Four reasons to miss Isaac Hayes, who died today:
1. Memphis. If you like the gritty Memphis soul sound of the '60s, you like Isaac Hayes. Before he was a star himself, Hayes wrote and produced a series of songs for other artists on the Stax roster, including some of Sam and Dave's best-known hits. This one's my favorite:
2. The '70s. Hayes' hits for other people were tight, concise, and (just barely) restrained. Hayes' hits for himself were long, lush, complex; along with George Clinton's extraterrestrial funk excursions, they were the black equivalent of prog-rock. And if, like the progs, he sometimes went overboard, he usually managed to do something Emerson, Lake, and Palmer rarely pulled off: He made the excess fun.
His most famous song from this period is, of course, the theme from Shaft, that rare Best Song Oscar winner that actually deserved the prize:
3. Chef. Hayes' hilarious performance as South Park's wise and randy cafeteria chef was a central reason why the libertarian cartoon became such a pop phenomenon. Here he is dispensing advice to the kids:
The show reinvigorated his career as much as he invigorated the show. When I saw Hayes play in Baltimore a few years ago, his rendition of Chef's "Chocolate Salty Balls" was the biggest crowd-pleaser of the set.
4. Everything else. Well, not everything else. Some of his songs were too slick for my taste, and his Scientology-fueled separation from South Park was unfortunate. But his career is filled with fun little byways—say, his role as a football player turned bail bondsman in Truck Turner, my favorite indefensible blaxploitation picture. He also inspired one of Cookie Monster's greatest moments.
Hayes' best record might be his intimate interpretation of Jimmy Webb's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," one of several country songs he covered across his career. The monologue at the beginning feels like a sermon, providing a bridge from Stax's gospel-rooted '60s sound to the Shaft era. I can't find the full 18-minute version online, so the seven-minute edit will have to do:
I really, really, really hate to go, he sings. Requiescat in pace.