Isaac Hayes Learned 'Thinking Mean' In The Ghetto (St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Jul 05/1981/US) By Dick Richmond


Fifteen seconds. It couldn't have been much more than that. In the time the limousine turned onto Broadway from Market Street and stopped in front of Anthony's, even before it was parked, a crowd had gathered.

The car with the twin chandeliers on its front fenders and a mirrored ball instead of a rear-view mirror attracted instant attention. And when Isaac Hayes emerged from the back seat, there suddenly seemed to be a hundred sidewalk gawkers.

The car is the one Hayes uses in the motion picture Escape From New York. In the film, set in 1997, New York has become a walled-in, maximum-security prison-city for more than 3 million criminals who are left to their own devices. Hayes is seen as the Duke, the leader of the prison-city's toughest street gang.

Hayes posed for pictures in front of the car, then graciously signed autographs before walking into the building. He has shoulders of a weightlifter, which he is, and the voice of a gospel quartet's bass singer, which he was. With his shaved head, scraggly beard and dark glasses, he looks menacing, which he may have been when he was a boy running with street gangs on the north side of Memphis, where he was reared by his grandmother.

Escape From New York, which is playing at several theaters throughout the city, is not the first movie for Hayes. In 1973, he wrote the music for and starred in Three Tough Guys and wrote the music for and had the title role in Truck Turner. In 1974, he appeared with Anthony Newley in a comedy called It seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, and he has since appeared as Gandy in three episodes of TV's The Rockford Files.

Hayes won an Academy Award in 1971 for his music for the film Shaft, and 10 of his 21 albums have received gold awards. Five made it to platinum. He won a Golden Globe Award and four Grammies.

He can't read music, yet he's appeared with several symphony orchestras. He made millions and went bankrupt.

Perhaps one of the best things that could be said about Hayes is that he has written some wonderful songs: the worst is that he is largely responsible for the disco craze.

In concert, Hayes has always been an actor, providing his audience with a sense of mystery, emerging on stage in spectacular costumes as if part of a magic act. He hasn't toured for some time, and it's been years between movie parts.

"After the upsurge of black-sploitation," Hayes said, "there just wasn't a big market for black actors. Then, too, Isaac Hayes was considered a singer. I just couldn't shake the stigma. That's why I haven't been doing anything."

He felt that getting the role in Escape From New York was a lucky break. Director John Carpenter had seen some of his work as an actor and had come to him. Hayes jumped at the opportunity.

"I was excited about the project," Hayes said. "I knew about Halloween and The Fog (which were also directed by Carpenter). The first thing I though was that I was going to do a horror movie. When I got the script, I realized that the movie was a futuristic fantasy thing, which I also liked. I said, 'I've got to be mean.' But I've played mean characters before."

Others in the movie include Lee Van Cleef, Adrienne Barbeau, Donald Pleasence, Ernest Borgnine and Kurt Russell.

"I figured I was in with some heavies," Hayes said, "So I was a little paranoid at first. But I figured that Carpenter must have faith in me; otherwise he wouldn't have selected me to be in that company of actors."

Hayes said he had to think mean to play the part.

"I said to myself, 'If I was in this situation (a captive in the prison-city) and wanted to get out, I'd be real mean.

"I didn't think mean constantly. I'd do it minutes before I'd do a scene. I didn't want to burn my energy off.

 "I was a ghetto kid and I know what it's like to try to get out of the ghetto. Sometimes you have to be mean. I remember the days when I belonged in gangs. You have to stay tough to keep everybody off your back.

"It's easy to be mean once you get into it. I felt the power."

The way Hayes explained the changing of character from Isaac Hayes to the Duke sounded like working out with weights. When he was acting, his focus was on his role. When it was over, he would wind down, cooling off.

"How do I think of myself personally? I think of Isaac Hayes as an everyday person. It's funny what happens, though, when I go out on stage. When I hit the stage, it's like Jekyll and Hyde. The audience roar will change my whole chemistry, mental attitude, everything. I'm another person. Extroverted."

Hayes was born in Covington, Tenn., which is where he lived with his grandparents until he was 7. The family then moved to Memphis.

"My grandfather died when I was 11," Hayes said. "That's when I became the man of the family. I grew up early. I had all kinds of jobs. You name it, I did it. I sold junk, rags, was a market man, laid bricks, cleaned bricks, wrecked houses, stock boy, short-order cook, dishwasher, busboy, picked cotton, chopped cotton, was a migrant worker.

"We picked cotton in grass taller than we were. I remember picking cotton when there was ice on the ground. It was so cold that we would break off every 25 yards and go and get our hands warm. I did that from the time I was 10 until I was 13.

"But we were always hustling. We needed money. I would go around to the various packing companies and help unload trucks. Pick up
$5 or $10.

"I could have taken the easy way out and robbed, burglarized," Hayes said. "Lot of my friends did. I wasn't afraid. I used to be chased by the cops all the time when I was in gangs."

Hayes' street-gang period ended shortly after a rumble in which South Siders invaded the North Siders' turf to see a music show.

"I belonged to the Red Sweater Gang," Hayes recalled. "Those were the days if a guy was caught in the wrong neighborhood, it would be all over. And we had this club on the North Side that attracted a lot of big acts."

The Red Sweater Gang knew the South Siders would be coming and waited for them outside the club. But someone had informed the police, and the rumble turned out to be a big chase.

And the Red Sweater Gang was the object of the chase.

