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Isaac Hayes, 1942 - 2008

'Black Moses' led pop to new ground

August 11, 2008|Ann Powers and Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writers

Isaac Hayes, the musician, composer and producer whose innovative sound changed the shape of pop music and whose shaved head, bejeweled outfits and regal demeanor embodied African American masculinity in the 1970s, has died. He was 65.

Family members found Hayes unresponsive Sunday afternoon next to a treadmill in a downstairs bedroom in his home just east of Memphis, Tenn., said Steve Shular, a spokesman for the Shelby County Sheriff's Office.

Hayes' wife, Adjowa, told investigators that her husband "had not been in the best of health recently," Shular said. No autopsy is planned.

With albums including 1969's "Hot Buttered Soul" and the double-disc, Grammy-winning "Black Moses" in 1971, Hayes laid the groundwork for both disco and hip-hop.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, August 12, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Isaac Hayes obituary: The obituary of singer Isaac Hayes in Monday's Section A said that after the 1975 album "Chocolate Chip," Hayes didn't release new material until "Love Attack" in 1986. In fact, Hayes released several albums in that time period.

His rich, baritone voice backed by gently unfurling, string-laden arrangements showed how R&B could be both funky and ornate. His famous ruminative interludes on such songs as his cover of Jimmy Webb's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" set the stage for rap's elevation of the black male speaking voice.

He was most famous for his 1971 soundtrack for the blaxploitation classic "Shaft," which brought him an Academy Award for best song as well as two Grammys, but Hayes had a long and storied career beyond that Hollywood high point. In 2002, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

His music and his image as a black artist had a titanic power, especially during the apex of his fame. With his shaved head, omnipresent sunglasses and equally ever-present gold jewelry, he cut a strong, marketable figure.

In the 1970s, he released a string of albums for Stax Records, a label that offered a grittier counterpoint to the Motown sound. Hayes' recordings expanded the playing field for soul and R&B artists, proving that an album-oriented market existed for his experimental sounds.

"Hayes' story is one of epic proportions," wrote ethnomusicologist Rob Bowman in "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."

Before finding his own voice as a solo artist, Hayes was a primary architect of Southern soul as part of the Stax Records writing and production team. Stax was home to Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MGs and other hit-makers.

Hayes' collaborations with David Porter, a fellow session musician and lyricist at Stax, gave the Memphis-based label some of its biggest hits, including "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby" for vocal duo Sam & Dave and "B-A-B-Y" for Carla Thomas. "Soul Man," another of the songwriting duo's compositions for Sam & Dave, was an early statement of black power that later became a huge crossover hit in 1978 for John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as the Blues Brothers.

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.

Headlining Wattstax in Los Angeles -- the 1972 festival that some called "the Black Woodstock" -- Hayes took the stage in gilded warrior garb. The crowd greeted him as a king. As a performer, Hayes embraced this role of ambassador of Afrocentric cool.

The shaved-head look that was central to his image developed in 1964 when the style among some African Americans was to straighten their hair. Tired of the effort that took, Hayes told his barber to cut it off.

"People stared and pointed, but I liked the breeze on my head. It felt great," he told the Chicago Tribune in 1995.

After a concert one night, when the crowd was screaming for him, a former boxer named Dino who was part of his security team said: "These people love you, man. They'll follow you anywhere. . . . You're like Moses. Black Moses!"

A writer from Jet magazine picked up on the phrase, and Hayes had mixed feelings at first as Black Moses became his nickname. He came to like the fact that people "didn't say I'm the Black Moses of the black world, they said of the music world."

But the music Hayes offered was as eclectic as any pop artist's. He covered songs by the Carpenters, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and Jimmy Webb, transforming those "vanilla" hits into slow jams that would appeal to black and white listeners alike. Bacharach and David's "Walk on By" got a 12-minute reading from Hayes on "Hot Buttered Soul." Webb's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" ran 18 minutes.

"Music is universal [but] sometimes presentation will restrict you or limit your range," Hayes said in "Soulsville U.S.A." "Glen Campbell and Jim Webb were targeting the pop audience. But when I did it, I aimed to the black market, but it was so big, it went all over."

Hayes' popularity as a recording artist waned in the mid-1970s, and he filed for bankruptcy in 1976.

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