It’s a long way indeed from the performing onstage at the Academy Awards to portraying a cartoon chef, but that’s the singular journey traveled by the late Isaac Hayes in a remarkable career that included hugely successful work as a singer, songwriter, record producer and actor and a late-career role as an enormously popular cartoon voiceover artist. A significant force in popular culture from the mid-1960s until his death in 2008, Isaac Hayes was born in Covington, Tennessee on this day in 1942.
Except to those young enough to know him only as the voice of Chef on the animated TV series South Park, Isaac Hayes is most famous for his work as a recording artist in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when a string of hit albums made him one of the biggest names in soul music. Even before he’d cut a record of his own, though, Hayes had helped establish the very sound of 1960s R&B while working at Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee. As a multi-instrumentalist session musician and the co-writer of such classic hits as Sam and Dave’s "Soul Man” and “Hold On! I’m Comin” Isaac Hayes put his stamp on the brilliant output of the Stax label. And the success he achieved after moving into the spotlight as a performer in the late 1960s helped save the struggling label from ruin.
With the death of Otis Redding in 1968, the most successful artist in the label’s lineup, Stax badly needed a hit from a new source. That source would be Isaac Hayes, whose second album, Hot Buttered Soul (1969), became a hit on the strength not of any catchy, three-minute singles, but of what would become Hayes’s trademark long-form reinterpretations of hit songs like Burt Bacharach’s “Walk On By” and Jimmy Webb’s “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” which clocked in at 12:03 and 18:42, respectively, complete with long spoken monologues and orchestral arrangements. Two subsequent albums in 1970 repeated the formula of Hot Buttered Soul with great success, but it was his decision to compose the score for the 1971 movie Shaft that lifted Hayes to true stardom.
The success of that soundtrack led not only to nearly four more decades in the public eye, but to the unforgettable sight of Isaac Hayes, grandson of sharecroppers, standing shirtless in heavy chains and sunglasses as he performed the #1 pop single “Theme from ‘Shaft'” on national television the night he was awarded the Academy Award for Best Score.