Deaths of Isaac Hayes, Bernie Mac An Incredible Loss

Music and comedy fans everywhere are mourning the sudden loss of two enormous talents. Soul musician and composer Isaac Hayes and comedic actor Bernie Mac died over the weekend. Professor and culture critic Mark Anthony Neal explains how the lasting contributions of both Hayes and Mac put them in a class of their own among entertainers.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now, we take a moment to remember. The weekend brought us sad news about the deaths of two much-loved entertainers. One was comedian Bernie Mac, who died Saturday from complications from pneumonia in Chicago. He was 50. The other is legendary musician-composer Isaac Hayes, who died yesterday at his home in East Memphis, Tennessee. He was 65.

Joining us is Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African-American Studies at Duke University and visiting scholar at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Mark, welcome. Thank you for talking to us.

MARC ANTHONY NEAL (African-American Studies, Duke University): Hello, Michel. How are you doing?

MARTIN: I'm great but I'm sad. I mean, both of these entertainers had a huge impact on their fields. What made Isaac Hayes and Bernie Mac stand out?

Professor NEAL: You know, in some ways, in - you know, Bernie Mac comes to his rise in the '90s, and Isaac Hayes, we think about moments in the 1970s. But there was something about them in which it almost seemed as though they were part of the same generation, and I'm thinking of, you know, a generation of black men who, you know, really went through hard lives and had hard experiences but loved their folks. I mean, loved the people and loved the music and loved the culture and found a way to articulate the complexity of black life in their respective arts.

MARTIN: Let's talk about Isaac Hayes. He was a songwriter and musician in the '60s. He made his mark with "Hot Buttered Soul." He also wrote hits for Sam & Dave, but "Hot Buttered Soul" defined his sound. We just have to play a little bit here.

(Soundbite of song "Walk On By")

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

MARTIN: What do you think made his sound so him? You cannot - you can't - there are no imitators. You can't, you know, you know it's him.

Professor NEAL: You know, as the legend goes, when Isaac Hayes - you know, he was a songwriter, of course, for Stax for all those years, writing for Sam & Dave and a bunch of other folks, and you know, Al Bell, who was running Stax at the time, wanted to come out what he called the "soul explosion," where they would just flood the market with Stax material. And Isaac Hayes says, well, since I got to work on these 26 albums, can I do my own? And his own album was, you know, "Hot Buttered Soul" - and anyways, as he talked about it, you know, he could do it because they needed those 26 records and didn't need his, he could do it any way he wanted to.

And he created a sound that was expansive and lush. I mean, it was unprecedented in soul music at the time. When you think about his 18-minute rendition of "By the Time I Came to Phoenix," it's a great example of what he did with existing pop tunes and R&B standards and just through his production and how he heard the world, you know, created something that was so unique and unprecedented in soul music.

And Motown had to respond, and you know, when you hear those early days of Gamble and Huff and the O'Jays, I mean, all that music, they're all taking their nods from what Isaac Hayes created at Stax from 1968 to 1972.

MARTIN: Now we don't want to shortchange Bernie Mac. Before TV and film, he made his mark in standup, captured in the documentary, "The Kings of Comedy." I think that's where a lot of people will have seen his work. He often used his family, friends and experiences growing up in Chicago for his comedy routine and it also translated into his later TV show. Some people called him the anti-Bill Cosby because he was little raw. Let's play a short clip.

(Soundbite of Bernie Mac clip)

Mr. BERNIE MAC: Well, I like white people. It's not about black and white. You know, but I believe they (bleep). When they go on break on the job, 15 minutes. They go to their desk, they eat their cheese sandwich. Eat their damn cheese, 15 minutes, they're back on their (bleep) jobs. My people, who I don't know (bleep) (unintelligible). Black people don't want people to go to work and tell the boss what the (bleep) gonna do. I'm not going (bleep). I'm tired, my son, we are...

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

MARTIN: I hope you can read between the lines here, but why do we love Bernie so much? Some people had a problem with him. I mean, they thought he was downgrading people and so forth, you know what I mean?

Professor NEAL: You know, with Bernie Mac, it was real talk. I mean, that was the thing. I'm thinking about my father's generation of men sitting around on Sunday afternoons, drinking Johnny Walker Black. I mean, that was Bernie Mac aesthetic. It was real talk. But the thing that made him so incredible and why folks are interested in him, it was real talk of what a real sense of humanity and passion, because even if he joked about, you know, his sister's kids, you know, which, of course, was the theme of the television show, you saw this is a man who valued family and brought a sense of compassion to raising these children.

It made him a better man, it made him appreciate family, it made him appreciate parenting and he opened wide America to that sense - in that regard, I think even more so than Cosby - to what we would call black parenting style.

MARTIN: All right. Two beloved figures, both gone too soon. Mark, thanks so much for talking to us.

Professor NEAL: Not a problem, Michel.

MARTIN: Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African-American studies at Duke University and visiting scholar at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. He joined us by phone from his office at Duke.

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