If he'd never done anything other than record "Theme from Shaft," Isaac Hayes would probably still be an icon. By the time his shaven head, omnipresent shades, copious gold chains and cool, unsmiling visage made him one of the most identifiable public figures of the 1970s, Hayes was already a seminal force in American rhythm & blues. And over the course of an almost-40-year career, the multitalented singer/composer/musician/arranger/producer - a 2002 inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame - has built a distinctive, adventurous body of work (showcased on Hip-O/MCA's Isaac Hayes: The Ultimate Collection CD) whose innovations have influenced several generations of r&b artists.
The Covington, Tennessee-born Hayes made his public singing debut in church at the age of five, and subsequently taught himself to play piano, organ and saxophone. By 1964, he was playing sax with Memphis combo the Mar-Keys, which led to his association with the now-legendary Stax-Volt label, where he was hired to play on several Otis Redding sessions and was eventually tapped to play keyboards in the label's house band. He soon established a productive songwriting partnership with David Porter, with whom he penned classic hits for such Stax stars as Sam and Dave ("Soul Man," "Hold On, I'm Comin'," "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby"), Carla Thomas ("B-A-B-Y") and Johnnie Taylor ("I Had a Dream").
He began recording albums of his own with 1967's Presenting Isaac Hayes, whose laid-back, jazzy feel gave only a hint of what was to come. 1969's Hot Buttered Soul marked both a musical and commercial breakthrough, with four extended tracks that set Hayes' husky baritone against sensual grooves and lush orchestral arrangements, and extended spoken-word passages that presaged rap by over a decade.
Hayes continued to stake out new musical territory on such early-'70s albums as The Isaac Hayes Movement and To Be Continued. But it was his score for Gordon Parks's 1971 hit film Shaft that made him an international superstar. Hayes's musical score and the chart-topping anthem "Theme From Shaft" earned both Grammys and Academy Awards, making him the first African-American composer to win an Oscar for Best Score. Hayes continued his '70s hot streak with such albums as Black Moses, Joy, Chocolate Chip and Groove-a-thon (the latter is slated for imminent reissue by Fantasy Records).
By the 1980s, Hayes was concentrating largely on the successful acting career he'd begun building in the mid-'70s. But he scored a Top 10 r&b hit with 1986's anti-drug "Ike's Rap," and made an acclaimed return to recording in 1995 with a pair of simultaneously released companion albums, the vocal Branded and instrumental Raw and Refined, which underlined his spiritual connections to hip-hop. By that time, Hayes, under the official name Nene Katey Ocansey I, had been appointed an honorary king by the royal family of the African nation of Ghana.
More recently, Hayes has won new fans via his role as wisdom-dispensing ladies' man Chef in the cult cartoon hit South Park, and put his mellifluous pipes to further use in a successful stint as morning DJ on New York's KISS-FM. He recorded an updated version of his Shaft theme for director John Singleton's 2000 update of the action hero, and even published a book, Cooking with Heart and Soul, which combines recipes with personal anecdotes and philosophical reflections.
"You must remember your roots," Hayes recently commented. "And always cherish and embrace the teachings of those that are older than you. And remember to be as flexible as you possibly can. A willow bends in the wind, the one that resists breaks. You have to store enough so when the hard times come, you can survive it. You got to constantly recreate yourself. You got to be loose and flexible to do so. You have to continue to expand."