Imagine, for a moment, that you are the new second chair violinist of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra in 1974. You’re told that you’ve been hired to provide string arrangements for the new soundtrack album for a local performer who’s, despite all odds, risen out of extreme poverty to be known for his music, songwriting, and the literal gold-trimmed Cadillac he drives around town. This performer has previously won an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a Grammy for his musical work on a previous film, and some of your orchestra mates even played on his past records. This performer, already a legend for his night owl tendencies, often doesn’t start studio sessions until 2 in the morning. But you’re there, tired, because you have the chance to live on in infamy: your violin can be on the new Isaac Hayes record.
And then, there he is. He strolls in, dripping in excellence. It’s at this point you realize: There is no sheet music for what Hayes expects you to play. Going back to his earliest days in the Stax studio, he and the Stax songwriters and musicians never write anything down. They call it “Head Arrangements,” and they all work like Otis Redding used to: walking up to horn players in the studio and humming lines into their ears for them to play. You play what Hayes wants you to play, and the album comes together.
Somehow, Isaac Hayes scores an entire film, and makes a soundtrack for that film, with nothing more than the music batting around his head.
The story of Isaac Hayes, is, above all else, a testament to the power of betting on yourself. Hayes was born in a shack in Covington, Tennessee, in 1942, and by the age of two had lost his mother (who passed away) and his father (who abandoned Isaac and his sister), and was left to be raised by his sharecropper grandparents. Hayes found music in church, and eventually taught himself a number of instruments, while discovering the buttery baritone that would be the signature of his music. He was in-and-out of high school, quitting at various times to take jobs to support his grandparents and, later, to support his own family when he became a father as a teenager.
Pushed to finish his degree, he finally graduated at 21 from Manassas High School, considered Memphis’ “Jazz High School” for the music programs that launched a number of later Stax and Hi Records contributors. He was offered a number of musical scholarships at colleges, but because of the need to support his family, he decided he could make more money faster if he took a day job at a meat packing plant, and started performing in nightclubs around Memphis.
His first break came shortly thereafter in 1963, when he was hanging around the recently opened Stax studio compound on E. McLemore Ave., trying to get in wherever he could as a songwriter or session musician. Booker T. Jones, of Booker T. and the M.G.’s, had recently started school at the University of Indiana, and wasn’t around when the M.G.’s had ideas they wanted to lay down. They drafted Hayes to fill in when Jones was out of town after Hayes bluffed and said he knew how to play the organ. He knew the key of C and a couple chords, but he knew enough to play like Jones and bluff his way through the rest.
The break that changed the arc of Isaac Hayes’ life came the next year, in 1964, when Atlantic sent a new singing duo they signed from Florida to Memphis to get a little bit of that Memphis magic. When Sam & Dave showed up at Stax, the M.G.’s were too busy to write with them, touring and writing with basically every other act on the label. So, Sam & Dave were passed to the only duo who wanted to work with them: Hayes and his new songwriting partner, a local grocery clerk and friend, David Porter, neither of whom had shepherded an artist from idea to record before.
It was with Porter that Hayes had his earliest songwriting success, writing every significant Sam & Dave single, and eventually being entrusted as A&R men and record producers for a wide swath of Stax’s roster. The hits came easy and often for the duo in the mid-’60s. “Hold On, I’m Comin’” was written by Hayes and Porter when Porter was on the toilet and Hayes was trying to duck out to meet a romantic interest. “Hold on man, I’m comin’,” Porter shouted at Hayes. They broke their work up between Porter handling a lot of the vocal arranging, and Hayes managing the instrumentation, though their roles were fluid and malleable, like the best creative partnerships are. Their successes in this period alone were enough to ensure both men’s places in the pantheon of American music.
In 1967, basically to appease their songwriting superstar, Stax let Hayes record his solo debut, Presenting Isaac Hayes, which they put out through Atlantic Records and their Enterprise imprint. Hayes had never made music on his own like that before but, again, he bet on himself; even though the album ended up a jazzy, spacy experimentation that was, more or less, a complete commercial disaster, he had tried it. It seemed like Hayes’ solo career would be on ice, as he didn’t have the chart success needed to get another shot.
But then, in 1969, Stax found itself in uncharted territory: Its deal with Atlantic had fallen through, and Stax was an independent label without distribution. In need of product to put in the marketplace, Stax plotted the Soul Explosion, a mission to release 28 (all but one were released) LPs simultaneously. Included in that crush were previous Classics releases Ollie and the Nightingales (VMP Classics #3), and Darrell Banks’ Here to Stay (VMP Classics #13), and the second LP from Hayes, the groundbreaking Hot Buttered Soul. The album found him stretching the bounds of soul and R&B to mammoth lengths, essentially inventing Prog&B in the process. His complete creative control over his artistry — which he demanded in exchange for cranking out many, many songs for other artists making albums during the Soul Explosion — led to Hayes hitting the charts and becoming a star.
