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Isaac Hayes: We Like Ike

by Carol Cooper

As an opinionated teen in the early '70s, I hated Barry White for stealing Isaac Hayes's sound -- even though by 1973 Hayes had evolved so far beyond the gravel-voiced love god of his late-'60s recordings that he wouldn't have begrudged White or anybody else their assumption of his earlier incarnations Cotton picker, meat packer, singer, writer, producer, corporate executive, community activist, actor -- Hayes has worn an astonishing array of hats. After cutting through the first half of his life like a diamond through a sack of glass (going from Stax to his own ABC-distributed label to Columbia), Hayes hit some kind of creative wall and all but disappeared under the weight of his own legend. "I had a renegade mentality," Hayes admits. "I always dared to go where other people said: "you can't go there." But at one [point] I looked around and all I was hearing was me, and people trying to be me. And I started to worry about it." Like many high-profile overachievers, Hayes ultimately chose to step away from the spotlight for awhile.

Hayes vanished in the early '80s, amid a swarm of prurient speculation about bankruptcy, drugs, Hollywood vice, and government plots. Aside from intermittent film cameos, we simply saw him no more. While Big Daddy was away, his musical soul children multiplied. They took the wild fashions and bold ideas Hayes had pioneered to another level. But for my money, not even White (much less any subsequent pretender) was able to improve upon Hayes's archetypes. For instance, White had the voice but none of the physical beauty or political impact of Isaac's iconic Black Moses. And Hayes's fully staged and orchestrated 1972 performance of the theme from Shaft during that year's Oscar telecast beggars Prince's award-winning score for 1989's Batman movie in comparison. There might have been better actors for B-movie dramas like Escape From New York, but the heroic figure Hayes cut in the 1973 concert-documentary Wattstax remains -- like all his prior inventions -- in a class by itself.

What prompts these random recollections is the release of not one, but two new Isaac Hayes albums in 1995. Branded, a predominantly vocal LP, and Raw & Refined, the largely instrumental long-player credited to The Isaac Hayes Movement (both on PointBlank/Virgin) mark a return to basics for a man whose stylistic innovations prefigured jazz-fusion, disco, P-Funk, and rap. Going back to Memphis to re-record 20-year-old songs and unreleased demos for his new label may seem an odd strategy for such an innovator, but it makes an important point. With only the most minimal of electronic tweaking, the symphonic funk that enlivened Hot Buttered Soul is as compelling today as it was in 1969.

As half of the Porter/Hayes hit-production team for Stax franchise acts like Sam and Dave, Hayes had been a star long before he ever released a solo album. But once he came out from behind the producer's console, the world saw a Southern black man buff before Schwarzenegger; shorn of greasy, accommodationist hair; and done up like a biblical hero -- part prophet, part gladiator. It was a sexy image and a warrior image -- things that were historically deadly for a black man in the South to want to project. But a new wind was blowing, and it blew Brer Rabbit's timidity right off Ike's clean-shaven mind.

Hayes was young during most of the civil rights movement -- as young and optimistic as black dreams of a world without Jim Crow. His own dreams were found -- but certainly not limited -- by what was then available to black people segregated behind the Cotton curtain. So, like many of his peers, Hayes interpreted the money being generated by black music in the '60s as de facto liberation -- as the first minute of a very new day. As much as Stax biographers have praised the seeming equality with which whites and blacks worked together at the Southern record company, the black musicians who lived through the period invariably remember that racial parity was far from automatic. "I forced issued after issue," Hayes says of his role as a major contributor to the Stax profit margin. "I approached [Stax co-owner] Jim Stewart saying: here's a white-owned company selling black product to a predominantly black audience. You gotta have some black employees around here other than musicians and custodians."

Hayes took the same assertive attitude in '69, when he decided it was time for him to make the album of his dreams instead of cranking out formulaic chart-busters according to Jim Stewart's notion of how black people should sound. "A lot of people have asked why I didn't sing some of the things I wrote with David Porter, but that was not my personal preference," Hayes explains. "As a singer my idols were Nat King Cole and Brook Benton, people like that. I'd listen to Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughn, and Arthur Prysock. So [when I sang], that's how it came out."

