He's a Manassas High School graduate, a seminal figure at Stax records, and one of the great soul icons of the 1970s, but when Isaac Hayes left Memphis for New York about six years ago, his star had slightly dimmed. In New York he became the popular morning host for WRKS-FM 98.7 and in recent years his career has blossomed anew with a remake of Shaft, the '70s blaxploitation classic that won him a composing Oscar, a burgeoning sideline as a cookbook author and restaurateur, and his voice-over role as "Chef" in the animated television program South Park.
Hayes maintained a residence in Memphis during this time, but in the coming weeks he'll be packing up his New York digs and moving back to Memphis for real. Hayes' process of reconnecting with his hometown has been building over the last few years. In 1997, Hayes and Lisa Marie Presley financed a Church of Scientology mission on Central Avenue. Last summer he began providing voice work for local R&B oldies station WRBO-FM 103.5 with a nighttime program dubbed "Hot Buttered Love Songs." And a few months ago he opened Isaac Hayes --Music Food Passion (a partnership with local entertainment development company Lifestyle Ventures and Minneapolis-based restaurant chain Famous Dave's), a restaurant/nightclub in the Peabody Place Entertainment and Retail Center. There have been other local projects bearing his fingerprints -- the Soulsville development and literacy programs among them -- but it seems to be the restaurant that has been most instrumental in bringing this favorite son back home. Hayes will perform at his namesake on New Year's Eve.
And the timing for this move couldn't be more perfect -- or more poignant. Just days before this interview was conducted, Hayes was hit with a bittersweet one-two punch: He learned that he will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (along with Stax co-founder Jim Stewart) next March and he learned of the loss of Stax colleague and friend Rufus Thomas. Still processing these changes and wrapping up commitments in New York, Hayes took time out to discuss his return with the Flyer:
Memphis Flyer: I understand that you're returning to Memphis as your full-time residence. What has brought that on?
Isaac Hayes: Well, you know, I got tired of New York. [laughs] I just did.
With your work for [local radio station] WRBO and the new club in Peabody Place, was this something that just built up? Getting more and more reconnected to Memphis?
Yeah, it was a lot of things. This is a good time to be coming back to Memphis. I never did like the East Coast. It's a nice place to travel and stay a few days, but I've lived up there for five years. It did me a lot of good -- I locked the market up in New York for morning radio, and that was a good experience. There's a lot of networking -- when you're at the top of the hill you can get a lot of things done up there. A lot of things come your way.
Downtown Memphis is really booming right now. As someone who's been around the city during both good times and bad, it must be gratifying to be a part of the renaissance.
Oh, yes, it's quite exciting. The restaurant is going really well, much better than we expected. And I'm sure there'll be a lot of other good business opportunities, so I'll just take my time and look around.
What are some of your plans with the club? You've got two now, one here and one in Chicago. Is this something you're looking to expand further?
Yes, we're looking to franchise more. We've already had a lot of calls about bringing the club to other cities. My business partners and I just have to be careful and make the right kind of selections.
With you moving back, how active do you think you'll be with the day-to-day operations at the Memphis club?
I'm already active. I didn't just sign my name [on the contract] just to have my name on the building. I have to be active with the whole club. It's very exciting and I've learned a lot in the process.
You're going to be performing there on New Year's Eve. How often will we see you playing at the club?
Well, I don't want to overexpose myself, but I'll be doing New Year's Eve and maybe maybe some other times during the year.
One of the things I've noticed about the club is that prior to it opening there really weren't many venues in the heart of downtown that appealed strongly to an African-American middle-class audience and drew a really diverse crowd, and your club seems to have changed that. Is that something that you've recognized?
Yes, I recognized that right off. And that's one of the keys to success, to supply what's wanted and what's needed. I think we've done that. Obviously it's provided something the public needs and wants or we wouldn't have the kind of overflow patronage that we do.
I'd imagine it must also be bittersweet to be returning at the time that the city has lost Rufus Thomas.
Yes, it is. It was quite a shock. I heard about it right after I'd left Memphis for New York and right after I heard about the [Rock and Roll] Hall of Fame. Rufus was personal to me. He was a great friend. And before I knew him, when I was a young kid, he was an idol. It was such a joy to meet him and to know him and to work with him all these years. I've worked with him overseas and he was a tremendous ambassador for the city of Memphis. But saying that, he lived to a good age and he lived it fully. We should all look to him as an example, to get the most out of life and to give fully to life. When he looks down and sees what he achieved and the affection he inspired -- he has nothing to regret. I'm just proud to have known him and his family too.