But his fame following Hot Buttered Soul and its follow up records, 1970’s The Isaac Hayes Movement and …To Be Continued, would pale in comparison to what came next: Hollywood.
“In mid-1973, Hayes was on top of the world. He had creative control over his music, a favorable royalty rate, was able to tour the world for big bucks, and had more fancy cars than he could drive. His grandma was well taken care of. But he still had an itch he wanted to scratch: He wanted to act.”
In 1970, a filmmaker and writer named Melvin Van Peebles directed a big budget film called Watermelon Man, in which a white insurance agent with antipathy toward the struggle of Black Americans wakes up one day to find out he’s suddenly Black. It was a movie that forced white Americans to dissect their relationship with institutional racism, and underscored how passive acceptance of the racism of their neighbors meant their complicity in it as well. It was ahead of its time.
Following the success of Watermelon Man, Columbia Pictures tried to lock down Van Peebles in a three-film contract, but low-balled him substantially, since he said during negotiations he was interested in making “Black movies.” Van Peebles passed on the contract, and when asked how he thought he’d be able to make a Black film when Hollywood had tried and failed, Van Peebles responded, “Hollywood has never made a Black film.” He resolved to spend 1971 doing just that. It resulted in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, a film written, directed, produced, scored, and marketed by Van Peebles himself on a shoestring budget. Sweetback became a runaway hit, grossing $10 million ($60 million in today’s dollars). In one fell swoop, Van Peebles invented indie filmmaking and an entire genre of film: Blaxploitation, films of pulpy crime dramas that told different stories of the Black experience than were usually presented on film.
The soundtrack for Sweetback became a surprise hit as well, thanks to Van Peebles partnering with Stax Records for its vinyl release. The label had a then-revolutionary idea to put racks of Sweetback vinyl in the lobby of theaters showing the film, which led to big sales for the album. The album could sell the movie, the movie could sell the album — an idea so obvious today that entire franchises are built around it. Around the time the label was seeing big sales on that album, and as Sweetback was packing out movie houses, Hayes started working on his superstar-making moment: the Shaft soundtrack.
Hayes had been offered the gig by producers of the film, which spiritually was in line with Sweetback, but created separately by director/famed Black photographer Gordon Parks. John Shaft’s violent taking back of Harlem from the Mob would become an even bigger hit than Sweetback, owing largely to its distribution by the MGM movie arm. But the soundtrack would vault it even further into the national consciousness; it’s undeniable at this point that more people have heard Hayes’ hook-filled title track than have seen the film.
Hayes had taken the soundtrack and scoring work — which he had never done before — on the guarantee that he would be considered for the lead role in the film, despite never having acted. He wasn’t, but he went to work learning how to compose for film by watching raw footage from the set, and writing directly for scenes as they unfolded. He took his Stax Studios-learned “Head Arrangements” and composed string parts and had the Bar-Kays record as the rhythm section. He cut his vocals in one day, and blew the score out into a double LP. It would become the first double LP in the R&B genre, and would go on to be an absolute cultural monolith: It was on the charts for 60 straight weeks, peaking at No. 1, and made him the first Black person to win an Oscar for a technical category, as he picked up half an EGOT off Shaft’s title track alone.
It also meant that Hayes became a household name, and inarguably, the biggest artist in the history of Stax records. He was essentially bankrolling everything else on the label, as the profits from Isaac Hayes LPs outstripped anything else happening on the label in 1971. He renegotiated his contract, and every subsequent release — 1971’s Black Moses and 1973’s Joy, especially — were major events.
In mid-1973, Hayes was on top of the world. He had creative control over his music, a favorable royalty rate, was able to tour the world for big bucks, and had more fancy cars than he could drive. His grandma was well taken care of. But he still had an itch he wanted to scratch: He wanted to act. He never got the opportunity to with Shaft — though he appeared in a cameo role — and he felt like he would prove to be great at it, just like he had with organ playing, songwriting, and film scoring.
He’d get his chance in late 1973 and 1974. Twice, in fact.
“[‘Tough Guys’ is] one of Hayes’ finest achievements in mood music; it drips with opulence 47 years after its release, and its horns still sound like a personal marching band singing your praises when you listen to it. That lushness has made it a go-to sample for multiple generations of rap and R&B producers.”
In the two years since Sweetback and Shaft made Blaxploitation into a commercial powerhouse, the marketplace was flooded with movies of the genre, all of wildly divergent quality. Blaxploitation also made the jump to Europe, where it was applied to Italian and French films starring Black actors. The films were grimy, cheap to make, and often told of insane heists, beautiful women, and violent men.