Encouraged by equally grandiose moves in the white rock world, Ike virtually invented the black concept album. Before Motown ever dared to allow its artists to make political statements, Isaac Hayes was making solo albums that telegraphed a militant black nationalism. In 1971 -- by the time Marvin Gaye's What's Going On and Stevie Wonder's Where I'm Coming From broke the Motown taboo on topicality, Hayes had already contributed the explicit protest lyrics of "Soulsville" to the Shaft soundtrack. (That song, whose 25-year-old lyrics are as relevant today as when Hayes wrote them, was one of several older tunes rerecorded for Branded.) Hayes also made radio hits out of 12- and 17- minute songs years before the extended 12-inch disco-single was a gleam in the record industry's eye. His self-designed cover art set memorable standards for what black albums should look like, and he began throwing chatty, poignant adlibs over funky instrumentals before "rap" meant anything more than a line used to pull women. "When I was in the midst of doing it," confesses Hayes, "I had no idea of the ripples it would cause, I just wanted total artistic freedom, and the cuts were long because at that time what I had to say couldn't be said in two minutes and 30 seconds."

Now, on Branded, such ad-libs show up in chatty come-ons like "I'll Do Anything" and "Let Me Love You." At first the salaciousness of these lyrics makes you think Ike felt pressured by the raw content of younger soul stars like R. Kelly or Keith Sweat. But his ancient duets with Millie Jackson on Royal Rappin's prove again that Ike got there first. Actual covers of John Sebastian's "Summer in the City" and Sting's "Fragile" are so wonderfully reworked that Hayes improves on the originals. "Fragile" is particularly transformed with Hayes's rich baritone rising in warm charismatic waves through the propulsive rhythms and dense arrangements of a hybridized bossa nova. Hayes has layered so many complementary vocal and instrumental textures on the tune that its theme of ecological interdependence is subliminally underscored.

During his brief appearance July 13 as part of a sold-out LifeBeat benefit at the Beacon Theater, Hayes emphasized vocal tunes from Branded. Using a predominantly young and relatively unseasoned band, Hayes fought with an unsympathetic sound system to deliver his four-song set. "Summer in the City" showcased Ike's deep golden croon to good effect once the rhythm section fell in sync with the backup singers. But "Fragile," so beautifully arranged on record, suffered from a sound mix that kept muting keyboard and vocal parts in all the wrong places. Ike's opening monologue for "Thanks to the Fool" helped lull the audience back under his spell in time for him to get them on their feet with "The Theme From Shaft" -- even without the live horns. Unfortunately, coming after Gloria Estefan's tight touring ensemble ran through her recent hits, Hayes took a risk by not sticking with more familiar material. But the potential was clearly there.

Meanwhile, the recorded Isaac Hayes experience continues to surprise and delight. One particularly unexpected collaboration (aside from the many original Stax players on board for this ride) rounds out Branded: a guest appearance from rapper Chuck D. on "Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic." Originally included on Hot Buttered Soul, this 12-minute tone poem began life as an ideological collision between Sly Stone's giddy psychedelia and Isaac's gutbucket sensuality. Add the attitudinal edginess of Public Enemy's head honcho and the song becomes a trippy meditation on all the social upheaval black America's been through since WW II.

The instrumentals on Raw & Refined explore even more of this psychohistorical territory. It's the better of the two albums, largely because on instrumentals Hayes is freed from the natural limitations of gender and personality as the music talks about the things that really matter to him. There's always been something a little witchy about Isaac's backing tracks, something about how they grab and manipulate your attention, like a Catholic spiritual exercise. Popped into the car stereo for a long drive, Raw & Refined isn't just filler to watch the speedometer by. I've noticed these tunes infiltrating my thoughts with a synesthesia of sensation far more visceral than the body-quakes of rap or the mental aerobics of jazz. When Ike wants to elicit a particular emotion from a listener he can be as accurate as acupuncture. And that is why he's worth listening to today.

As a student of Ellington and Gershwin, Isaac Hayes gets his biggest kicks from using all the tonal colors in an orchestral palette to paint vivid pictures of the human condition. He updates old-fashioned Southern suites like "Memphis Trax" (formerly "Memphis Sounds") and "Urban Nights" (formerly "Vibe Instrumental") with a few digitized sounds and sequenced loops, only to give a contemporary read on the intensifying wars between spirit and flesh, between man and the world his machines have made. I listen to the countrified violin solos on "Soul Fiddle" and recognize them as Hayes's gentle spoof on himself -- the countrified anachronism, the Black Moses, returning from the purifying isolation of semi-retirement to vie with the slick philistines and high-tech heathens that now dominate our cultural marketplace. It's hard not to laugh at the fiddle's awkward, hillbilly grace, its struggle to retain its own identity yet make sense amidst urbane horn fills and a sassy, sophisticated rhythm section. But on the fade-out, as this tenacious little instrument wedges itself into the track and forces the rest of the arrangement to accept and even follow its lead, you find you want -- and need -- to hear "Soul Fiddle" again.

Published in: Village Voice, 25 July 1995