As a white youngster growing up in white suburban New Jersey, my experience with soul music was, at the time, limited to the point of non-existent.
Oh, sure, I heard R&B on AM radio during trips to the grocery store with my mother - The Supremes, The Temptations - but it all sounded like pop music. Great pop music, but it didn't transcend. It didn't break me out of my everyday. It didn't provide a sense of wonder.
That all changed on Oscar night, 1972. My family gathered round the TV - the Academy Awards were a big deal; even if you didn't see all of the movies nominated, just seeing the stars and what they were wearing, it was a fun time. And for me, a music-obsessed kid who was just starting to discover the joys of film, it would become a tradition.
Of the musical artists performing the nominated songs that night, I remember Johnny Mathis crooned some song I'd never heard, Debbie Reynolds did another song I didn't know, and then somebody else sang something I'd never heard. I was young, but wise enough to know a sap-fest was in full force. My mother made the suggestion that I go to bed, and for perhaps the first time, I agreed that it was probably a good idea.
Then something magical happened
Suddenly, a large, muscular black man appeared onstage, clad in an outfit with so much gold on it that the TV lights acted light flashbulbs. This guy looked like he'd just stepped out of an adventure book, a magic jeanie or something. He kicked the band off and there was that hi-hat pattern and wah-wah guitar figure I'd heard on the radio. Something was happening, something magical. "Hey, I know this song!" I said. "This is Isaac Hayes! This is Shaft!" My parents didn't say anything. I think they were scared of the whole spectacle.
"Who's a black private dick/Who's a sex machine to y'all the chicks? (Shaft!) Ya damn right. Who is the man that would risk his neck for his brother man? (Shaft!) Can you dig it?"
And what a spectacle it was. Isaac Hayes played an illuminated organ - way cool. He perfomed his mellow, spoken-word lines (barely audible thanks to crappy TV sound), and I could tell he was saying something important: "Who's a black private dick/Who's a sex machine to y'all the chicks? (Shaft!) Ya damn right. Who is the man that would risk his neck for his brother man? (Shaft!) Can you dig it?"
And I did dig it. I dug it even more when he won the Oscar. He'd changed out of his gold outfit into a respectable tuxedo and I remember that he gave a warm and gracious acceptance speech. This cat was something, I thought. He was super-cool, cool in a way I'd never seen before. I had to find out more, and I did.
Through the years, Isaac Hayes would blow my mind in so many ways. Hot Buttered Soul was a record I had to buy twice since my cheap-o record player scratched it, rendering it unplayable. Black Moses was a groove masterpiece, with a special fold-out album jacket that depicted Hayes in a crucifix pose - I taped it to my bedroom wall. Isaac Hayes was filling a void in my life that I didn't even know existed. Again, my parents were scared.
One day, I saw that Hayes was starring in a movie called Truck Turner, and I knew I just had to see it. My friend Glen and I went to the Cort Theater and pleaded with the cashier to let us into the R-rated flick. She did, and I thank her to this day. Hayes was a cool customer in real life, but as the bounty hunter "Mack" Truck Turner, he took no shit from anybody.
I had no idea at the time what blaxploitation films were, I just knew this movie kicked major ass. Glen and I saw it three more times during the week it played the Cort. On the last night of its run, we were the only ones in the entire auditorium, which was cool - more room to stretch out in. Just us and "Mack" Truck Turner. Cool.
As a musician and arranger, Isaac Hayes's place in history is manifest, and his accomplishments are too numerous to list here. (But hey, he did co-write Soul Man and Hold On, I'm Comin' - they deserve special mention.) The fact that he is perhaps best known to the multitudes as the voice of Chef on South Park is, for me, a dubious distinction. How sad that so many never discovered his musical innovations, his cutting-edge style, his talent for orchestrations (later nicked by Barry White) and his vocal delivery that, in many ways, set the stage for rap.
Hayes, died on 10 August 2008, aged 65, apparently from a stroke.
Isaac Hayes - you were a complicated man, but a lot of us understood you. You rest in peace. Damn right.