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Fresh Air's summer music interviews: Isaac Hayes


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.


DAVIES: The movie "Shaft" helped launched the blaxploitation genre of the '70s. The Academy Award-winning theme was composed and performed by Isaac Hayes. In the '60s, Hayes helped shape the sound of Memphis soul music as a songwriter, arranger, producer and singer for Stax Records. He co-wrote Hits for Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas and Johnnie Taylor. Then he started making his own albums, which featured his singing and slow, soulful raps. During the years Hayes wasn't recording, he was acting. He was featured in Keenen Ivory Wayans Black action satire "I'm Gonna Git Get You Sucka," and Mel Brooks' "Robin Hood," Mario Van Peebles' "Posse" and the comedy "It Could Happen To You." Terry spoke with Isaac Hayes in 1994.


TERRY GROSS: Now, I know before you started making your own records, before you started singing in your records, you produced for other people. And also, you played piano and keyboards. You used to play with Booker T and The MG's. Now, how did you learn to play piano, growing up as poor as you did - I know there were times in your life when you didn't have shoes, let alone a piano?

ISAAC HAYES: That's true. How did I do that? Well, let's see. A friend of mine, I grew up with, Sidney Kirk - used to be like accompanists. We went places and he'd play for me. He joined the Air Force. He wasn't there. There was a call in to him about a gig, New Year's Eve. His sister knew that I was destitute and I needed money. So she asked me if I want to play. Well, I could play maybe "Chopsticks" and stuff like that. And I said, yeah, I'll take it. I took the gig out of desperation. And when I got to the club, I was petrified. I said, my God, they're going to shoot me. I can't play.

And musicians started coming in, you know, setting up, tuning up. And I'm sitting there, you know, trying to be cool. I said, God, they going to find me out. And the featured artist came in, said, hey, man. Do y'all know such and such? This is the first time this band had been put together. We didn't rehearse anything. And everybody said, yeah, you know. So he kicked off the tune, and it sounds horrible - everybody did. I said, wow, these guys can't play either, so I'm comfortable. And, you know, being New Year's Eve, the clientele was drunk. And they thought we were cooking, you know.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HAYES: And somewhere along the line, the club owner, he was sauced. He came up and said, you know, you boys sound real good. Y'all want a regular job? Yeah, we'll take it. And that was in Memphis. And it was a regular gig. And each night, I would learn something more and more on keyboards. And that's how I got started.

GROSS: Well, that's great. And then you started sitting in with Booker T and the MG's.

HAYES: Well, I wound up at Stax Records. I changed bands, and I joined Floyd Newman's band, who was a staff musician at Stax. He played baritone saxophone. All those ba-daps (ph) stuff like that - that was Floyd. So he was up for recording. And he said, man, you know, we're going in the studio. And I had been prior I had been to Stax about three different times with a blues band, with a vocal group, you know, trying to get a break and was always turned down. this time, went in with Floyd and Howard Grimes, a drummer. You know, I wrote some songs and instrumentals and things like that. And Jim Stewart, who, you know, was on a cone of Stax, he said, you know, you sound pretty good on keyboards. Booker T is off in Indiana. You in school. Would you like to become a staff musician here? Yeah.

You know, so that's how I got into Stax. And my first session. I think it was an Otis Redding album session. I was scared to death. But he made it easy. And I learned a lot. And I fit right in. And I became a staff musician. So when Booker came back, he and I both played on sessions. We would switch around sometimes. I'd play organ and he'd play piano. And sometimes I'd play piano, he'd play organ. And with Duck, Steve and Al, we were the nucleus of Stax, the rhythm section, and then of course, the horns and so forth.

GROSS: Now, you were not only a house musician at Stax, you became a house songwriter. And you wrote a lot of songs with your partner then, David Porter. And some of the most famous songs that you wrote were for Sam & Dave, like "Soul Man" and "Hold On, I'm Coming." How were you given them to write for?

