Some tributes written immediately in the wake of Isaac Hayes' death this past Sunday reduced his legacy to Shaft and Chef, as if all his accomplishments could be summed up by two names, one the embodiment of all the sultry, sexy excesses of '70s soul and the other its parody. To a certain extent, that's a tribute to his talents, as few artists ever have such a considerable impact, let alone in two different fields, but Isaac Hayes' importance runs far deeper than the caricature of a funky pimp, the one he created with Shaft and sent up with affection on South Park. True, if he had only Shaft to his credit his legacy would be substantial, as no one song captures all the divine decadence of '70s soul, as it was decked out in wah-wah guitars, slinky strings, horns that seduced and backing singers that sighed, all topped off by Isaac's boastful bass delivering a rap. It defined and influenced an era while also pointing the way toward disco and hip-hop, but for Hayes "Theme from Shaft" was the crest of a wave, the culmination of all of his innovation and brilliance in the '60s and early '70s.
Sonically, Shaft offered a concise crystallization of the cinematic progressive soul Isaac Hayes created on his turn of the '60s albums for Stax: 1969's Hot Buttered Soul, 1970's The Isaac Hayes Movement and â€¦To Be Continued, also released in '70. On these three albums, Hayes broke from all the conventions of the day, turning lush and languid when all other funky soul was dirty and gritty. Hayes borrowed from soft-pop as much as he did southern soul, covering Jimmy Webb's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and Bacharch & David's "Walk on By" but turning them into long, long seductions, stretching "Phoenix" out to almost 20 minutes. Such long track were unheard of anywhere outside of progressive rock but where rock bands relied on solo improvisation, Hayes relied on mood, maintaining a hypnotic groove seemingly for eternity. This perpetual motion soul was ideal for seductions and, later, samples â€“ his late '60s and early '70s LPs were mined for loops by the Wu-Tang Clan, Tricky, Portishead, Oukast and Foxy Brown, among many others â€“ and it's hard not to marvel at the ambition and achievement of these records even if they occasionally tend can sometimes seem to be a little too ponderous in their execution (which is another reason why "Theme from Shaft" is so appealing; it has all of the drama of these LPs at a fraction of the length).
There was nothing ponderous about Hayes' other great body of work, that of a session musician and staff songwriter at Stax Records. Hayes came to Stax as a saxophonist for the Memphis soul mainstays the Mar-Keys â€“ he joined after their 1961 hit "Last Night" â€“ and soon turned to playing keyboards for the label, appearing on sessions by Otis Redding (he's on the classic Otis Blue"), Albert King (on yet another classic, Born Under a Bad Sign), Wilson Pickett and Eddie Floyd, among many others. Soon, he teamed up with David Porter to form one of the greatest songwriting teams of the 20th Century. Hayes and Porter cranked out song after song for Stax, creating songs that gave the label its identity and American music some of its standards. Most of these classics came from the duo of Sam & Dave, who had hits with "Soul Man," "Hold On! I'm Coming," "I Thank You," "Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody," "When Something is Wrong With My Baby" and "Wrap It Up," all written by Hayes & Porter, all some of the greatest music of the 20th century.
This behind the scenes work for Stax combined with his own groundbreaking albums for the label between 1969-1971 add up to a legacy few musicians could touch. After all this amazing work, it's not entirely a surprise that Hayes' creativity waned after Shaft and its '71 follow-up Black Moses. He held strong through 1973 with the Joy LP -- and his absurdly overblown double-live Live at the Sahara Tahoe has its partisans too â€“ but after that, he became quite erratic, never quite clicking with disco and fading away during a large stretch of the '80s before rebounding in 1995 with the twin albums Branded and Raw and Refined, easily his best records since his heyday. Given this fall-off, his South Park revival as the voice of Chef was quite fortunate, as it not only brought this enormously gifted artist back in the spotlight, but it highlighted his warmth and humor in a way his own LPs never quite did (which, in turn, made his dismissal from the show all the more painful). But anybody that thinks Isaac Hayes was just Chef or just the voice of Shaft does a great disservice to this giant, whose impact and importance can't quite be so neatly condensed, no matter how tempting such a summation may be.