x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Isaac Hayes's voice changed America

Singing, acting and songwriting were a triple threat. Hayes died at age 65 on Sunday in East Memphis, Tennessee.

No one who saw it live - or saw it replayed later - will ever forget it. Adorned in gold chains, wearing sunglasses and riding a motorcycle, Isaac Hayes thundered on to the stage of the 1972 Academy Awards ceremony on a motorcycle to the dancing of cymbals and a booming bass line - the strutting, pulse-pounding opening strains of his Oscar-nominated Theme from Shaft.

TV Guide ranked it on a list of television's 25 most memorable moments, right alongside Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon, the debut of The Beatles' on The Ed Sullivan Show and Lady Diana's death. But Hayes's performance was not just an iconic moment in television. It was a watershed in the United States - a country where, less than 15 years earlier, police had set snarling dogs against peaceful black protesters who wanted only a stool at the lunch counter and a seat in a university lecture hall. It signalled the coming of age of black culture in America.

In 1972, the United States was exhausted by the Vietnam War and the tumult of the 1960s. The Watergate scandal and the women's movement had yet to seize the nation. For an indelible moment, Hayes did. Sure, the lyrics to Shaft were kitschy, as some critics said. ("Who's a black private dick/Who's a sex machine to all the chicks?") But the man who crooned and growled them, who sported a shaved head when blowout Afros were the style, acted neither cowed nor deferential.

Like the main character of the movie, a cool private eye, the strapping Hayes was street smart, he was sexy, and he was oh-so-bad. At first awestruck, the Oscar audience roared its approval. He won the Oscar for Best Original Song, the first African-American to do so. Hayes, who was born in a tin shack in Tennessee and worked in cotton fields while going to school, was no one-hit wonder. He was one of the principal songwriters and performers for Stax Records, the famous Memphis soul music label.

In the 1990s, he provided the voice for Chef on the cable television show South Park. It is no wonder that Mr Hayes continued to earn a living from his resilient voice. He and his baritone bass were of course renowned for sweating Shaft and Hold On, I'm Comin'. Yet when he purred such songs as Never Can Say Goodbye, you knew he never would. Hayes died on Sunday in East Memphis, Tennessee, of unknown causes. He was 65.

@Email:cnelson@thenational.ae