"We had a friend who lived two doors from the club in one of those shotgun houses," said Hayes. "A shotgun house has a living room, bedroom, kitchen. Front door, back door. Straight though. When the police arrived, the Red Sweater Gang, all 15 of them, made its escape through the house.

"It was 10:30 at night and everyone was getting ready for bed. When we went running through, the girls were half-dressed and started screaming at us.

"I ran home, the police came knocking next door at the house of the friend, who was also a member of the gang.

"I knew a police car by the sound of its carburetor," Hayes said. "When I heard the car out front, I thought, 'Oh, my God.' My grandmother said, "What are the police doing at Mr. Hutt's house?'"

Hayes told his grandmother he didn't know and chanced a peek out the window.

"There was my friend going out the door trying to put on his red sweater as the police steered him to the car by the seat of his pants."

That almost cured him. What did it was when his partner was stabbed in the back.

"It almost paralyzed him. I said, 'I'm through with gangs.' And got out of it. I had enough of black eyes and busted lips."

Hayes didn't start playing piano seriously until he was out of high school. He sang in the choir and was able to borrow a saxophone in his junior year to play in band. That was the extent of his musical training.

He married in his senior year in high school.

"I had a child on the way and had to live up to my responsibilities. I got a job in a packing house killing hogs and cows. I couldn't deal with that. I couldn't sleep at night."

The packing house had a labor dispute and suddenly wages went down.

"So I quit," Hayes said. "I walked into a recording studio, auditioned as a singer and was recorded. That was in '62. The record didn't sell."

Hayes decided he was going to stick with music no matter what, but he needed a job. He was offered a one-night job as a piano player with a band that was put together at a Memphis club for New Years Eve 1962.

"I said, 'I'll take it.' After accepting the job, I realized I couldn't play piano. I was so scared.

"When I got the job, everyone was drinking, having fun. To my amazement, the rest of the band couldn't play any better than me. So I felt at ease."

"No matter what we played, it sounded good to them. The club owner thought we were great and offered us a job. I thought he had to be nuts, but we took the gig. On the job I learned more and more about the piano. I just felt it."

Hayes played with that make-up band for about a year. Memphis-based Stax Records was making inroads in rhythm and blues music at the time, and Hayes tried on several occasions - with three different bands - to get recorded. Jim Stewart, who headed Stax, turned him down on each occasion. Then it happened.

"I was in a band with Floyd Newman," Hayes recalled. "Newman was a baritone sax player and was up for a record. Since I was his keyboard man, I went into the studio with him."

The staff pianist at Stax, Booker T. Jones of Booker T & the MGs, was leaving to get back to school. Stewart was impressed with Hayes' keyboard work, and offered him a job as Booker T's replacement.

"My first session was with Otis Redding," Hayes said. "I was petrified. Otis was dynamite, however, creating on the spot. So it turned out great."

Hayes met lyricist David Porter at Stax. They had gone to rival schools as boys. At Stax they combined their talent to write many hit songs, such as B-A-B-Y and Let Me Be Good to You for Carla Thomas, I've Got to Love Somebody's Baby for Johnnie Taylor and I Take What I Want, Soul Man, Soul Sister Brown and Hold On, I'm Coming for Sam & Dave.

Hold On, I'm Coming was written as a matter of unusual circumstances, as Hayes described it:

"The Stax studios were in a converted movie theater then. The rest rooms were at the back. David Porter had gone to the rest room, and I was at the piano. Suddenly, I struck a groove, and yelled to David to get back."

Porter emerged from the rest room not quite dressed.

"Hold on, I'm coming," he called back. Then his face broke into a grin. "I've got it!" he exclaimed. "I've got it. I've got it."

Eventually, Hayes began to record as a singer. The first album was Presenting Isaac Hayes, which sold moderately well. He was still virtually unknown when the Hot Buttered Soul album, which contained just four songs, was released in May 1969. By the end of the year he had received his first gold album award.

"Hot Buttered Soul set precedents for black album sales," Hayes said. "Up until that time, blacks sold mostly singles and not albums."

Hayes started another trend when he used a "wah-wah" on a guitar for the theme from Shaft. He had come up with the idea long before he was commissioned to write the score to the movie.

"I had been experimenting with the wah-wah for a few years before Shaft. I didn't have anything very distinct that I created with it. One night I was working in the studio, and I struck this groove. It didn't fit the piece I was working on then. So I put this back for a rainy day. When I was commissioned to do Shaft, I thought about the sound and figured if I could integrate it into the rest of the music, I might be able to depict the relentlessness of the character with it. So I reached back and got it.

"After Shaft I turned down offers to score other movies because the subject matter didn't stimulate me. Shaft was a black, mean character. The first of a kind. The whole concept was different. Everything that followed was like a rip-off on that character. I didn't want to repeat myself.

"Sometimes you create your own monster when you have that kind of success. It takes its toll. I had other successful albums (at the same time) in Black Moses and Live at Tahoe, but all I heard was Shaft. The wah-wah was everywhere. Everybody was doing it."

Hayes, who thinks that black music has gone back into funk bag, the music of the early '70s, says he wants to have a couple more smash singles before he goes back on the road himself.

"Each time before I write, I pray," Hayes said. "I say, 'OK, I'm open to whatever you have to deliver through me.' Then I write. When I'm done with a piece, I give thanks for it. I feel we're like conduits for the creative forces of the universe."