What were your first memories of him? Did you grow up listening to him on WDIA?
Of course, WDIA and his late-night "Hoot and Holler." And then there were the talent shows at the Palace on Beale, those vaudeville kinds of things. I used to go down there and compete, and they gave the young talent an opportunity to get exposure and experience. Rufus provided that. That was during my doo-wop days. [laughs]
What was your reaction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announcement?
I was shocked. I'd heard that I was nominated a couple of months ago and I thought, Well, it's nice that I'm nominated, but I probably won't get it. Then, after leaving Memphis, I was met by my driver and he congratulated me. That was the first I heard about it. It took a while for it to sink in.
Have you given any thought to who might be doing your induction speech, or is that something the Hall of Fame decides?
They sent me [some materials] regarding that. It's something I'll have to think about. I'm sure it'll be some young person, I think that's the way they usually do it. I know so many people. I've got time but I don't have a whole lot of time. I imagine that's something I'll be working on next month.
In the Associated Press story on the induction announcement, you were identified through "Shaft" and your work with South Park. Does it bother you that more people don't seem to be aware of your songwriting and production work with Stax before you became a solo artist?
Well, it doesn't bother me, especially with young people. Partly because of South Park, my fan base has expanded from about 6 to 96, and who can bemoan that? I'll do autograph signings and parents will be there to get my autograph but their kids will yell out, "It's Chef from South Park!" I'm in a good position now, and I'm loving it.
The songs you and David Porter wrote for other artists are very different, stylistically, from your later solo work. Was that just a result of changing times?
No. The songs that we wrote for other people were things that I couldn't deliver on as a singer. And the songs I recorded myself were ones that fit my vocal range and my personal tastes. With my own work, I did a lot of covers, because those songs suited my fancy. There's a lot of creativity in a remake depending on how you arrange it. But David and I wrote for Sam and Dave, and who could sing like Sam Moore? I can't! I wouldn't even dare try. I'm a lot more comfortable in my range, but I can still write [in other styles] and I can still produce it.
Given how high your profile has gotten again in recent years, do you have any plans to put out more new music?
Oh, definitely. Now that I'm not stuck with the morning show, I've gotten my life back. So I plan to record some more and to do more movies. The radio [program] was good in a way, but it was quite restricting. The only kind of recording I could do was to make appearances on other people's records and the only acting I could do was cameo appearances, because that's all my time would allow. Now I have time to do the whole thing.
What are some of the other projects locally that you plan to be involved in. I take it Soulsville is something you're close to?
It's too early to say. I don't want to lead anybody astray. A lot of things are in their embryonic stage. Until something is solid, I'd rather not talk about it, in case it doesn't happen. But I will be involved in Memphis in a big way. And I am involved in Soulsville. I'm promoting it. It's a great thing for the community, and of course I support that.
How about the Grizzlies? Any thoughts about becoming Memphis' Jack Nicholson or Spike Lee?
Oh yes, I'm deeply involved in that. Actually, that's exactly what I told people in New York: 'Jack Nicholson is with the Lakers, Spike Lee is with the Knicks, and Isaac Hayes will be with the Grizzlies!' You know, sometimes I'm like a lone voice in the wilderness up there, talking about my Southern heritage. I brag about being from Memphis and from the South.
How do you manage to juggle so many activities?
Well, it's difficult, but thanks to my involvement in Scientology, there is a technology that can help you do that, an administrative technology. It can help you do it all.
Is the church here another part of the package bringing you back?
Lisa Marie Presley and myself put that together. We brought it to Memphis because we wanted to share it with our city. So the fact that I'm back helps me be more involved with my own mission. I need to get more people in there and familiarize more people with the principles, goals, and aims of Scientology and how good it is for everybody. It's one of the greatest things that's ever happened to me. I've been in it eight years and it's really given me tools to improve myself. When you find something good, you want to share it with people.
Will you maintain a residence in New York?
No, I think I'm going to change that. I'm still connected there in a business sense, but now when I come up I think I'll just stay in a hotel.