HAYES: Well, first thing, David, when I started at Stax on staff, David and I went to rival school singing rival groups. And he said, hey, man. I write lyrics and you play music. Let's hook up and write like Holland-Dozier-Holland. I said, OK. So we teamed up and we started writing. And one day, Jim Stewart called us all - everybody on the staff, said, we got some fellas coming down, and they need some writers and producers. So they're going to come around and meet with everybody and you show them what you got. So when Sam & Dave and them came to town, they, you know, met with everybody. And they wanted to work with David and me. And that's how the whole thing started.

GROSS: What do you remember about writing "Soul Man"?

HAYES: Well, I remember getting the idea from watching TV and the riots in Detroit. And it was said that if you put soul on your door, your business establishment, they would bypass it, wouldn't burn it. And then the word soul, you know, the clenched fist, you know, soul brother, soul this - it was a galvanizing kind of thing as far as, you know, African Americans were concerned. And it had that kind of effect of unity. And they said it with a lot of pride. So I said, well, why not write a tune called "Soul Man"? And all you had to do was write about your own personal experiences. Because, you know, we - everybody, all African Americans in this country during those times especially had similar experiences. So we did that, but realized that in addition to being an African American experience, it was a human experience. So therefore, it crossed the board. And then the groove and everything else that went with it just made it, you know, very, very commercial.

GROSS: So did you arrange this, too?


GROSS: And are you featured instrumentally?

HAYES: I wasn't featured. I just played piano on it. Well, you know, I did some little hot licks in there and stuff like that, so...

GROSS: OK. Well, let's hear "Soul Man," co-written by my guest, Isaac Hayes.


SAM AND DAVE: (Singing) Coming to you on a dusty road. Good loving - I got a truckload. And when you get it, you got something. So don't worry 'cause I'm coming. I'm a soul man. Oh. I'm a soul man. I'm a soul man. Come on. I'm a soul man. And that ain't all. Got what I got the hard way. And I'll make it better each and every day. So, honey, now, don't you fret 'cause you ain't seen nothing yet. I'm a soul man. Oh, lord. I'm a soul man. Play it, Steve. I'm a soul man. I'm a soul man. Oh. I was brought up...

GROSS: So how come it took several years for you to actually record your own vocals?

HAYES: Well, remember I told you about Nat Cole's story, right?

GROSS: Mmm-hmm (ph).

HAYES: Well, I started singing in high school. I sang before - Nat Cole - when I sang, looking back, that was in the ninth grade. But before ninth grade, preteen, I used to sing, but I sounded like somebody in the Boys - Vienna Boys Choir.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HAYES: My voice was (singing) way up there like that.

And they would call me - oh, man, you a sissy. So when I reached puberty, my voice started cracking and squeaking. And then, when it cleared up, it was down in the basement. So I started singing again. And I was singing jazz during my teenage years. I was singing jazz in a little nightclub. I was singing a blues band. I was singing with a rock 'n' roll group called The Teen Tones. I was singing with a gospel group called The Morning Stars. We had a little combo, and during my senior year, we played.

So I had all this experience. And I would go to Jim Stewart and say, hey, Jim. I want to record. I want to try something. Well, Ike, you know, we're a R&B label, and your voice is too good. It's too good for what we're doing here. So I never did get the shot until one day - it was someone's birthday party at Stax, and we always served champagne and cake. And we had gobbled down some cake, and Duck Dunn and I grabbed a couple of bottles of champagne and ran into the ladies' restroom and closed the door. And we just guzzled this champagne down. I mean, I got a buzz. Came out - Al Bell, who at that time was the head of national promotion - he wound up being executive vice president.

But he said, Ike, I want to cut something on you. OK, yeah. OK. I was feeling no pain. So I - we go in the studio - Al Jackson on drums, Duck on bass and myself on piano. And I said, man, y'all follow me (laughter). It was all impromptu. And we stayed in the studio a few hours. And we finished house. OK, I got what I want. And that was - that wound up being "Presenting Isaac Hayes," my very first album.