Sometime in 1973, the producer Dino De Laurentiis — who’d go on to produce more than 500 films, ranging from Conan the Barbarian to Blue Velvet — bankrolled the production of Three Tough Guys, a movie that sounds like a joke set up, since it concerns a priest, a former cop, and a bank robber walking into a Chicago bar trying to track down a stolen $1 million. For the role of Lee, the disgraced former cop, De Laurentiis hit upon the idea of hiring a hot musician, since he could probably get him to make a soundtrack album, which in turn could help sell the movie. He, of course, hired Isaac Hayes.
It turns out Hayes was right about his acting chops: In Three Tough Guys — which is insanely expensive to track down on DVD, since films from 1974 Italy don’t get reissued often — Hayes is obviously raw, but he has a magnetism that can’t be taught. He has “I’d watch him in anything” energy from the jump.
For the soundtrack, confusingly just titled Tough Guys, Hayes didn’t have the backing of MGM to fly out to L.A. to work with their orchestra. Instead, he kept close to home, working with the group that laid down strings when he needed them on his own LPs: The Memphis Symphony Orchestra. Tough Guys, unlike Shaft, features virtually no singing from Hayes; with the exception of him saying a few lines on “Title Theme ‘Three Tough Guys,’” the only sounds you hear are Hayes’ swelling orchestration and the funky rhythmic backing of his band, The Movement.
But that doesn’t detract from what the soundtrack to Tough Guys ultimately is: a daring, widescreen, progressive funk album from one of the genre’s finest craftsmen. Because Hayes was Black, and rooted in R&B radio, he didn’t get lumped in with the prog-rock groups then making waves on the rock charts, but he should have been. He was making music as expansive and expressive as Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and Yes; he was just doing it in a different context.
Tough Guys opens with the aforementioned title theme, a driving, ever-climbing track built on big horn blasts and swelling stringed swoops — the kind of cinematic music to which you can imagine guys with guns posing in a street, which is exactly what it was used for. It would gain later resonance when a snippet of the track was played in Kill Bill 2, during the confrontation between the Bride and her trainer Pai Mei. That wasn’t the only song from Tough Guys to end up in the Kill Bill franchise. “Run Fay Run,” a climactic, percussive powerhouse on the album and in Three Tough Guys, where it soundtracks a pivotal chase scene, is on the official Kill Bill soundtrack album, and was featured during the O-Ren Ishii anime sequence of the film.
But for long-range, unforeseen cultural impact, the most impactful song on Tough Guys is “Hung Up On My Baby,” a lush, luxuriant guitar-led ballad that sounds like driving a gold-detailed car feels. It’s one of Hayes’ finest achievements in mood music; it drips with opulence 47 years after its release, and its horns still sound like a personal marching band singing your praises when you listen to it. That lushness has made it a go-to sample for multiple generations of rap and R&B producers, as samples of the song have ended up on tracks by Wyclef, Kodak Black, Destiny’s Child, Ini Kamoze (his huge hit “Here Comes the Hotstepper”), and, most famously, Geto Boys’ defining single, “Mind Playing Tricks On Me,” which samples the Tough Guys original extensively.
In fact, most of Tough Guys’ impact can probably be measured in samples, as both the movie and the album were not the commercial juggernauts that Stax needed them to be. The trumpet workout character theme “Joe Bell” would find new life on OutKast’s “Crumblin’ Erb.” The sultry and hilarious “Buns O’ Plenty” would end up in Boyz II Men and KRS-One songs, and “The End Theme” would end up in Basement Jaxx and Wale songs, proving that Isaac Hayes samples really do have the range.
Tough Guys sold a little over 160,000 copies, which paled in comparison to Hayes’ previous records. Truck Turner, his followup album did a little worse, even if the movie was better, and the LP was another 2LP jam session like Shaft. But in fairness to Hayes, Stax had run into hard times, and was having trouble getting its records into stores reliably, even with their biggest star. A year after Tough Guys, Stax would close, and Hayes would jump to ABC Records and run his own Hot Buttered Soul record label. He’d also be a regular, working actor, picking up gigs in recurring roles on The Rockford Files and appearing in movies like Escape from New York, Robin Hood: Men In Tights, and Flipper.
There’s some irony in the fact that there’s an entire generation of people who know Isaac Hayes not as a boundary-breaking musician, or a songwriting legend, or a singularly voiced singer, but as Chef from South Park. Hayes spent his whole career betting on himself, and taking on new challenges he might not have been “qualified” for, but the thing that Generation Z will know him for might actually be the one thing he was all along: a boisterous genius who could find a song to fit every mood.