Dig It: 'The Ultimate Isaac Hayes' The music icon's career has stretched from the heyday of 1960s soul to newfound popularity as the voice of Chef in the irreverent animated series South Park. A newly released three-disc set follows Hayes' storied career.
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Dig It: 'The Ultimate Isaac Hayes'

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Dig It: 'The Ultimate Isaac Hayes'

Dig It: 'The Ultimate Isaac Hayes'

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Mr. ISAAC HAYES: He's a bad mother--shut your mouth. Girl, shut your mouth.

BRAND: As soon as you hear that smooth baritone voice, you know it can be none other than Isaac Hayes. He won icon status, and an Oscar, for his 1971 soundtrack for the movie "Shaft," and he went on to reshape the sound of popular music. "Can You Dig It?" is a new Isaac Hayes compilation of two CDs and one DVD. Isaac Hayes talked about his career as a musician and an actor with producer Derek Rath.

DEREK RATH reporting:

Like my great artists, Isaac Hayes started from humble beginnings. However, even at an early age, he was displaying talents that were to elevate him into the highest pantheons of popular culture.

Mr. HAYES: I did my first concert at age three in an Easter program. My sister and I sang a duet. And my voice was real high; it's like a Vienna Boys Choir member. But when I reached the age of puberty, it starts cracking and squeaking and breaking up. And when it smooths out, it goes down here.

(Soundbite of song)

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

I didn't take singing seriously. I wanted to be a doctor. But I won the talent contest. And I guess `Wow! Give me your autograph! Have lunch? Look, we'll buy you lunch!' Really? Career change! So I wanted to be a performer.

(Soundbite of music)

RATH: There were still many hurdles to overcome. Isaac dropped out of school, but was brought back by school guidance counselors who recognized his potential. About that time, a fledgling Memphis record label, Stax Records, was starting up, and Isaac was drawn by the possibilities it presented.

Mr. HAYES: I'd gone to Stax auditioning for the blues band, doo-wop groups, gospel groups. Turned down each time. But Jim Stewart heard me play (unintelligible), `Young man, I like the way you play. Booker T.'s off in school, Indiana U. I need another staff musician to play. You want a job?' I'm Mr. Cool. `Yeah, I think I could do that.' In my own mind `Yes! Yes!'

(Soundbite of music)

RATH: It was at Stax where Isaac formed a songwriting team with David Porter.

Mr. HAYES: We started writing songs. We wrote a few flops, you know. But then we hit our groove and we started writing songs like "You Don't Know Like I Know," "Hold On, I'm Coming," "I Thank You," "Soul Man." That's how I got started, you know.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. HAYES: (Singing) ...coming to you. Going to ...(unintelligible). I've got a tough load.

RATH: His own singing career began shortly after that in 1968 but not very auspiciously after an office birthday party.

Mr. HAYES: We grabbed a big gob of cake and two bottles of champagne and ran into the ladies room and locked the door and sat on the floor and gobbled down the cake and drank the champagne. Ohhh, we feel good. Feel no pain. And Al Barrows(ph) said, `Isaac, I'm gonna cut a record on you.' `OK.' `I'm gonna do it right now.' `I'm cool.' We didn't rehearse anything. Impromptu. `You all follow me.'

RATH: That effort yielded Hayes' first single, "Precious, Precious."

(Soundbite of "Precious, Precious")

Mr. HAYES: (Singing) Oh, precious.

RATH: Later that year, Atlantic Records took over Stax's music catalog, and Stax boss Al Bell created an instant new catalog by recording and simultaneously releasing 26 new albums and 30 singles. Isaac Hayes saw this as a chance to stretch out and in 1969 released the genre-busting album "Hot Buttered Soul." It had only four extended versions of hit tunes from such unlikely writers as Burt Bacharach and Glen Campbell. But it changed the sound of popular music forever.

Mr. HAYES: When I did "Hot Buttered Soul," I just--you know, just no holds barred. And my choice of tunes, they were hit songs in the first place, so I dissected and turned it around and put it back together and it stood. Like "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," like "Walk On By."

(Soundbite of "Walk On By")

Mr. HAYES: (Singing) Make believe...

Backup Singers: That you don't see those tears...

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

Backup Singers: ...just let me be.

