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Monday, Feb. 25, 2008

Isaac Hayes:

Hot Buttered Impresario

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Soul man Isaac Hayes released his first album in 1967, but it wasn’t until two years later, when Hot Buttered Soul hit the charts, that the native of Memphis, Tenn., made his indelible impression on popular music. In 1972, the singer and songwriter, whose talents helped create the unique sound of Memphis-based Stax Records, became the first African-American composer to win an Academy Award, for the soundtrack to the movie Shaft. He provided the creative grist behind the careers of artists such as Otis Redding and Sam & Dave, including co-authoring the duo’s hit single “Soul Man.” During the last two decades, Hayes, 65, has emerged as an actor, radio personality and restaurateur, triple talents he combined in his role as Chef on the animated series “South Park.” He was even honored as a “king” of Ghana in the early ’90s for his philanthropic work in the African nation.

Hayes is back in the studio recording his first album of new material in 13 years, due for a September release. He took some time between sessions to answer a few questions for the Shepherd Express.

Describe the Stax sound. How did it differ from other African-American sounds at the time, such as Motown? The difference with the Stax Memphis sound was its raw energy. It wasn’t as polished as Motown; it was more alive, vibrant, full of emotion. People could relate to that, especially with what was going on socially and racially at the time. The sound fit that time in history.

From what sources do your musical influences originate? I grew up singing in the church choir. Gospel and Negro spirituals are my roots, since that is where soul came from. Then later, I loved the classic sounds of Nat King Cole, Perry Como and Tony Bennett. Of course, Burt Bacharach and Hal David were great inspirations, too. I took sounds that I loved and turned them into my own thing.

I wasn’t so much influenced as inspired by these artists.

You grew from rural poverty to become a “king” of Ghana. Can you describe briefly that journey from an internal perspective? How did that change your perception of things? Wow. Well, the whole journey was an unbelievable experience. I wouldn’t have changed any part of it, the good or the bad.

As a boy, I was always a dreamer. I used to stand in the fields when I was supposed to be picking cotton and stare at airplanes going by. I used to think, “That will be me up there one day.” I had no idea how it would happen, but somehow I knew it would happen. And it did. My music is so much an expression of me. Songs like “Soulsville” explain that.

I understand you’re in the studio recording a new album. Can you talk a little bit about what the album contains? Yeah, the album is going to be awesome! It is old school meets new school, classic Isaac Hayes with a contemporary twist. I have some amazing artists guesting on the album. I can’t mention names yet, but you won’t be disappointed. This is the first studio album I’ve done in a while, so I want to make sure it’s special.

Situations have changed significantly for African Americans since you first started recording. Or have they? What has been the “evolution,” if that’s the right word, of African-American music in the United States over the past 40 years? What has been the evolution of African-American culture? Are things easier or more difficult in both areas? I think things are easier in both areas.

Black music is respected and loved worldwide. When I began at Stax, it was considered shocking that we had a studio where white people and black people were working together equally in a society where color segregation was normal. But you know, we didn’t care. We were all one family working together. The music was the most important thing.

I think we still have a ways to go though. I don’t feel like a lot of the rappers and hiphoppers around right now help. Sometimes they do more harm than good. I think tolerance in general around the world has a long way to go.

What can fans attending your Feb. 21 Milwaukee show expect to hear? They can expect to have a good time and groove to good music. That’s the most important thing. The music should and will make you feel good. I have an awesome band that never fails to bring it on.

What did you learn about yourself from a lifetime as a musical artist? I’ve learned that music can break down barriers and cross boundaries. Communication is important and something can always be said through music. Anyone, no matter where they are in the world or the color of their skin, can listen to the same piece of music and feel the same emotions.

That is why music is so important and why I love it so much.

Isaac Hayes headlines the Northern Lights Theater at Potawatomi Bingo Casino on Feb. 21.

 

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