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Signature Soul: Memories of Isaac Hayes
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NEAL CONAN, host:

Every obituary of Isaac Hayes includes the picture of the imposing, bald, black man wearing shades and chains mentions "Hot Buttered Soul," his influence on disco and hip-hop, and this music, of course, the "Theme from Shaft," which an Grammy and an Oscar, the first from an African-American composer. And late in his career, he was the voice of Chef on Comedy Central's "South Park." Few will remember the picture on his first album with a slight smile, dressed in tails, holding a top hat and a cane.

(Soundbite of song "Precious, Precious")

CONAN: "Precious, Precious" from "Presenting Isaac Hayes," the record that launched the solo career of a performer already well-known as a songwriter and studio musician in Memphis. What do you remember about Isaac Hayes? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email, talk@npr.org. And you can now talk with us on Twitter. You can find us at twitter.com/totn. We begin with Al Bell. He's the former owner of Stax Records, currently the chairman of ABP. That's Al Bell Presenst, an entertainment intellectual-property company. He's with us by phone from his office in North Little Rock in Arkansas, and thanks so much for being with us, and I am sorry for your loss.

Mr. AL BELL (Chairman, Al Bell Presents): Thank you. Thank you for having me on today, and thank you for your sympathy.

CONAN: Remembering "Presenting Isaac Hayes," tell us how that record came about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BELL: Well, we were having a party in the studio one night, and Isaac didn't want to record. And he didn't drink and none of us drink that much, but we had some Asti Spumanti, which was, you know, a very mild, sweet drink and I kept giving Isaac Asti Spumanti and he would drink it. And by the time the party was over, there were still musicians there, Booker T and the MGs. And I said, why don't we just record some things and have some fun? I will be the engineer. Well, they know I couldn't engineer and I did also. But anyway, I went into the studio, did the best I possibly could. The influence that I gave them that night was the Lou Rawls, "Goin' to Chicago," you remember that on him?

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. BELL: Well, that was the influence for the production approach that we were taking. And we just kept on playing around, playing around, until we got enough recorded for an album. It was horrible, but Tommy Dowd (ph), the engineer at Atlantic, worked a miracle and made it sound halfway decent for us.

CONAN: When it came out, I was an announcer at a radio station in New York. I loved that record. I used to play it all the time, so you can tell how vast an influence I had because I don't think it did very well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BELL: I am glad to hear that. That makes me feel good.

CONAN: He was - before he made it big, obviously, a studio musician there at Stax/Volt and a songwriter. Tell us a little bit about how he got started in the business.

Mr. BELL: Well, as a musician and as a songwriter, he wrote along with David Porter of Hayes and Porter team. They were two great songwriters, and Isaac was a performer that performed locally in some of the smaller clubs there in Memphis at that time for fun. And you know, he can pick up a few bucks here and there, and he took advantage of that. And once he got the opportunity, of course, to start playing at Stax, he spent a great deal of time playing his keyboards at Stax Records.

CONAN: So, on all of those records or on many of those records anyway, the piano or sometimes other keyboards, that's Isaac Hayes.

Mr. BELL: That's Isaac Hayes.

CONAN: So...

Mr. BELL: Even on some of the - when Booker T was away in college and couldn't get in for a recording session and we needed to get a Booker T and the MGs single done, Isaac would come in and play the keyboards for Booker T.

CONAN: I thought some of his best work was on the - with Albert King on "Born Under a Bad Sign," a great record.

Mr. BELL: Oh God, yes, yes, oh, yes. Unbelievable. On that one, and I love what he did with The Emotions on - I've forgotten the title of the song now, but he was playing the Hammond B3 with the Leslie and he played it in a manner where, in between phrases, it sounded like birds.

CONAN: That's incredible.

Mr. BELL: Yes. I have never heard it done before then and haven't heard it since then. But that was Isaac.

CONAN: Was "I Stand Accused," was that the tune?

Mr. BELL: No, not "I Stand Accused." It was the very first record that we had released on The Emotions.

CONAN: Well, Google will answer this question for us sooner or later.

Mr. BELL: Yes.

CONAN: But let me ask you about his next record, the one that really made him big in the music business was "Hot Buttered Soul."

Mr. BELL: Yes.

CONAN: How did that come about?

Mr. BELL: Well, again, he decided he might want to record and I got - at that point in time, we had lost all of our - Sam & Dave. They had - Atlantic had taken them away from us. We had - they had taken our catalog of previous releases away from us, and of course, Otis had died in his plane crash.

CONAN: That terrible crash in Lake Michigan, yes.