Mr. HAYES: (Singing) You just let me be.

Backup Singers: And ...(unintelligible) 'cause each time I see you...

Mr. HAYES: (Singing) And cry, baby, because each time...

Backup Singers: ...I just break down and--just break down and cry.

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

Backup Singers: Walk, walk.

RATH: In 1971, he was asked by director Gordon Parks to submit music ideas for a film. But Isaac Hayes had other ideas.

Mr. HAYES: I agreed to do the music. But I really wanted to be the actor. `Hey, man, you guys, you cast this yet?' `No, no.' `Well, look, I'm gonna--I'm gonna try out for that part.' So I went back home to Memphis, and I told my friends it was just about the acting. I didn't tell them about the music. So a week later they say, `Hey, Isaac, you got that call yet?' `No. Let me call and check.' `Hello. You guys casting for the lead role in "Shaft" yet?' `Oh, they didn't tell you? We cast a guy by the name of Richard Roundtree. But, remember, you promised to do the music.' `Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'll do the music.'

(Soundbite of music from "Shaft")

Mr. HAYES: And I caught Shaft's personality. That's why I begin with the 16 notes on the high hat and the movement and the guitar sound, with Skip playing the wa-wa. I got on my knees and worked the pedals with my hands and things until Skip got the hang of it, and that was the signature of Shaft.

(Soundbite of music from "Shaft")

RATH: Once again, Isaac Hayes' inspiration was to prove revolutionary. "Shaft" started a mini industry in what became known as blaxploitation movies, and Isaac Hayes began expanding his creativity in new arenas. His acting career took off, and he went on to star in movies including the 1998 blaxploitation parody "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka." Hayes made the leap to television and got the role that's introduced him to another generation of fans.

Mr. HAYES: "South Park" happened after I pressured my agent. I said, `Man, give me some voiceovers. Man, give me some'--so eventually he called me, he said, `Mr. Hayes, I think I have a voiceover for you.' I said, `Yeah, yeah, Disney.' `No, not quite.'

(Soundbite of "South Park")

Unidentified Woman: How about a little more of that good loving, Chef?

Mr. HAYES: (As Chef) Damn, woman! I just gave you sweet loving five minutes ago. You trying to kill me?

RATH: At first, the exhortations of "South Park" creators didn't impress him.

Mr. HAYES: `You'll be the voice of a chef at an elementary school in a town called South Park, Colorado. You will mentor these little foul-mouthed kids.' `What?' `No, there's no joke here. We're serious.' `You guys are serious?' `Have you got insurance?--'cause you're going to get sued.'

RATH: Hayes signed on and, of course, what's a chef without a signature recipe?

Mr. HAYES: When they came out with chocolate salty balls, I said, `Man, you sure you want me to do this, man?' I looked in the studio and the staff is just cracking up. I said, `Well, if it's working on them, it should work on the public.' And when the ad day was announced, I started getting trepidations. I thought, `What have I done? I've ruined my career.'

(Soundbite of "South Park")

Mr. HAYES: (As Chef, singing) Two tablespoons of cinnamon and two or three egg whites.

RATH: There is new renewed interest in all things Isaac Hayes, and now an army of hip-hop artists have sampled his work. Rapper Big Daddy Kane, a co-actor in "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka," warned him about it back then.

Mr. HAYES: Isaac, brace yourself, man. The rap music will come at you and stuff, man.

RATH: At first, Isaac resented it, but meeting others like Tupac Shakur changed his mind.

Mr. HAYES: `Oh, Isaac Hayes! My mentor!' Started bowing down, `Oh, what's up, man? Mr. Isaac Hayes! Oh, man, you don't realize it!' And seeing Tupac's expression, woah. So I had to, you know, make some choices, use it right.

RATH: Always looking for the positive, Isaac Hayes sees the sampling as a tribute. But he's anxious that this generation stays musically educated and applies the values of his legacy to their own creative future.

Mr. HAYES: Because if you're sampling and things like that, that's kind of like a dead-end street. But the art has to continue with live music education. If they can play instruments, they can take it to another level.

RATH: For NPR News, I'm Derek Rath in Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: You can hear some Isaac Hayes hits at our Web site, npr.org.

More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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