaving me, and I always (unintelligible). Tell me why is it so... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

What questions do you have about the Statewide General Election coming up on Nov. 8? Submit your questions here, and we'll try to answer them in our reporting.