ISAAC HAYES 1942-2008
Posted on 8/14/2008at 4:06 AM
We have lost yet another icon. It seems as if they're going regularly now. I've been told that as we get older, it just happens - friends pass away. But dealing with it surely never gets easier, right?
This past weekend, we were hit with a double shot with the losses of both Bernie Mac and "Black Moses", Isaac Hayes. Sadly, I never had an opportunity to either meet or watch Bernie Mac live, but I sincerely admired his comedic gifts. I know that Bernie Mac was not only naturally funny, but he was a very well-studied comedian as well. He studied all the greats from Mort Sahl and Jack E. Leonard to Dick Gregory and his Chicago homeboy, Robin Harris. I loved listening to him. I've always felt that only Bernie, Cedric the Entertainer, Michael Colyar, and Chris Rock are the only modern African-American comedians who actually use wit and cleverness in their humor. Not just plain, run-of-the-mill indecorousness. Bernie, Cedric, Michael, and Rock actually understood the Richard Pryor, George Carlin (RIP), Lenny Bruce theory - it's ok to curse as long as your saying something. I mean, really saying something. RIP, Brother Mac. We'll miss you.....
As for Isaac Hayes? What can be said? A preeminent and exalted voice silenced. Another genius who represented a certain type of musician who was simultaneously raw and smooth. Spontaneous, yet well studied. The man played piano, saxophone, sang, composed, and arranged. He was the total package. You needed some charts written for a big band? He could do that. You needed a background singer? He could do that. You needed an alto sax solo over a blues? He could do that. You needed a lead singer? Well, we KNOW he could do that!
I was very fortunate to have spent one very memorable evening with Mr. Hayes. I'd like to share it with you. It's a great story.
In the mid and late 90's, the powerhouse management/booking team of Columbia Arts Management, Inc. (better known in the business as "CAMI"), used to put on an annual concert called "Blues, Roots, Honks and Moans". It was a rather exciting presentation always featuring a jazz act, a gospel act, and an R&B or Blues act. The TOTAL scope of black music. I was very fortunate to have been a part of these concerts a number of times. In February of 1999 at Powell Symphony Hall in St. Louis, my quartet with Tim Warfield, Rodney Green, and a very young Robert Glasper (subbing for whoever my regular pianist was at that time. I really don't remember. It was a transitional period!) was the featured jazz group. Twinkie Clark and the Clark Sisters were the featured gospel act, and we also learned that Cyrus Chestnut was going to be a part of the gig, but we didn't know in what capacity. Solo piano, maybe? That would be awesome hearing Cyrus play solo. We couldn't wait to hear that. But we were VERY excited to learn that none other than the great Isaac Hayes was going to be the star of the show. I'd never seen him live. I'd only listened to my mother's great stories about Isaac Hayes's performances in the early 70's.
About two weeks before the gig, someone from CAMI calls and says, "Mr. Hayes would like to know if it would be ok if he used your band as his backup band with Cyrus playing piano?" I said, "Hell, yeah, he can use my band!!!! Are you kidding??? I'd be honored!!!" Honored, I was. All I needed from Mr. Hayes was a song list, so I could teach my guys whatever songs he wanted to perform on the show. I was so excited. I was going to get to play "Theme from 'SHAFT'", "I Stand Accused", "Do Your Thing", "Chocolate Chip", "Look of Love", "Soulsville", "Walk on By", aw, man.....all that stuff! I guess I was going to have to hire a guitar player, too. Can't play "Shaft" with no wah-wah guitar, right?
After a few days, there was no song list from CAMI. An entire week went by, and still, no song list. I'm starting to get a little nervous. After a few frantic calls to the CAMI office, they said, "Oh, Mr. Hayes says don't worry about it. You guys will rehearse at the soundcheck the day of the show..."
That's pretty dangerous. I don't want to play behind the great Isaac Hayes and have it be shoddy. I want it tight! This man must have supreme confidence or some real crystal clear charts! Hopefully, both! Me and all the guys in the band fly to St. Louis on the morning of the show, and I still don't have a CLUE as to what Mr. Hayes is going to sing.
Around 4pm, Isaac Hayes arrives at soundcheck. I shake his hand and tell him how honored I am to get to play behind him. He says, "Oh, yeah. This is gonna be a lot of fun." I ask him, "Do you have any charts you want us to look over?" He says, "No, I didn't bring any music. I figured we'd just call some standard jazz tunes." I can't imagine the look that came over my face. I guess it was a combination of pleasant surprise and impending doom. Like someone saying, "You've just won a billion dollars.....but you'll die if you touch it!" You see, I thought it was awesome that Isaac Hayes wanted to do a straight jazz gig. How often had he done THAT in his career? Just singing old standards that all jazz fans know - "The Shadow Of Your Smile", "Misty", "Save Your Love For Me", etc, etc. But would the AUDIENCE be cool with that? I mean, them brothers and sisters in St. Louis are not coming 4,000 strong to hear Ike sing no "Misty"!! We worked out a set list consisting of the songs I just mentioned, and a few more standards like "Night and Day", and a few blues numbers. Musically, I knew it would be happening, but, boy, was I nervous about the audience reaction.
Powell Symphony Hall was packed to capacity. My band went out first (we played a very good set), Twinkie Clark went on second (she always brings the house down), and now ladies and gentlemen, the star of the show, the composer of "Shaft", "Do Your Thing", "Soul Man" and many other great soul classics, the one, the only, "Black Moses"..........ISAAC HAYES!! With that, my band (with Cyrus taking over on piano) went into a real funky blues thing. The audience was going N-U-T-S!! They were screaming like mad! Of course, I'm thinking "They wanna hear "Shaft", they wanna hear "Shaft", they wanna hear "Shaft"...." As we went into the first tune, the audience was just so happy to hear his voice, they didn't care what he was singing. Now, by the time we get to, say, the third tune, I could feel the audience kind of collectively saying, "....Hey, uh, are they going to play any of the hits??"
One after another, Isaac Hayes sang jazz standards.....and it WORKED! The people loved it! We didn't need any wah-wah guitars, no chain suits, no smoke machines, no high-pitched female voices hollering "SHUT YO' MOUTH", just some musicians who know what the heck they're doing, and a great leader to follow. That leader was Isaac Hayes. He reaffirmed to us the power of great musicianship and showmanship - no matter what genre.
I had the pleasure of running into Mr. Hayes a number of times after that concert, and he always made it a point to tell me how much fun he had that night in St. Louis. Sadly, I never got to work with him again, but I can say that the one time that I did, it was truly a night to remember.
Thank you, Mr. Hayes. You will be missed.