Calling from his cell phone, the singer-songwriter walks around a health food store in Memphis, his hometown. His days as a consistent hit maker may be long gone, but the pop-soul legend, who headlines Artscape tomorrow night, is still a busy man. "Busier than ever," he says.
"I tour quite a bit still, especially during the summer," says Hayes, 61. "Man, there's a lot of things going on right now."
He's one of the few soul survivors still signed to a major label (Virgin Records), and he's working on a new album. (No release date has been set.) An astute businessman, Hayes has had his Memphis restaurant-venue, Isaac Hayes Music-Food-Passion, up and running for 13 years; another one is in Chicago. If you weren't around during his "Black Moses" phase in the 1970s - when "Theme From Shaft," "Walk On By" and "Joy Pt. 1" kept him on the radio day in and day out, and his image (bald head, no shirt and heavy gold chains) made him a sex symbol - then you probably know Hayes as Chef, the witty cook on the popular adult cartoon South Park.
In 1998, he scored a surprise international hit with "Chocolate Salty Balls (P.S. I Love You)," a hilariously lascivious number from the platinum Chef Aid: The South Park Album. Hayes - whose recipe for chocolate salty balls can be found on page 201 in his best-selling cookbook, Cooking With Heart & Soul: Making Music in the Kitchen With Family and Friends - has voiced the Chef role for eight seasons now.
"When they first approached me with that, I thought it was a joke," Hayes says, laughing. "A cartoon? I was skeptical about it at first. But when I read the script, it was so funny. The writers are some crazy white boys, man."
Before Hayes picked up an Oscar for Shaft in 1972 and before he scored six gold albums as a solo act, the man born to a sharecropping family in Covington, Tenn., on Aug. 20, 1942, helped build the Stax sound in the 1960s. "Soul Man," "When Something is Wrong With My Baby," "Ain't That Loving You," "The Sweeter He Is," "B-A-B-Y" - the hits he wrote with partner David Porter practically define the genre. As a session player, Hayes' churchy, tasteful touch on the keyboards buoyed numerous productions.
This summer, Memphis celebrates the 50th anniversary of the birth of rock 'n' roll, marked by a 1954 recording date Elvis Presley did at Sun studios. The significance of Stax is also being recognized in the city's festivities. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music, a $20 million redevelopment project, opened in May 2003. One of the main attractions is a re-creation of Studio A, the famed room where such iconic performers as Otis Redding, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Johnnie Taylor and the Staple Singers laid down searing soul tracks.
"It should have been done a long time ago," Hayes says of the museum. "In fact, the studio never should have been torn down in the first place. They redid it almost just like it was. When I went in there the first time, it was like a walk down memory lane. You know, so much music was born in Memphis. Had it not been for Memphis, we wouldn't be listening to the music we listen to all over the world," he says. "A lot of people recorded and sang and wrote because of Stax and what that sound contributed."
In 1969, with the release of the seminal Hot Buttered Soul LP, Hayes concocted a different approach: a lush, symphonic, throbbing sound that paved the way for Barry White and disco. He had a penchant for taking pop tunes - "The Look of Love," "Never Can Say Goodbye," "(They Long to Be) Close to You," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" - and slathering them with syncopated strings, touches of psychedelic guitars and ebbing horns.
Underneath the rich orchestration, the swaggering, airtight rhythms anchored it all. Nobody could lock a groove quite like Black Moses. Like James Brown and Roy Ayers, Hayes is a favorite among hip-hop and contemporary R&B producers who build new tracks on old samples. Mary J. Blige, Faith Evans, P. Diddy, LL Cool J and many others have jacked his catalog.
"I'm kinda flattered by the sampling," the performer says. "But I like to see live music being played, though. I fight for music education and literacy through my foundation [The Isaac Hayes Foundation]."
Back in the day, Hayes used to tour with massive orchestras - sometimes more than 40 pieces on stage. But not these days. The father of 11, ages 16 to 42, and grandfather of 16 has scaled it down quite a bit.
"We re-create those same sounds electronically now," Hayes says. "You close your eyes, man, and don't know the difference. The soul's still there, anyway."
Isaac Hayes performs at Artscape, Mount Royal Cultural Area on The Sun/LIVE! stage, tomorrow at 7 p.m. Show is free and open to the public.