The late, great Isaac Hayes: 1942-2008

I let Isaac Hayes down.

For nearly 40 years, I tried on dozens of occasions, with dozens of different people, to get just one of them to listen to Hayes' classic rendition of "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." Unfortunately, I felt obligated to tell them that the "song" was about 20 minutes long (actually 18 minutes, 42 seconds) and included his talking ("Ike's Rap") for the first 10 minutes or so (by coincidence, actually 8 minutes, 42 seconds).

At first, when nobody had heard of Isaac Hayes, I had to explain to them that he was a Memphis soul singer doing a version of a downer pop song that had been made famous by a country artist. For some reason, I didn't get any takers with that approach.

Then, after the theme from Shaft hit it big and won him an Oscar, I was able to alter my approach by saying that it was the guy who did Shaft doing a downer pop song, originally made famous by a country singer ... with a 10-minute talking intro. Amazingly, that didn't work, either.

I first heard it at Gary Matthews' house. (Gary is a former National League Rookie of the Year who spent 15 years in the big leagues and is now an announcer for the Philadelphia Phillies; his son, Gary Matthews Jr., plays for the Los Angeles Angels.) Gary put the Hot Buttered Soul album on while we sat down to play dominoes, and it grabbed my attention immediately.

Hayes' slow, pained drawl meticulously lays out the backstory leading up to "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." A young man from Tennessee moves to Los Angeles and falls in love with a woman. ("Oh man, she was bad!") They fall in love and get married. She cheats on him, but he takes her back. The pattern continues, with devastating results, until "he cain't take it no more."

He piles his stuff in his '65 Ford and starts out. As he's going down the highway at 3 in the morning, the words to the song come into his head. It's a heartbreaking tour de force, one of the great moments in soul-music history, and it certainly paved the way for Barry White and many others.

I borrowed the album and took it to a guy who made bootleg 8-track tapes. Yes, bootleg 8-track tapes. I'm an outlaw. (When it came out on 8-track a few months later, I bought two of them and gave one away, because my conscience was killing me about that whole bootleg thing.) I later bought the album on cassette, and CD, and now it's on my Zune. It's only four songs: A weeper called "One Woman" ("one woman's making my home, while the other woman's making me do wrong"); a funky, wah-wah-guitar, up-tempo thing called "Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic"; a trippy 12-minute remake of Burt Bacharach's "Walk on By," with fuzzy reverb guitar; and "Phoenix." Odd fact: Henry Rollins considers it one of his all-time-favorite albums.

However, over the years, I couldn't get my wife to listen to it. Or my kids. Or anybody. The only people willing to listen to it had already heard it and loved it.

And now he's gone, all too soon. The powerfully built Hayes died Aug. 10, probably from a stroke, while working out on a treadmill in his suburban Memphis home. He was 65.

I was never a big fan of the music from Shaft. It was OK, but I preferred Hot Buttered Soul and Black Moses, which included original material and covers of songs by Curtis Mayfield and Kris Kristofferson.

He was the main reason I went to Wattstax at the L.A. Coliseum. The Staples Singers were there that day, along with Rufus Thomas, Richard Pryor and Jesse Jackson--in full Afro and dashiki--uttering the classic phrase, "I may be on welfare ... but I am somebody!"

You should try to catch him on the three episodes of The Rockford Files where he plays fellow ex-con Gandolph Fitch. My favorite of those three episodes co-stars Lou Gossett Jr. as a shady P.I. competing with Rockford on a case. Following up on a lead, Gossett and Hayes find themselves in a Nazi bar. Holding the Nazis at gunpoint, Gossett launches into a speech about the overlapping philosophies of Nietzsche and Marx. The episode was written by a young David Chase, who would go on to create and write The Sopranos.

In that episode, Hayes' character finds out that Rockford sometimes works for the government, doing estate searches and the like. Totally devastated, Fitch shakes his head and says, "Poor Rockfish, he's working for the county." We use that on our radio show whenever Chuck Huckelberry is our guest.

Hayes was also great in Escape From New York, driving around a Manhattan-turned-prison in a Caddie with chandeliers on the hood.

He found odd success as the voice of Chef on South Park, although he quit a while back over an episode on Scientology. I never could get into South Park. I watched two or three episodes, and it was like watching a Will Ferrell movie with really crappy drawing.

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, and now he's gone.

If you get a chance, listen to that song. You'll thank me. And I owe it to him.

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