Monday, August 11, 2008

Isaac Hayes: Soul Man

Growing up, I was a big fan of Sam and Dave; the energetic and soulful duo on the Memphis, Tennessee-based Stax record label. Being a kid, I had no idea at the time that Isaac Hayes was a songwriter on their hit songs.

Those were exciting times for Black music and Black radio. Black music was alive and well back then. There was the Philly sound, the Detroit sound, the West Coast sound, the Chi-Town sound, the New York sound and James Brown's funk machine from Augusta, GA. There were many regional pockets of soulful expression and innovation. There was one pocket of fertile genius that stood out for me; it was the raw soul of Stax records.

The artist roster assembled on Stax could be described with one word: country! I don't mean country as in Country & Western music. I mean country in the way Black folks affectionately label our seemingly less sophisticated brothers and sisters who embody a simple, rural sensibility for life. I mean country as in honest, hard-working folks who have a strongly African-influenced viewpoint of life's foibles and tribulations. This idea of being country doesn't only apply to Americans but to we Caribbean people as well. I remember a Jamaican brother whose nickname was simply: "Country". Whether we come from Kingston, Port of Spain or New York City, country is a term of endearment.

If you want to hear country, listen to Otis Redding's "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay". I had the 45 rpm recording of that song and when it ended I'd make it go back and play again. If you remember country then you surely remember Rufus and Carla Thomas. Wilson Pickett may have called NYC home but he was as country as they get! Booker T. and the MG's, Eddie Floyd, Johnnie Taylor, Kim Weston and The Staples Singers will remind you of the sheer beauty of country wisdom and soul.

From this wellspring of country soulfulness a new sound would emerge. That sophisticated new sound in Black music didn't come from New York or Detroit but from Memphis, Tennessee. The man who would popularize a new musical approach for Black musicians was Isaac Hayes.

The son of a share-cropping family, Isaac Hayes really picked cotton as a young boy! He was self-taught on the saxophone, flute, organ and piano. Isaac began his recording career in the early 1960s, as a session player for various acts on Stax. He later wrote a string of hit songs with partner David Porter , including "You Don't Know Like I Know", "Soul Man", "When Something is Wrong with My Baby" and "Hold On I'm Comin" for Sam and Dave.

Back then, not every Black record made it to the ears of mainstream America. Stations like WWRL, in NYC, were decidedly "Black" in content. 'RL, as we affectionately called it, had a slick young DJ named Frankie Crocker who would say: "If you don't eat chicken on Sunday, you aint got no soul!" WWRL was ours to love and cherish, like a secret clubhouse, 'RL sat on the bottom of the AM dial like "home" !

WWRL was my window to Black America. I didn't have roots in Alabama or South Carolina like most of my friends. For me, "Going down South" to visit family meant going a lot further than most! Somehow I always heard echoes of the Caribbean in the most rural Black music of America. Of course the Motown sound was hip and flashy but I was in love with the music that sounded like my closest friends who always 'went down South' every summer. Back then when we all lived 'across the train tracks' and on 'the other side of town' our music was unadulterated.

Back then, the Apollo Theater was the Mecca for Black music and it is there that I first met Isaac Hayes. My band, Natural Essence, used to rehearse in the basement of the grand old theater on 125Th st in Harlem, New York City. This historic concert hall became my second home as we would rehearse our band nearly everyday, after school.

One day our mentor; Peter Long (the Apollo's manager) asked me to come upstairs with him so that I could meet someone. Mr. Long was always teaching me about show business and how to be a band leader. He was always introducing me to somebody important. Since I was only a young teenager, it was always shocking to me how important he made me feel during these introductions. Once he had introduced me to the late great actor and playwright: Ossie Davis. That introduction led to my appearance on a television panel discussion (with my band mate Nat Adderley Jr. ) along side Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. My mom was really impressed, since she always followed actors and actresses.

This day, I followed Mr. Long up the stairs to his office where he introduced me to a man who would become one of my musical heroes. I can't recall just what Pete Long said but I do remember the awe I felt as I shook hands with Isaac Hayes. At that point in my young life I had already shaken many famous hands, in fact it seemed that I was always shaking famous hands, but this time was certainly memorable because I was surely already a fan. Mr. Long empowered me, as he always did, making me sound like one of the future stars of the next generation. Mr. Hayes responded with the warmth of an old sage, welcoming me into the fraternity of Black music. He was mellow, unpretentious and open.

I can't recall many of the details of this story but I do know that within days I would share the stage with him at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City. My friend and I (band mate Noel Pointer) were in complete fascination and awe of The Isaac Hayes Movement. His stage show and presence, his musical arrangements and his aura were all new to Black music at the time. He was the Black Moses and he led us musically across the parted sea to a new place in the music.
I can't remember anyone else having the audacity to record a fifteen minute track on a vinyl LP that only featured four songs!

Isaac Hayes taught a younger generation of musicians that it was o.k. to layer orchestral instrumentation on top of good old fashioned funk! Listen to his albums and realize that back when they were recorded, those albums were a movement unto themselves.
I am happy to say that Isaac Hayes was among the famous hands I've shaken. I am happier still, to say that he touched me deeply with his innovative approach to music. If you listen closely to the textured, layered sound of my music, you can still hear the teenager touched by a giant.