It’s a difficult image to conjure: Isaac Hayes struggling to overcome a nasty case of stage fright.
Not the hippest guy in the room, the epitome of cool.
Not the genius behind the soundtrack for “Shaft.”
Not the voice of Chef on “South Park.”
And yet it happened.
It was back in the late ’60s, at the Masonic Temple in Detroit. Hayes was making his first-ever live appearance, sharing the bill with the established Staple Singers, and he wasn’t sure how the audience would greet him.
“I had on some hippie-type outfit,” says Hayes, his deep laugh rumbling at the recollection. “I had on red, white and blue pants, and moccasins. A purple shirt, and a terrycloth floppy hat. I was dressed weird, you know?”
Then Hayes made a joke, and the audience laughed. He removed the hat, revealing his shaved head, “and the ladies screamed,” Hayes said.
Goodbye, stage fright. Hello, career.
Amazing outputHayes, calling from his home base in Memphis, is reminiscing about his 1969-75 run at Stax Records — a memorable era captured on the new two-CD collection “Ultimate Isaac Hayes — Can You Dig It?”
The collection, released Nov. 1, runs the gamut of Hayes’ amazing output at the time, from hits like “Theme from Shaft” to the gospel sounds of “His Eye Is On the Sparrow” to a rarely heard duet with Dionne Warwick.
“Shaft,” with its indelible hi-hat cymbal riff, earned Hayes a pair of Grammys. The soundtrack album stayed on the charts for 60 weeks, and changed the way that movies treated music. Movie soundtrack albums became a money-making genre, with artists from Curtis Mayfield (“Superfly”) to Marvin Gaye (“Trouble Man”) following Hayes’ lead.
Hayes was one of the pioneers in breaking other traditional music business boundaries, whether by mixing his funk with a string section or stretching out on a 12-minute cover of the Warwick hit “Walk on By.”
“I felt what I had to say musically could not be said in two minutes and thirty seconds,” Hayes said. “So I did my thing. If it was a hit, great. But I just did what I wanted creatively.”
The 63-year-old Hayes was a presence on the musical scene before his debut album, “Presenting Isaac Hayes,” was released in 1969. With partner David Porter, he wrote the hits “Soul Man,” “I Thank You” and “Hold On, I’m Coming” for Sam and Dave. He was in great demand as a session player and producer.
But it wasn’t until his second solo album, “Hot Buttered Soul,” that the music was given the full Hayes treatment. His earlier songs, Hayes said, were limited by Stax owner Jim Stewart’s “meat and potatoes” approach to recording.
Hayes had something different in mind.
“I’d been hearing things in my head for a long time, but I’d been restricted,” Hayes said. “Now I did what I felt. ... When I had the opportunity to do my own thing, that’s when I thought about strings and different chords.”
By the time of his album “To Be Continued,” he was in the studio with violins, trumpets, French horns and flutes. And he became regarded as a brilliant interpreter of other writers’ songs — sort of the Sinatra of soul.
Coming up with often outrageous arrangements for music by Jimmy Webb, Burt Bacharach, Al Green and Kris Kristofferson was as rewarding for Hayes as writing his own tunes.
“I like to see how people responded,” said Hayes. “I liked that. It was a big validation.”
Even bigger was meeting with Bacharach and Webb, who each expressed their admiration for Hayes’ covers.
Juggling writing, good health and ChefThese days, Hayes is keeping himself plenty busy. He’s working on a children’s book, and promoting a cookbook aimed at helping people fight hypertension (the ailment claimed his grandfather, his father and good friend Barry White). And he’s still rolling with the cast from “South Park,” playing school cafeteria kingpin Chef.
He’s doing a local radio show. And he’s working on a new album — his first since 1995’s dual release, “Branded” and “Raw & Refined” — with veteran drummer Steve Jordan.
As the conversation continued, Hayes recalled another live performance, when he was long past his struggle with stage fright.
He was in a place called the Tiki Bar, sharing the stage with R&B greats the Bar-Kays. Hayes planned to play a song by Glenn Campbell — that’s right, Black Moses doing a cover of the Rhinestone Cowboy.
There was chatter in the crowd, and Hayes started talking as the band vamped, telling the story of a jilted lover’s lonely life. And then he began to sing: “By the time I get to Phoenix ...”
“The audience said, ‘Whoa,”’ Hayes remembered. “When I finished the tune, there were maybe a few dry eyes in the house — but not many. I got a standing ovation.”