Mr. BELL: Yes. So, I set out to rebuild the company and put an impossible, as they said, goal there, and that goal was to go and record 28 albums. And one - I got 27. One was "Hot Buttered Soul" on Isaac, and I took Mario Thomas and one of the guys who produced The Bar Kays, and we went in to the studio and what I did was just have him record the songs that he had been singing in the clubs. "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "Walk On By," et cetera. Isaac would go to the club, sit down, play the songs and rap over the songs. And that's how he got the females' attention.

CONAN: Mm.

Mr. BELL: Was something about his rapping and his passion that you could hear in his vocals that influenced the ladies.

CONAN: Also that Barry White voice, too.

Mr. BELL: Yes. Well, he would tell you that Barry - that Barry, it was close to a bass and me I'm a different type baritone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BELL: But he had the magic. He had the magic in his voice. And we went in, recorded those three songs, which were his staple items and we had to write another one on the spot. And that's when I came up with the title "Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic," which was a word that I created in high school and I considered it an adjective that described a person who had a tendency to overuse and abuse big words. And if you'll notice, because of my influence and my love for the sciences, biology, chemistry, physics and all of that, you'll notice a song starting off, your sweet phalanges, they really know how to squeeze, you know, your fingers and what-have-you.

CONAN: Yes.

Mr. BELL: And out of that came the recording itself. We went, after doing the rhythm, we went into Detroit. And what I'd asked the arrangers to do was to take and listen to his rap and listen to that soulful rhythm that was being played and assume in their minds that that was a motion picture. And for them to write arrangements that were soundtracks for that motion picture. That's why the arrangements are like they are. And of course, we talk the same way to the background singers, and of course, Isaac put his influence into how they were toned and all of that. And we ended up coming up with that recording. It took me about a month and a half to come up with a title. During the month of December back then, I would spend that entire month in Jamaica, and on my way back out of Jamaica, I picked up the magazine in the pocket of the airplane and I looked at an ad and it said, Hot Buttered Rum.

CONAN: Hmm. And that's...

Mr. BELL: That's what I want to call this album, "Hot Buttered Soul," because that's what it is.

CONAN: Let's see if we get some callers on the line. Let's talk with Glen. Glen's with us from Grand Rapids in Michigan.

GLEN (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Glen. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

GLEN: Yeah. I'm a musician myself, have been and continue to play. And you know, just when that album came out, like with "Shaft" and all that, you know, it was just like, you know, it just revolutionized things. I think, it was just a totally different sound and, you know, he's going to be very much missed. He had a major impact on the music industry, I believe. And you know, just miss him terribly.

CONAN: I think a lot of us will that as well. Thanks very much for the call, Glen.

GLEN: Thank you.

CONAN: Also with us is Rhonda Thomas. She's an Atlanta-based vocalist who performed with Isaac Hayes over the last 11 years. She's with us from her office in Atlanta, Georgia. And I know you've got to feel badly today for the loss of your friend.

Ms. RHONDA THOMAS (Vocalist): I'm still amazed. I can't believe he's gone. We were about to embark on a Stax reunion tour this week. And when I heard the news yesterday, I was devastated.

CONAN: What was Isaac Hayes like as a person?

Ms. THOMAS: I wish you could have known him, Neal. He was an iconic figure, but I guess, as Mr. Bell speaking of him and his humble beginnings, he remained - he wasn't vain. He wasn't egotistical. He would talk to anyone. We could walk through the airport and he would sign autographs. Just a great mentor and friend. He allowed me to sing solo on his song "Do Your Thing," and he would advertise my album and mention, oh, Rhonda Thomas has an album, "Breathe New Life," and you can go get it out in the lobby. And I just don't know many artists that would afford that opportunity to, you know, their protege.

CONAN: Be that generous, and that imposing, kind of scary image of the guy with the chains on, I gather that wasn't what he was like at all.

Ms. THOMAS: I never saw that. He was like a teddy bear, and you know, he was playful. He was politically savvy. He was articulate, well-versed on current events. I remember sitting with him on an airplane last month and just looking at pictures in magazines of different celebrity women. And he found it interesting that some of them had weave and he was like, is that a weave? And I was like, yes. And he said, and that's a weave, too? And I said, yes, that's a weave. So, he could be really playful as well.

CONAN: We're talking with two people who knew Isaac Hayes well. Rhonda Thomas has performed with him for the last 11 years. Al Bell, the former owner of Stax Records, where Isaac Hayes got his start. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's see if we can get Stephanie on the line. And Stephanie is calling us from Madison, Wisconsin.

