Isaac Hayes died Sunday, August 10, ten days shy of his 66th birthday.
He was a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The the first non-acting African-American to win an Oscar, and a threetime Grammy winner. As much as anyone, Isaac Hayes, with his unique, near spoken-word bass vocals and penchant for extended cuts, was responsible for the late sixties success of Memphis, Tennessee-based Stax Records. Besides recording the classic albums Shaft, The Isaac Hayes Movement and Hayes’ personal favorite, Hot Buttered Soul, for the label, the man often called Black Moses also co-wrote a pair of Sam & Dave classics, “Hold On! I’m Comin'” and “Soul Man.”
While maintaining his recording career, Hayes later spent time as a radio host (in both New York and Memphis), entrepreneur (he once co-owned an ABA basketball team), restaurateur, cookbook author, and actor. But to an entire generation he is probably best known as the voice of South Park‘s Chef (“Hello children!”), a role he gave up several months following the broadcast of an episode skewering Hayes’ chosen religion, Scientology.
In January 2006, after the “Trapped in the Closet” broadcast, but before he resigned from the show, Hayes suffered a stroke. Caught between denials by his management and eventual confirmation by Hayes himself, perhaps we’d heard about it peripherally, but color us surprised, astonished, and maybe a little heartbroken when we were reminded, just a couple of hours before we were scheduled to talk to Isaac Hayes before his June appearance in Prospect Park to open the Celebrate Brooklyn season, that Hayes’ recovery was not yet complete. And so on Thursday, June 5, when we received a call from Memphis’s 901 area code, we tiptoed in (we did not mention the word “stroke”).
What follows is the tenderly edited transcript of the conversation we had, just two months and five days before the legendary Isaac Hayes was pronounced dead in Cordova, Tennessee.
Good morning, Mr. Hayes. It’s a pleasure to talk to you.
All right. You’re a musician, performer, songwriter, radio host, restaurateur, cookbook author, entrepreneur, actor, and, of course, a whole generation of folks probably know you best for saying “Hello children.”
When you go on the concert stage, what do audiences expect of you?
Well, they expect a good show. That’s all I can say. A good show.
Now you can’t leave the stage without playing “Theme from Shaft,” right?
You’d get in a lot of trouble if you tried to leave without singing “Theme from Shaft.”
[laughs] Yeah. People wouldn’t have it. They wouldn’t have it.
Is there anything else in your songbook that would cause that kind of trouble? Is there anything else you have to play in order to keep people happy with you?
Well, I might do “Hello Children.” I’ll do that. “Walk on By.”
Speaking of “Walk on By,” you made Mr. Bacharach a whole bunch of money back in the day.
Does he send you Christmas cards? I mean, the man ought to be sending you a Cadillac for all the money you made him.
(uproarious laughter) No, he didn’t do that, but that’s okay.
Are you sure that’s all right? Because you had at least one Burt Bacharach song on just about every record back in those early Stax days.
And they all sold really well, too.
Yeah, they did.
I think the man ought to send you a car. That’s just me, though.
Well, talking about the Stax era, from the time you record Presenting Isaac Hayes, all the way through Joy, that’s about a six year period, and it’s almost like you can’t do anything wrong. The critics love you. The albums sell really well. Is that the musical peak? Are those six years about as good as Isaac Hayes can do as a musician?
That’s about it. That’s about it.
What was special about that time? Why was that material so well-received?
Well, the first, you know, I did three songs to an album. And Al Bell (producer and co-owner of Stax Records) told me to do that. What I did couldn’t be done in three minutes and thirty seconds.
No, no. You couldn’t have.
That’s why I did such long cuts. And it was cool. Back then didn’t nobody did that. But, you know, I did it. And then, it was good. And all music was good then. Everything.
It’d be really hard to do three songs on an album now and expect any kind of radio play. I mean, you were doing 17 minute long versions of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.”
But I’m thinking there’s probably a lot of living rooms where the lights are turned out where those three cuts on an album probably got some play.
