August 11, 2008
Isaac Hayes died on Sunday, and that burns quite a bit.
He may not boast the most direct link to current NBA goings-on, but in a slowed-down offseason with next to nothing actually "goings-on" in the Western Hemisphere, it might be worth your time to take in a solid anecdote about Hayes' role in nearly saving ABA basketball in Memphis, Tennessee.
You see, back in the mid-1970s, ABA hoops in Memphis was dying a slow death. The Memphis Pros (the only sports franchise I've ever bought a t-shirt, jersey, hat, or hoodie of; in this case, it's a t-shirt featuring this logo) had become the Memphis Tams and were hoping to become the Memphis Sounds (what a name!) with Hayes as a potential financial backer.
Famed Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley had taken over the Pros a few years earlier in a move that could be charitably described as "predominantly ego-driven," he changed the color scheme to match that of his baseball club, and essentially dumped the debt-ridden Memphis franchise on the ABA once he saw something shiny in another state and decided he didn't want to be in the business of running a basketball team.
Convinced he could do something with the mess, then-ABA owner Mike Storen (a dead-set hoops legend in his own right) put together a potential group of backers that included a one-time owner of the Kansas City Royals, the man who gave you the Holiday Inn, and Hayes. Storen told Terry Pluto about his lone encounter with Isaac in Pluto's Loose Balls, an oral history of the ABA.
"When you saw a
picture of the guy, you figured he was about 6-foot-10, 240 pounds. On the
screen, he looked big. But in person, he was about 5-foot-8, 130 pounds.
The first thing he said was, ‘I don't want to do anything unless I'm the major stockholder.'
Hey, that was no
problem. If Hayes had the money, he could be the guy, and I told him that.
Hayes said, ‘Come to
my office, Sunday night, nine o'clock.'
On Sunday at nine, I went to his office, and it was beautiful. Everything was white - the furniture, the walls, the rugs. He answered the door, wearing a T-shirt, jeans, and a pistol shoved inside the belt holding up his jeans.
He was a wonderful guy. We got along great and he wanted to be an ABA owner. Then he handed me a bag full of money, I'd say about $50,000.
I said, ‘It's 10 o'clock on a Sunday night. I
can't walk out of here into the streets of downtown Memphis with $50,000 in a bag. You're going
to have to write me a check.'
He didn't want to write me a check. He said we'd talk about it later and we did, but he never did come across with a check. It was about that time when Hayes' Stax Records empire started to crumble."
Storen's run as Memphis boss didn't work out as planned, the team eventually moved to Baltimore for a truncated run before folding altogether.
And if you want to move on from here, I can understand. Long-time readers understand that, for better or worse, I've never stopped short when it comes from throwing in whatever musical references I find relevant, and for those of you that want to stick around and are somewhat unaware of Hayes' influence, here are some notes jotted down in lieu of the 5,000-word obit that I'd really like to pen.
*The man essentially created the propulsive, driving, soon-to-be disco sound as we know it.
Along the way, he created a style of funk that refused to meander, allowing for all manner of instrumental accoutrements (strings, wah-wah guitar, background singers, horn charts) that would have muddied the sound of even the disparate influences that led to Hayes' breakthrough.
Isaac drew his inspiration, in this corner at least, from a drum lick glommed from Otis Redding's "Try A Little Tenderness" (you can hear it at the 3:06 mark of this clip), taken to 70s largesse in Hayes' Oscar-winning "Theme From Shaft."
*The reason Hayes had become smitten with Al Jackson Jr.'s drum break from the Redding song is because Isaac was one of the biggest reasons that Stax Records, out of Memphis, Tennessee, made the best-sounding records of any label of any time period, ever.
And if you think that's an opinion, listen to this song. Hayes wrote it, with David Porter, and arranged the sound. Made it happen. Made that work.
Hayes and Porter wrote most of the material for Sam and Dave, while Hayes made sure that Stax kept a signature sound by employing the not-of-this-world-but-certainly-of-Memphis tones of Booker T. and the MG's at every given chance. He's the reason that you've been able to go into any record store over the last 45 years, see that an album (by whatever artist) was cobbled together in Stax Studios, and know that it's worth your time and money. You cannot put a qualification on that sort of influence, or satisfactory return.
*Stax's eventual bankruptcy, as noted in the Loose Balls quote, essentially led to Big Star not being afforded the chance to be heard on a level they deserved, in their prime, but these things happen. I'm not saying the good outweighed the bad, but things could have been worse.
*I took in strange looks when I brought this CD to the counter (the two guys working may have thought me a bit irreverent in my Afghan Whigs t-shirt, buying the disc as a joke) at a record store when I was 15. That always told me I was doing the right thing.
*Hayes was a fine actor and voice-over artist, contributing his talents to personal favorites such as Truck Turner and I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, as well as providing the voice of "Chef" for the South Park crew. I really don't want to hear anything in the comments section about Hayes' religion of choice. I never want to hear anything about anyone's particular religion of choice as it is, so this isn't a selective brand of ho-hum.
*Hayes' "Shaft" success made it palatable, for myriad reasons, for blaxploitation movies and the music that resulted to find a home in the American mainstream. This is incredibly important.
Without that breakthrough, something that goes beyond the advancements made by Nat Cole, Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, James Brown, and Sly Stone, significant and important rhythm and blues, funk, disco, hip-hop, and soul acts would have likely died an unheralded and unfortunate death without Hayes' influence on the national consciousness.
*The man's work -- as a writer, producer, arranger, actor, performer, or singer - deserves your attention. Annoyed though you may be at the tenuous pro basketball connection Isaac enjoyed, make something great out of it. Shut yo' mouth, follow up, and take him in. Hayes is a giant.