DAVIES: Isaac Hayes speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1994. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. This week we're listening to some of our favorite music interviews from the FRESH AIR archive. Let's get back to Terry's conversation with Isaac Hayes recorded in 1994.

GROSS: Now, you recorded the theme for the movie "Shaft" in - I guess it was 1971. How were you asked to do this?

HAYES: Well, it was a whole concept. Hollywood recognized that they had to look further than they had been looking to get business. I think it was fledgling at the time. It was a bit stagnant. And Melvin Van Peebles had put out a movie called "Sweetback's Baadasssss Song." And they said, there might be a market there. If we come up with a concept to have a leading - Black leading man, a Black director, maybe a Black composer, we might hit that market. MGM was the one that pioneered the idea, so we had a meeting out there at MGM with Stax execs. And they asked me to come. And they talked about the concept. And would I do the music? Would I be interested in doing the music? Yeah. I said, I want to act, too. And have you all cast for the lead role? Well, no. We'll look into that.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HAYES: But anyway, I think that was a stick and carrot, you know? So...

GROSS: (Laughter) Right.

HAYES: So I agreed to do the music. They had already cast Richard Roundtree, which was rightfully so. He's perfect for the part. And I agreed to do the music. And that's how I - that's how that whole thing, that whole idea came about.

GROSS: And here's where we really get into orchestrating, right?

HAYES: Mmm-hmm.

GROSS: So tell me how you started using that wah-wah guitar funk style.

HAYES: Well, OK - trade secrets. What happened was - I had been doing arranging all the time. I did a lot of arranging with the horns and stuff at Stax. And the first string arrangements I tried was a thing that Dave and I did on Sam & Dave. And that album was, like, a big flop. But we tried it anyway, but I had a taste for it. And once I had tasted the strings, I couldn't let it go. Now, when - sometimes in the studio, you're working on various grooves and stuff and you can't find a name for it, or you can't tag it with anything. You just - if it feels good, you say, OK, I'm going to file that. And you put it up. You put it back, and you store it.

Now, when it was time for me to do the "Shaft" theme, I said, now, what can I do? They - you know, they explained the character to me - you know, a relentless character, always on the move, always on the prowl. And you got to get something to denote that for the main theme. I said, what can I do? I thought about - if you remember Otis Redding's "Try A Little Tenderness," I had a hand in that arrangement, too. In the end, Al Jackson was doing some stuff on the high-hat, some - you know, you got to (vocalizing), you know. So I thought about that. I said, maybe if I just sustain that particular thing on the high-hat, that would give you a dramatic effect as something that's relentless.

Now, what else can I do? I thought about the guitar lick. And I went and pulled it out, played it. And Charles Pitts - we call him Skip. He played the thing on the wah-wah. I said, hey. Play this line. And he started it. And I told Willie, the drummer - I said - Willie Hall, I said, give me that high-hat, man, some 16 notes, you know? (Vocalizing). And he did that. And it worked. I said, that's the kind of dramatic effect I want. Then, I start putting the other things in - you know, the bass, the accents and all that stuff. But that's how that whole wah-wah thing came about.


HAYES: (Singing) Who's the Black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks? Shaft. You're damn right. Who is the man that would risk his neck for his brother man? Shaft. Can you dig it? Who's the cat that won't cop out when there's danger all about? Shaft. Right on. They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother. Shut your mouth. But I'm talking about Shaft. Then, we can dig it. He's a complicated man. But no one understands him here but his woman. John Shaft.

DAVIES: And that was the theme from "Shaft," composed and recorded by Isaac Hayes. Hayes spoke to Terry in 1994. He died in 2008 at the age of 65. Coming up, David Bianculli reviews two new prequels - one to the HBO series "Game Of Thrones" and the other to Peter Jackson's "Lord Of The Rings" films. This is FRESH AIR.


Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.