A major figure in American soul music, Isaac Hayes also enjoyed a long and memorable career as an actor and film composer. His score for the motion picture Shaft made him the first African-American to win an Academy Award for music, and was one of the first examples of a pop-based film score that developed a life of its own in the marketplace.
Isaac Hayes was born in Covington, TN, on August 20, 1942. Born to a family of sharecroppers, Hayes was raised by his grandparents, and developed an interest in music early in life, joining the church choir at the age of five. By the time he was a teenager, Hayes had also learned how to play piano, organ, and saxophone, but he was forced to drop out of school after the family had moved to Memphis when his grandfather developed a disability. Hayes began performing with a variety of local R&B groups in Memphis, including the Teen Tones, Sir Calvin and His Swinging Cats, and Sir Isaac and the Doo-Dads, as well as working a variety of day jobs. In time, Hayes began attending night school, and received his high-school diploma at the age of 21.
In 1962, Hayes cut his first record for a local label, and in 1964 he'd worked his way up to playing keyboards with the house band at Stax Records, just then establishing themselves as one of the South's premier soul music labels. At Stax, Hayes began writing songs with David Porter, and together they penned a long string of hits for Sam & Dave, including "Soul Man," "Hold On, I'm Coming," and "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby," as well as hits for Johnnie Taylor and Carla Thomas. Having established himself as a songwriter, Hayes began to step into the spotlight as a recording artist in 1967 with his first solo album, Presenting Isaac Hayes. While the album was reasonably well received, it was Hayes' second effort, Hot Buttered Soul, that established him as a unique talent in soul music, with its lush, lengthy, and languidly funky interpretations of such songs as "Walk on By" and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" (the latter clocking in at an epic 18 minutes).
Several more successful albums followed, and in 1970, Hayes was approached to write his first film score by, of all people, Norman Mailer; Mailer went through a brief fling as an experimental filmmaker, and he hired Hayes to provide music for his third cinéma vérité feature, Maidstone.
In 1971, Hayes would write his second film score, which would make a much greater impact. Shaft, directed by famed photojournalist Gordon Parks, was a gritty tale of a tough private eye squaring off against both the cops and the mob in New York City, but with a primarily African-American cast, an unusual thing in 1971, and Hayes' score, which blended streetwise grooves with a brassy orchestral backing, became an instant sensation. Shaft's soundtrack album, as well as the single "Theme From Shaft," were major chart successes, and Hayes won an Academy Award for Best Musical Score.
While Hayes was certainly proud of his achievements, at one point he'd shown an interest in playing the lead in Shaft as well as writing the music, and after displaying an estimable amount of screen charisma in several concert films (including Wattstax and Save the Children), he was cast alongside Fred Williamson and Lino Ventura in the Italian blaxploitation-style drama Uomini Duri (released in America as Three Tough Guys); Hayes also wrote music for the film. Later that same year, Hayes scored a solo starring role in Truck Turner, but just as his acting career began taking hold, the bottom began to fall out of the blaxploitation market, and Hayes went back to making music, not scoring another film role until Escape From New York in 1981.
In the mid-'80s, Hayes returned to acting, and appeared in no fewer than 25 theatrical and television features between 1986 and 1996; most were low-budget genre fare, but several more notable films appeared on his resumé, including the blaxploitation parody/tribute I'm Gonna Git You Sucka!, Mel Brooks' Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Mario Van Peebles' African-American Western Posse, and Once Upon a Time...When We Were Colored, a evocative look at life in a small Southern town in the 1940s.
Hayes' acting career got an unexpected boost in 1997, when he was asked to provide the voice of Chef on the animated television series South Park. Originally intended to appear in one episode, Chef went over so well that he became a regular character on the series, and remained with the show for nine years. Hayes also continued to land a number of higher profile film roles in films like Reindeer Games, the 2000 remake of Shaft, and the independent venture Hustle & Flow, for which he was nominated for a Screen Actors' Guild Award. When not busy with acting projects, Hayes continued to play concerts and record new material; he was also a literacy activist, a supporter of children's charities around the world, and operated a pair of successful restaurants in Chicago and Memphis. Hayes died on August 10, 2008.