The soul singer-songwriter Isaac Hayes, known for his gravelly voice, shaven head and copious jewellery, died on Sunday at his home in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 65.
Hayes was found by family members, who discovered him lying next to a treadmill in a basement room at his home. Sheriff’s deputies performed CPR until paramedics arrived. He was taken to hospital but was pronounced dead an hour later.
Hayes, a distinctive and flamboyant figure among the black rhythm and blues stars of the early 1970s, found fame later in his career as the voice of Chef, the laid-back womaniser on the cartoon series South Park.
But it was his hit song for the soundtrack of the blaxploitation movie Shaft that made and cemented his reputation. An atmospheric blend of Hayes’s lover-man vocals, breathless backing singers and a funk-fuelled wah-wah guitar arrangement, Shaft – the song and the character – became synonymous with black urban cool. It also provided Hayes with an image that stayed with him for the rest of his career.
The Theme From Shaft, released in 1971 was, Hayes later told an interviewer, “like a shot heard around the world”.
He gave a memorable performance of it at the Oscar ceremony in 1972, scooping the Academy Award for best original song. The song and the film soundtrack also won him two Grammy awards.
That success, coming before his 30th birthday, marked the end of the first stage of Hayes’s career, a journey that had seen him take a familiar route for many black performers.
But four years later Hayes was declared bankrupt following a series of financial problems at Stax Records. He lost his home, much of his personal property and forfeited the right to royalties from his past hits.
Hayes was raised in a tin shack in Covington, Tennessee, 30 miles north of Memphis, by his grandparents following the death of his mother. His father left the family home when Hayes was 18 months old.
When Hayes was six, the family moved to Memphis. His intention to become a doctor was derailed after he won a singing contest. After jobs including shining shoes on the city’s famous Beale Street and gigging in southern juke joints, Hayes was hired by Stax in 1964 as a backup pianist. He worked with Otis Redding and others before forming a songwriting partnership with David Porter. The two went on to write R&B numbers such as Soul Man and Hold On, I’m Coming, both hits for the duo Sam and Dave.
The reward was a recording contract, which led to his first album, Presenting Isaac Hayes, released in 1968. That failed to find an audience, but in 1969 came the more provocatively titled Hot Buttered Soul. Containing just four tracks, it sold more than a million copies.
After Shaft and the follow-up Black Moses, he was not to release another major seller, although he had several minor hits as the disco movement emerged. His soundtrack to the Shaft sequel included Zeke the Freak, a song that gained a new lease of life with the house music movement in the UK.
Hayes also pursued an acting career, with cameos in several movies including Escape from New York, Robin Hood: Men in Tights and the blaxploitation spoof I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.
In the 1990s Hayes reached a new generation as Chef. Two years ago, however, he left the show after an episode that he felt made fun of the Scientology movement, of which he was a member.
“There is a place in this world for satire, but there is a time when satire ends and intolerance and bigotry towards religious beliefs of others begins,” he said.
There was subsequent dispute about the origin of the statement. Hayes suffered a stroke in early 2006, and it has been reported that this was the reason he left the show.
An appearance on a TV talk show in April this year appeared to suggest that Hayes was suffering from the side-effects of a stroke.
However, he continued to lead an active life, spearheading a campaign for the Memphis Heart Clinic which was due to start on Friday.
He established the Isaac Hayes Foundation in 1993 to do philanthropic work in Africa, and was subsequently crowned king of a small community in Ghana.
A businessman who owned two restaurants and wrote a best-selling cook book, Hayes was married four times and had 12 children.