11 August 2008

Black Moses

Who’s the black politician who’s a sex machine to all the chicks?
Obama!

Damn right.

Whether the estate of Isaac Hayes will let his biggest hit be rewritten as a campaign song remains to be seen, but having a black contender would be unthinkable without the breakthroughs of Mr Black Moses himself, Isaac Hayes.

The high-hat triplets; the wah-wah guitar; the long, brown leather coat; the ’fro; the mo. John Shaft – a bad mother – is the mythical father of Obama’s success thus far. However the fictional villains in ‘Stagolee,’ Shaft and all the other blaxploitation films – and recurring role models such as the just resigned mayor of Detroit – could be the reason that the White House won’t get its makeover just yet.

Uh, what’s happening CC?
They still call it the White House
But that’s a temporary condition, too.
Can you dig it, CC
‘Chocolate City,’ Parliament

George Clinton was referring to the black majority in inner-city Washington DC as a positive response to white flight to the suburbs, and thanking the city’s fans for their support, but Isaac Hayes made his political statements on the Billboard charts.

Shaft wasn’t the first blaxploitation film, but it was the most successful, crossing over into the mainstream market. I’ll never forget seeing Hayes receive his “best song” Oscar on NZBC-TV. He confronted middle-America in their living rooms with a hard-funk rendition of the song, resplendent in gold chains, shades and shaved head – and not much else. A fashion statement for the cultural theorists in the audience. Sammy Davis Jr handed him his Oscar with the wisecrack that he’d been dressed by a local hardware store. How many Oscar moments from 2008 will we remember in 36 years?

In 1968, when Martin Luther King was murdered at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Hayes was one of the leading songwriters at Stax Studios a couple of miles away. At that moment, Hayes was on driving to the motel to pick up a musician: in the fading days of segregation, the Lorraine was where the black folk stayed.

At Stax, Hayes and his lyricist partner Dave Porter wrote for everyone on the label. It was Sam and Dave who turned their gospel testifying into pop hits. Their trademark song ‘Soul Man’ was a statement of black consciousness as powerful as any by Muhammad Ali or Nina Simone, with a better backbeat. On the piano, leading the band, was Isaac Hayes.

Hayes was driven more by the pop charts than politics; in 1968 he was yet to become a black icon, but he was hip to the catchphrases coming out of the civil rights movement. When Martin Luther King declared “I have a dream” he wasn’t talking about romance, but Hayes and Porter were:

I had a dream last night, love is worryin’ me
I claim the only woman that I’ve ever loved
Don’t you know she turned her back on me ...
‘I Had a Dream,’ sung by Johnnie Taylor

Taylor’s dreamer works the graveyard shift five nights a week, comes home sick one time to find his “baby ain’t there”:

I shouldn’t let this worry me, it all happened in my sleep ... but I got to stop from eleven to seven next week.

A hit record was political statement enough for Hayes, who was still printing money with Sam & Dave. On a follow-up single with them, ‘I Thank You,’ he played clavinette and asked the drummer to imitate a trotting horse.

Perhaps Isaac Hayes knew his dream run with Memphis soul was coming to an end. Otis Redding was dead, followed four months later by Martin Luther King; the civil rights movement began to splinter. But Hayes had enough power to take artistic control of his music, with him out front. He had an accidental hit with his own album Hot Buttered Soul. It was a very odd record: here was a great songwriter singing other people’s songs. He would meander for 20 minutes with ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ or ‘Walk On By’ – and the audience just said, take your time.

Hot Buttered Soul led to Shaft, and Hayes was the biggest thing in showbiz. He drove a gold-plated Cadillac, wore suits of gold chain mail and purred in his deepest voice about the power of love.

Shaft and Isaac Hayes’s outrageous experiments paved the way for Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye – and now Barack Osama (even if the 1960s civil rights leaders have been hesitant with their endorsements).

Sir Isaac Hayes applies for an English passport.

Hayes was the 70s Duke Ellington, the sophisticate who got his inspiration from the street. His bank balance suffered from extravagance, and he disappeared into Scientology. Then the TV show South Park wanted his deep voice for the animated character of Chef, which worked well, until the South Park scriptwriters satirised Scientology.

When rap music arrived it was tailor-made for an Ike Hayes revival. Here were African-American males strutting their stuff. Hayes himself chose Public Enemy’s Chuck D to revisit a song off the classic album Hot Buttered Soul. Its name: ‘Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic’.

Can you dig it?

Links: a great profile of Hayes from Memphis magazine; thorough obit at the Independent; watch him perform ‘Shaft’ live in the studio; Shaft meets Shane here; and below, the dynamic duo Sam & Dave perform two of his songs live: it’s a slow starter, but a big finisher.

1 comment:

Ian Morris said...

Marshall amps!