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Black Moses 

By their very nature, email interviews are a drag
Hot-buttered or chocolate and salty, Isaac Hayes serves it like you like it at Sunset Station on Friday.
Isaac Hayes
Fri, Oct 27
Sunset Station
(Lonestar Pavilion)
1174 E. Commerce
By their very nature, email interviews are a drag. It’s hard enough to establish a semblance of rapport with a stranger over the phone, but when your “conversation” involves written questions, you inevitably get dry, non-spontaneous responses.

But when you’re dealing with the man known as Black Moses, you make certain allowances. To put things in perspective, Isaac Hayes never parted the Red Sea, but he has produced his share of pop-culture miracles over the last 40 years: Making the statement that “bald is beautiful” more than a decade before Michael Jordan ran with the concept; introducing “bad mutha” to the lexicon of American popular song; convincing the lily-white, early-’70s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to award an Oscar to a funk song (“Theme from Shaft”) written for a Blaxploitation film; transforming himself from one of the great R&B songwriters of the ’60s to one of the ’70s’ most popular interpreters of pop ballads; and integrating the animated world of South Park while singing about the wonders of his “chocolate salty balls.”

As a young songwriter at Stax Records in the mid-’60s, Hayes collaborated with David Porter on classics such as “Soul Man,” “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” “Wrap It Up,” and “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby.” After a tentative shot at solo success with 1967’s Presenting Isaac Hayes — the half-baked result of a late-night studio party — he reinvented himself two years later with the iconic Hot Buttered Soul, an unabashed, bedroom-seduction record that found Hayes alternately talking and crooning his way through an 18-minute version of Glen Campbell’s hit “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.”

Hayes explains the sudden shift in style this way: “I always appreciate a good song, no matter who wrote it. What I love is recreating the original song and giving it my own twist. If something inspires me, I roll with it.”

Before Hot Buttered Soul, Hayes boasted a formidable catalog. After Hot Buttered Soul, he had a persona. As the January 1972 issue of Beat Instrumental noted: “James Brown may still be Soul Brother Number One, but now Isaac Hayes, songwriter/arranger/producer and artist, is making a serious challenge.”

The image Hayes created in that era has defined him ever since, giving him something to celebrate (Wattstax) or spoof (South Park, That ’70s Show) or both. It’s an image that’s uniquely enigmatic when compared with the great soul men of his era. Covering his bare chest in gold chains, he conveyed an intimidating sense of power, but devoted his records to whispering sweet nothings on covers of “Close to You,” “Our Day Will Come,” and “Walk On By.” For all his onstage command, he always cut an oddly detached, placid figure, seemingly aware that he was simply playing a character. And his willingness to lampoon his own image for nine years as the voice of Chef on South Park is something that would be hard to imagine from James Brown or Al Green (although Hayes regrettably drew the line when South Park spoofed Scientology; he quit the show early this year, and it’s a subject he now refuses to discuss).

“My image helped me create my onstage persona,” Hayes says. “I started wearing the chains because they were a sign of strength. At first there was no deeper symbolism than that, `although` I later realized that here I was, a black man draped in chains, a symbol that once meant bondage and slavery. Now I was transforming them to mean power and masculinity.”

With Shaft and his early solo albums, Hayes anticipated the lush, erotic disco of Barry White, while sprawling, surreal tracks such as “Hyperbolicsyllabic-sesquedalymistic” set the stage for both Prince’s arty funk and the psychedelic hip-hop of De La Soul.

“When disco arrived, I decided to embrace it,” he says. “My album Juicy Fruit (Disco Freak) did just that. And I like hip-hop, as long as they are keeping it real. I feel strongly that musicians should learn real instruments and music so as to keep the art alive. Sampling can be cool, but in my eyes definitely has its limits. I’m a sucker for old school!”

Above all, Hayes has shown an amazing ability to learn new skills on the fly, seemingly by osmosis. As a child, he helped out at a diner and quickly became a short-order cook. As a young musician in Memphis, he filled in on piano at a New Year’s Eve show with a local band — even though he didn’t know how to play piano at the time. According to Hayes’s account of the gig, after faking for a few songs, he taught himself to play piano well enough to satisfy the band. In much the same way, through force of will, he taught himself to write songs, compose movie scores and, ultimately, act onscreen (he says his favorite role was in the little-seen Truck Turner).

Hayes’s rise to solo prominence coincided with the changing atmosphere at Stax that followed the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Many musicians at the Memphis label have recounted that the killing of the civil-rights leader in their hometown had a devastating impact on the spirit of interracial cooperation that previously existed at Stax.

“After Doctor King died, I was numb, and then I was really mad,” Hayes recalls. “I couldn’t write or create anything for a year. The whole of Memphis felt dead for a while. The thing that changed about Stax was that a decision was made to hire more black people. Since we were selling to a black audience, we needed to be better represented.”

Hayes reportedly suffered a minor stroke in January, but he simply says, “I did have some physical challenges at the beginning of the year but I am much better now.” His current “Can You Dig It?” tour shares its title with a 2005 best-of compilation, and much of the show will inevitably feel like a time-travel journey to the days of Soul Train and Afro Sheen, but Hayes continues to focus on unrealized projects. When reminded of a concept for a black rock-opera that he talked about more than 30 years ago, Hayes says, “I have many ideas over the years. I am always full of them. The trick is to know when the time is right for each one. The time hasn’t come for the rock opera yet, but it will.

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