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
"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
"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."