Sunday, August 10, 2008

RIP Isaac Hayes

Ugh. First Bernie Mac, and now this? What the fuck?

I'd be lying if I said I didn't suspect, with some chagrin, that Hayes will be remembered primarily for the latter phase of his career, and particularly as the epic soul artist who brought us the music from Shaft.

Not that I don't love that music -- even if it did set the template for a lot of cheesy porn soundtracks, and even if it did lay the groundwork for later generations of white comedians who could then counter-exploit the aesthetics of blaxploitation by using its definitive music to make fun of their own lack of cool (everyone from Will Ferrell to Conan O'Brien has toyed with this tiresome trope in some form or other). Obviously that stuff wasn't Hayes' fault.

But it does threaten to overshadow what for me is the mother lode of Hayes' output -- the series of gorgeous tunes he penned (mostly with David Porter, and many for Sam & Dave) for the Stax record label in the 60s. You know the hits, of course -- "Soul Man," "Hold On! I'm Comin'" (with its hilarious provenance -- perhaps one of the more entertaining examples of creative bricolage), "When Something is Wrong With My Baby," "I Thank You," "Wrap it Up" (actually, that last one was a B-side). But digging deeper into the catalog is also rewarding (see below).

Unlike a lot of the other music that ends up in constant rotation / Clear Channel / oldies purgatory, much of this stuff defies exhaustion. These recordings are like little perfectly-constructed perpetual motion machines: they don't wear out. They also demonstrate that just because a piece of music appears simple, logical, and apposite in retrospect -- the sort of thing that makes you exclaim "of course!" upon hearing it -- it does not follow that anybody could have written it. (In some ways, I've been trying to pen something as elegant, true, and basic as "Soul Man" for my entire career, and I haven't even come close.)

Two of my very favorite Hayes/Porter tunes were recorded by a short-lived girl group called the Charmels: "I'll Gladly Take You Back" and "As Long As I've Got You." Fittingly, the swagger of the Sam & Dave tracks is more or less missing from these sides -- and though I love dumb musical bravado as much as the next fan, I find the melancholy that replaces it here truly moving (no doubt the effect is heightened by wonderful vocal performances / horn arrangements).

And of course that melancholy is particularly fitting at this moment.

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