This archival (1994) Fresh Air interview with Isaac Hayes is definitely worth listening to in full. It is really astounding that a kid who grew up literally picking cotton in Covington, Tennessee became one of the most polished, sophisticated, ambitious orchestrators in popular music. I mean, it's no surprise that Randy Newman is a killing orchestrator, he grew up in a family of film composers. But Isaac Hayes, whose skills are unquestionably right up there with Newman's, learned it all on the gig, arranging and producing for Stax.
Here are a couple of choice bits from the interview:
GROSS: Now how did you learn to play piano? Growing up as poor as you did, I know there were times in your life where you didn't have shoes, let alone a piano.
HAYES: That's true. How did I do that? Well... let's see. A friend of mine I grew up with, Sidney Kirk -- used to be my accompanist, we went places and he'd play for me. He joined the Air Force, he wasn't there. There was a call in to him about a gig New Year's Eve. His sister knew that I was destitute and I needed money, so she asked me if I wanted to play. Well I could play maybe "Chopsticks" and stuff like that, and I say "Yeah, I'll take it." I took the gig out of desperation. And when I got to the club I was petrified, I said "Oh my God they're gonna shoot me, I can't play." And musicians started coming in, you know, setting up, tuning up, and I'm sitting there, you know, trying to be cool. I said "God, you know, they're gonna find me out." And the featured artist came in and said "Hey man, do y'all know such-and-such" -- this is the first time this band had been put together, we didn't rehearse or anything -- and everybody say "Yeah, we know it, blah blah blah." And he kicked off the tune, and it sounded horrible -- everybody did. I said, "Wow, these guys can't play either, so I'm comfortable."
And, you know, being New Year's Eve, the clientele was drunk, and they thought we were cooking, you know. And somewhere along the line, the club owner, he was sauced, he came up and was like: "You know, you boys sound real good, y'all want a regular job?" "Yeah, we'll take it." And that was in Memphis. And, um, it was a regular gig, and each night I'd learn something more and more on keyboards. And that's how I got started.
HAYES: I had been doing arranging all the time. I did a lot of arranging with the horns and stuff at Stax, and the first string arrangements I tried was a thing that Dave [Porter] and I did on Sam and Dave. And that album was like a big flop. But we tried it anyway, but I had a taste for it, and once I tasted the strings I couldn't let it go.
See also LowerManhattanite's extended tributes to Hayes and Bernie Mac.
Hayes was of a generation of great musicians that came through the Memphis public school system's music program (a veritable “Who's Who” of Jazz and R&B legends too numerous to cite here), who stayed in the city and re-vitalized it with his groundbreaking work at Stax. He fused the hard Blues with the roaring fire of Southern Gospel, while adding into the mix more than a little bit of the punchy Jazz style (particularly the horn charts—Basie-esque “smears” and “stabs” on the brass) endemic to the region.
And God, could he write melodies! Melodies that mated perfectly with the scary rhythmic sense he seemed to simply sweat. He had a “golden ear” for arrangements and balance, while having a special knack for building a jam “in-song” from a whisper to a roar, until the song was a big ol' almost living, amoebic thing—pulsing, flying here and there...whispering and shouting...all at once.