Have you ever had somebody come up to you and say, “Oh, by the way, my child was conceived to an Isaac Hayes album?” Because I bet as many children were conceived to your music as maybe even Johnny Mathis.
Every time I go . . . ‘See, Mr. Hayes? It’s your fault [laughs].’ I catch it all the time.
I guess so. There’s probably thousands of folk right around 35 years old right now that you’ve got something to do with.
Where does Black Moses come from? Is that a name you gave yourself or did somebody else come up with that?
No, Dino Woodard gave it to me. He came up with that.
I’m not familiar with Mr. Woodard.
He’s a minister at Abyssinian Baptist Church. And so he called me that. And when he called me that, the name took. It caught on.
Did he call you Black Moses because you were a leader in the community?
Yeah, that and music and all that stuff. He’d say, ‘Moses, Moses, Moses.’ And I said, ‘Man, don’t call me that.’ Because I thought it was sacrilegious, you know. But they kept on. Everybody caught on and everybody called me that.
Well, if it came from a minister I guess that’s permission. And that ought to keep you out of trouble.
Now by my count you’ve got twelve children, including a two-year-old. And you’ve got at least a dozen grandchildren and even some great-grandchildren.
You’ve had number one songs, won Grammy awards, you’re a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and you’re the first African-American to win a non-acting Oscar. When you get one of those children up in your lap and you’re telling stories, what do you tell them about? What are you most proud of in your career?
Well, I talk about the good old days and all that stuff. And tell me what you doing. What you doing? What you going to do when you get old? I talk about that stuff too.
You ask them about their lives as much you talk about your own.
Yeah. I’ve got a daughter that used to sing with James Brown. And I’ve got a son that writes music and I’ve got another son, he’s hip-hop. And I’ve got another daughter that sings also. So I’ve got four in the family that does music.
Your house must be pretty big to have all the family over for Christmas.
Well, it’s big, but I’m selling my house and getting a smaller one because I don’t need all that.
If you could give the entire world one Isaac Hayes album and say, ‘This is me at my best. This is about as good as I can do,’ what album would you give them?
I would think Hot Buttered Soul. I wrote that thing at the time my career was hopping and all that stuff and I’m proud of that.
Well, you should be. You should be. That’s some wonderful music.
You know, somebody ought to be sending you a royalty check for about five dollars pretty soon because in the past week I’ve downloaded Black Moses, Hot Buttered Soul, The Isaac Hayes Movement and Joy.
So go have a barbecue sandwich on me.
(uproarious laughter) Okay. Okay.
I know that Memphis is your home and there’s no place like home. But what’s special about Memphis? It seems to have a bungee cord attached to your belt because it keeps bringing you back.
It’s home. It’s comfortable. You can go to the store and all that stuff. You see everybody. It’s home.
You’re a pretty recognizable person. Do you go to the grocery store every once in a while? Do you go to the Piggly Wiggly?
Well, I try Kroger’s.
Okay, Kroger’s. Can you walk into a Kroger’s in Memphis, Tennessee and not have people coming up to you?
They give me my props.
So pretty much if you step outside of the house, somebody’s going to say, ‘Hello, Mr. Hayes, how are you doing?’ Or ‘Mr. Hayes, I really like your music?’
It’s like the whole city’s one big hug just waiting for you.
Hell, I wouldn’t leave either.
Well, I know music’s important and family’s important and home’s important, but if there’s anything more important than all that stuff it’s ribs.
[laughs]. Yeah, ribs.
And I know that you know ribs. You’ve lived all over the place, including New York, and you’re headed back up this direction soon. Is there any place north of Virginia where you can buy good ribs?
I don’t think so.
What are the best ribs you’ve ever had? Where do I go to get them?
I think Corky’s.
And they’re in Memphis?
Will they ship?
So it sounds like the key to happiness is a big family, a copy of Hot Buttered Soul and a rack of Corky’s ribs.
All right, Mr. Hayes. Thank you so very much for your time. I very much appreciate the call and I wish you all the best, sir.
Thank you very much, too, okay?