History Maker of the Week: Oscar-winning Composer Isaac Hayes

During Black History Month, Library News & Announcements is featuring one history maker per week from the HistoryMakers Digital Archive to coincide with the Office of African-American Affairs’ Black Themed Friday events at the Luther Porter Jackson Black Cultural Center.

On February 8, from 1:30 to 3:30, the LPJ Center features Oscar and Grammy-winning composer, singer, and musician Isaac Hayes (1942–2008). View the complete HistoryMakers interview!

Born in rural Covington, Tennessee, Hayes was delivered by midwife in a house with a tin roof. He never knew his mother who was institutionalized for erratic behavior and who died when he was one. His father left home after his mother died, and Hayes and his sister were raised in north Memphis by his mother’s parents, sharecroppers Willie and Rushia Wade. His grandmother read the Bible to him, and stories out of medieval romance and The Arabian Nights. He took an early Interest in his uncle’s school books and started reading before he went to school. His grandmother played piano, his grandfather sang, and Hayes sang at school, “at devotion in the morning before class started.”

When his grandfather died in 1953, eleven-year-old Isaac became a bread-winner. Among his many other jobs, Hayes delivered groceries, cleaned bricks “for like a penny a brick,” chopped cotton, picked peaches.

Reaching puberty, Isaac became self-conscious about his appearance, noticing, “‘Hey, I got holes in my shoes. I got patches in my pants.’ I was so intimidated, I dropped out of school.” A guidance counselor took an interest in the promising student and loaned him her husband’s coats and shoes that Isaac made fit by stuffing newspaper in the toe. “I looked like a scarecrow,” he said, but he stayed in school.

As a child, Hayes first heard rhythm and blues on Nat Williams’ Sepia Swing Club radio show. He took music class in junior high, played in the band, and in high school won a talent contest, becoming a school heart-throb with his rendition of the song “Looking Back” (originally sung by Nat King Cole). He learned about jazz from Lucious Coleman, brother of jazz saxophonist George Coleman, and formed a group, The Missiles, that played at proms. After high school, he was in a lot of different groups, singing gospel, blues, and doo-wop for food and gas money until he met baritone sax player Floyd Newman who got Hayes a job as a staff musician with Stax Records. There he teamed with David Porter to write songs, including the classic “Soul Man.”

In the interview, Hayes tells how the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis “messed me up a little bit, big time messed me up, really. I joined with a barber in North Memphis named Warren Lewis. We formed a group called the Black Knights. And we started challenging the administration in this city. We challenged them about police brutality, unequal employment, unequal housing.” In the same year 1968, Hayes released his album Hot Buttered Soul that went gold, then platinum, “breaking the rules [with] the rapping that I did, talking on top … I had no idea what I was doing. I was doing something that felt good to me.” A security man, Dino Woodard, told Hayes, “You’re like leadin’ the People … You Black Moses.” Hayes thought the label was sacrilegious and resisted using it at first, but it caught on and he came to embrace it.

He also tells about the first generation of his family to be enslaved in Virginia. Descendants were later taken into Tennessee. His grandmother, born in 1892, told him stories passed down from slavery times. He visited Cape Coast and Elimina Castles in Ghana “where the slave dungeons were, where our people were warehoused sometimes for three to four months before shipping to the Middle Passage … it was like I heard my ancestors voices saying, ‘We’re back home through you.'”

In 1971 Hayes was nominated for two Oscars—for Best Musical Score and Best Song in Gordon Parks’ Shaft. “There was a lot of controversy because Hollywood old guard tried to keep me from being nominated,” Hayes said. He won for Best Song, and was only the third African American to win an Oscar. “And I had the pleasure of taking my grandmother as my date that night of the Oscars. I had the opportunity to thank her in front of millions of people around the world. That was my blessing.”

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