'Ultimate Isaac Hayes: Can You Dig It?'

Ed Gordon talks with soul music icon Isaac Hayes about his long career — he's been making music for nearly 40 years — his influence on hip-hop and the release of a collection of his now-legendary Stax Record tunes called Ultimate Isaac Hayes: Can You Dig It?

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(Soundbite of "Theme from Shaft")

ED GORDON, host:

It's the song that took Isaac Hayes from star to icon, the Oscar-winning theme of the 1970s film, "Shaft." Hayes made his mark on music in other ways. His albums "Hot Buttered Soul" and "Black Moses" helped redefine the sound of soul, and the way artists approached R&B recording. Hayes took songs, often pop standards, that usually averaged about two and a half minutes, added orchestration and his trademark rap and then stretched them into 15-minute classics. And while he's aware of all his accomplishments, Hayes says winning the Oscar tops his personal best list.

Mr. ISAAC HAYES (Musician): I think the most important and defining moment was when I won the Oscar, because it meant so much to me and meant so much to black folks, and it meant so much to my grandmother, so much so that I prayed that she would be with me when I had done something big, and I took her to the Oscars with me.

GORDON: Wow.

Mr. HAYES: And the distinction is that I was the third African-American to win an Oscar, behind Hattie McDaniel and Sidney Poitier, and the first to win in music. So all those things were defining. I think that was very important.

(Soundbite of "Theme from Shaft")

Mr. HAYES: (Singing) Who is the man that would risk his neck for his brother man?

Backup Singers: (Singing) Shaft!

Mr. HAYES: (Singing) Can you dig it?

GORDON: When you have something as iconic as "Shaft" with your career, it can sometimes overshadow the other things that you've done. But interestingly enough, while that's probably first on most people's tongues, your other music has never been lost in that, Isaac. That's got to speak to and make you feel good about the totality of your music.

Mr. HAYES: Well, it does, because earlier this year David Porter, my co-writing buddy, and I were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. So that speaks to that because I was writing songs before anybody ever heard of an Isaac Hayes. I've done so many things, you know, starting with the album "Hot Buttered Soul." That's what kicked it all off.

(Soundbite of "Walk On By")

Mr. HAYES: (Singing) If you see me walking down the street, and I start to cry each time we meet, walk on by, walk on by. Make believe...

Backup Singers: (Singing) And please don't see the tears...

Mr. HAYES: (Singing) ...that you don't see the tears.

Backup Singers: (Singing) Let me breathe...

Mr. HAYES: (Singing) Just let me breathe...

Backup Singers: (Singing) ...and cry...

Mr. HAYES: (Singing) ...and cry...

Backup Singers: (Singing) ...because each time...

Mr. HAYES: (Singing) ...because each time I see you...

Backup Singers: (Singing) ...I see you...

Mr. HAYES: (Singing) ...I just break, just break...

Backup Singers: (Singing) ...I just break down and...

Mr. HAYES: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible)

Backup Singers: (Singing) ...just break down and cry.

Mr. HAYES: (Singing) ...I break down and cry. Oh, baby, walk on by.

GORDON: Isaac, take a song like "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," which had been a huge hit for Jim Campbell, Jim Webb, who had done a lot of...

Mr. HAYES: Yeah.

GORDON: ...country and mainstream pop stuff, great writer...

Mr. HAYES: Yeah.

GORDON: But certainly, I think anyone who would have heard that understood, great song, but would not have been able to envision somebody like yourself taking it and doing to that song what you did.

Mr. HAYES: Well, first of all, I was a songwriter, and as a songwriter, you can dissect things. I dissected a lot of my own things, and a hit is a hit is a hit. So you can rely on a hit song. It's proven. It's a good palette to work from. So I took it apart, I took license and just kept my fingers crossed that the writers would not be upset with me with what I did with their song, but would just trust me. And I just took "Phoenix" apart and put it back together.

(Soundbite of performance by Hayes)

Mr. HAYES: I'm talking about the power of love now. I'm going to tell you what love can do.

Of course, you know I'm a hopeless romantic, anyway, so I went through all kind of changes with that. I won't call the woman's name or anything, but I went through all kind of changes about it. And that song gave me an opportunity to express what I felt.

(Soundbite of performance by Hayes)

Mr. HAYES: This young man was raised in the hills of Tennessee.

I told this story out of my own mind because I was doing it in a nightclub. The ...(unintelligible) were playing, and the club was packed and they said, `Ladies and gentlemen, Isaac Hayes.' And everybody's blah, blah, blah. I said (whispers) `You going to have to do something.' I said, `James, hang up on that chord. Just recycle it.' And then I started talking.

(Soundbite of performance by Hayes)

Mr. HAYES: He spent his last dime on a woman because he loved her.

I was creating as I went.

(Soundbite of performance by Hayes)

Mr. HAYES: You know, girls, you can take love and kindness sometimes for weakness. And she took it for granted and she tripped out on him, too. She said, `Ain't nobody going to believe what you're telling, no way, fool.' Oh, yeah, girls, you be like that sometime...

And when I was--first time I said, `By the time' everybody said, `Oh, wow. That's what he's talking about.'

(Soundbite of "By the Time I Get to Phoenix)

Mr. HAYES: (Singing) By the time I get to Phoenix she'll be rising...

Being a creative person and artist, we were up there going on the grooves of our records and on the sheets that it was written on.

(Soundbite of "By the Time I Get to Phoenix)

Mr. HAYES: (Singing) ...I tried to tell her so, but she was a non-believer, oh, and she didn't know, oh, that I would really go...

They stayed with me through the whole song and the vamp, and when I finished, there was a few dry eyes in the house.

(Soundbite of "By the Time I Get to Phoenix)

Mr. HAYES: (Singing) She didn't believe I would really go. Oh, I know, I hate to leave you, baby, yes, I do. I really, really, really hate to go...

So that's when I started doing these tunes and doing them differently. I trusted. You have to trust, and I trusted.

GORDON: Isaac, what was it that allowed you to take these pop hits, to pull them out sometimes 12, 14, 18 minutes, never done before, certainly by a black artist.

Mr. HAYES: But I was an adventurer; I always have been. I knew what I had to say could not have been said in two minutes and 30 seconds because that was the standard with singles. So I felt no pressure. I went on and did my thing, with no holds barred. But it changed the whole structure of R&B music, album sales especially. Before then, black artists just sold singles, but I changed that.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HAYES: (Singing) Black man, born free. I guess that's the way it's supposed to be. Chains that bind him are hard to see, unless you take this walk with me.

GORDON: What is it about you that has allowed you, Isaac, to be in the forefront of so many things, whether it be fashion, whether it be health, the idea that you were health-conscious long before many people even thought about it.

Mr. HAYES: Yeah.

GORDON: Your music has always been in the fore. Is there something about you that causes this, or is this just, you know, happenstance?

Mr. HAYES: Well, I'm a country boy, and when I was picking cotton, I learned just keep pushing forward. Just keep moving, keep pushing forward. That's what I do. If I make some kind of accomplishment, OK, what's the next hurdle I got to do? Because there are always hurdles, so I just keep moving, just constantly redefining myself. That's how you stay in the race.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Isaac Hayes. His new CD is called "Ultimate Isaac Hayes: Can You Dig It?" And yes, it does include DVD samples from his role on TV's "South Park."

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HAYES: (Singing) If the music makes the mood 'cause you can dig the groove; groove on, groove on. If you feel like you want to make love under the stars above, love on...

GORDON: Thanks for joining us. That's our program today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org.

NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HAYES: (Singing) ...rap on, oh, rap on. Because whatever...

GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

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