Since Isaac Hayes’ death on August 11, I have been searching the Internet in vain for news stories that mention his visit to Vermont in November of 2005. It’s a weird and irresistible aspect of cyber-culture that you can google your way to history, but even the world’s greatest search engine has limits.
We brought Hayes to Middlebury College as part of a lecture series on the arts and political activism, which also included photographer Bill Bamberger and playwright Larry Kramer. For me, Hayes’ visit was particularly special since his music has been part of the American landscape since he helped define the Memphis Sound and co-wrote “Wrap it Up” and “Soul Man,” both of which were recorded and made famous by Sam and Dave.
While at Middlebury, Hayes had lunch with faculty, staff, and students, did an interview at WRMC—and a radio spot that still gets played from time to time—and spoke in Mead Chapel. His informal, if somewhat rambling talk got mixed reviews, and some were taken aback by his praise for Scientology. But Hayes had a presence, warmth, and sense of humor that were hard to resist. And when he sang a slow R & B tune in Mead after his talk—accompanying himself on the piano—he got a standing ovation. You knew then why Hayes was one of the major forces in pop music during the 60s and 70s.
Hayes’ best-known song, “Shaft,” came out in 1971 when I was in seventh grade, and established Hayes as an icon of black power. When he performed or made a public appearance—resplendent in fur robes, or wearing his trademark gold chain vest—he meant business. Check out the DVD that comes with “The Ultimate Isaac Hayes: Can You Dig It?” (a great compilation, by the way), and you can see Hayes command the stage before a packed house at Los Angeles Coliseum, introduced by a young Jesse Jackson.
Given Hayes’ image, I always assumed he was a very big man, so when I picked him up at the Burlington airport and saw he was definitely under six feet, I expressed my surprise. He laughed and said that during the Shaft days, he had been doing a lot of weight lifting and was really buff. He also told me he had sold his gold chain shirts on eBay.
People talk about about being “touched by history,” and I felt that way after spending time with Isaac Hayes. He will be missed, but I am grateful I can still listen to his music and be connected to the legacy he left behind.