STEPHANIE (Caller): Hey. I just want to call and say, man, what a loss. What a genius. I mean, I'm telling you, you know, I love all the Stax/Volt music. I love - you know, saw so often the names Porter and Hayes, and you know, so much wonderful, wonderful music. He was so talented, one of my favorites, and I bet you he had to be playing piano on this and in addition to writing the song with David Porter was "B-A-B-Y." I love Carla Thomas, and God, I love that song. It was so sexy. And there's this wonderful, bam, bam, bam, bam piano introduction to the song. It was so cool.

CONAN: Mm. Al Bell, that song - Carla Thomas was just - was very young when that was recorded.

Mr. BELL: Yes. And he was playing piano on that, by the way.

STEPHANIE: Was he?

Mr. BELL: Yes, he was.

STEPHANIE: Oh, man, I've got a - what a loss. Thank you, guys. I'm going to hang up and listen to the rest of the show. You're - it's - I'm so sorry for his passing. I really am.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Stephanie. You know, I wanted to ask you, Rhonda, that Isaac Hayes just finished filming a movie that's due to be released next year that also stars comedian Bernie Mac, who, strangely, died just the day before Isaac Hayes did. Did he ever tell you about that experience?

Ms. THOMAS: He didn't mention it specifically, but I had heard that he filmed a movie - I think they were filming it in March - "Soul Men." And I imagine that Samuel L. Jackson must be feeling a great loss at this time, too, because he was in the movie as well.

CONAN: Hmm. Let me ask you both. What are you going to miss most about Isaac Hayes? And Al Bell, let me start about - with you.

Mr. BELL: The wonderful human being that he was. Isaac was a great talent. Sold a lot of records, entertained a lot of people, but he was just a good person. And I will miss that person.

CONAN: Rhonda Thomas?

Ms. THOMAS: I'm going to miss the iconic figure that he was, his wisdom, his generosity, his words. He planted the seeds of soul in so many people. And his legacy will continue to live on.

CONAN: A lot of people give him credit - well, not only for starting disco, but also for prefiguring hip-hop as well. Did he talk about that at all? Did he take his role in that seriously?

Ms. THOMAS: I think he did. He appreciated a lot of different hip-hop artists. Snoop Dogg, he appreciated Jay-Z, and I know he wanted to work with a lot of different hip-hop artists. He felt that there was a place for all types of music.

CONAN: Let's talk with Stavros, Stavros with us from Rock Island, Illinois.

STAVROS (Caller): Yes. And I just want to mention, God, I almost can cry on the phone right now. But I want to just say Al Bell, incredible arrangements. In fact, last night while I was listening a little bit to his music, I would close my eyes and I visually could see movies. And I'm so pleased by your arrangement and description of how you created that music.

Mr. BELL: Thank you. We have some wonderful arrangers. Two geniuses themselves. Johnny Allen (ph) out of Detroit and, of course, that was the Detroit Philharmonic Orchestra, you know, playing behind him. But just wonderful arrangers. Thank you.

STAVROS: And I wanted to ask you how you managed to put together this talent, because the recording process, the musicians are stellar. I mean, there's so much depth in the recordings. That's what I'm amazed at. What made you do that? What made you put all this behind this fellow, Isaac Hayes?

Mr. BELL: I loved what was happening with him vocally. And I wanted to present him in a manner where it would be different from anything that I had heard in the music industry. And what I did was I went and got some of the very best people. I can't sing, dance. My sense of timing is horrible, all of that kind of good stuff, but I know great people, and I went and got great people and pulled them together. I was blessed to be able to do that. And that's how we ended up with what you hear and what changed the industry.

CONAN: Stavros, thanks very much for the call.

STAVROS: You're welcome. Thank you so much for all your help and God bless.

CONAN: Appreciate it.

Mr. BELL: Thank you.

CONAN: And I'm afraid we're out of time, but...

Mr. BELL: That song, let me give it to you. "So I Can Love You" by The Emotions.

CONAN: There you go. All right. Al Bell, thank you for your time today.

Mr. BELL: Thank you.

CONAN: Al Bell, the former owner of Stax records and currently the chairman of ABP, Al Bell Presents, an entertainment intellectual-property company, with us from North Little Rock in Arkansas. Rhonda Thomas, again, we're sorry for your loss.

Ms. THOMAS: Thank you so much, Neal.

CONAN: Rhonda Thomas, an Atlanta-based vocalist who performed with Isaac Hayes for the past 11 years. With us by phone from Atlanta, Georgia. This, of course, from "Shaft." Well, he won an Oscar for this sound score, anyway. Isaac Hayes dead at the age of 65. I'm Neal Conan. This is the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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