Sunday, October 14, 2007

Isaac On His First Go Round: Sir Isaac & The Doo-Dads

In 1962, Isaac Hayes was graduating Manassas High School in Memphis, and contemplating whether to find a way to study for his early ambition of becoming a doctor, find a steady job at a local meat-packing company to support his young family, or to pursue a career in music...

After a guidance counsellor at school had persuaded him to enter a talent concert, which he won by singing Nat King Cole's "Looking Back", Isaac had begun to learn the baritone and alto sax with Lucian Coleman, and had begun to make contacts with some of Memphis' premier musicians, whom he would watch as they turned up to play at the clubs on Thomas Street in the 'North Chicago' district of Memphis.

In 1961, in one version of the story, he impressed respected band leader Ben Branch while singing "The Very Thought Of You" by Arthur Prysock, after being snuck into Currie's Club Tropicana, and sang three nights a week with the band for the next two years - backed by Branch, Floyd Newman on alto sax, Emerson Able on tenor sax, Larry Brown on bass guitar, Eddie Jones on piano, Herbert Thomas and Herman Green on trumpets, Big Bell James on drums, and Clarence Nelson on guitar. However, in another version of the story, told by band-member and eye-witness Howard 'Bulldog' Grimes over here at the amazing blog Lost And Found: The Memphis Sound, it was thanks to the rest of the band and Mr Johnnie Currie, the club owner, and a lot of shouting in the kitchen, that Ben Branch even allowed Isaac up on stage! As it turned out, Ben had been wrong, and Isaac was a great hit, singing Brook Benton's "Just A Matter Of Time"!

Isaac also sang gospel with The Morning Stars, and doo-wop with The Ambassadors, The Teen Tones and The Missiles, played r&b with Calvin & the Swing Cats, before graduating, and his singing was so good that he had been offered many college scholarships to study vocal music. Amongst those who had encouraged Isaac at the school was Emerson Able, school band teacher and tenor sax player with Ben Branch, who is featured here at Lost And Found: The Memphis Sound, and is recovering from a recent heart attack. At one point, the story goes, Emerson actually kicked Isaac out of the school band to get him to focus more, perhaps to remind him that playing nights wit Ben Branch and himself wasn't going to be enough without an education! Manassas High School is where Isaac Hayes chose to place his historical marker, in thanks for the encouragement they gave him. He continues to support the school in many ways, including attending events during Black History Month (in the photo below Isaac is standing with Dr Linkwood Williams, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, the African-American pilots and officers of WWII)Isaac Hayes with Dr Linkwood Williams, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, at Manassas High School, Black History Month 2005

However, in need of money, he had to turn them all down and started work full-time at the processing plant. It was only by chance that Isaac heard of an opportunity to perhaps continue in music. Sidney Kirk persuaded him to go down to Chips Moman's American Sound Studios for an audition for Chip's new Youngstown Records label.

Sir Isaac & The Doodads - Laura, We're On Our Last Go-Round (A-side) Youngstown 1962
Sir Isaac & The Doodads - Sweet Temptation (B-side)
Youngstown 1962

Moman decided to record them performing Laura, We're On Our Last Go-Round by Patti Ferguson, and Sweet Temptations by Merle Travis. The band was Isaac on vocals, Sidney on piano, Ronnie Capone on drums, and Tommy Cogbill on bass, while apparently, those sweet, tempting backing singers are in fact Isaac himself on an overdub. Isaac's singing on Laura demonstrates a purity and honesty in his tenor range, while Sweet Tmeptation begins to reveal the earthiness and allure possed by his baritone voice, which would later become his trademark. Sadly, the record went nowhere at the time, but Isaac Hayes turned up nearly every evening after work to learn more about recording from Chip, and hoping to get more work, perhaps as a backing singer or saxophonist. Just before Christmas, Sidney Kirk decided to quit music and go into the Air Force. And it was ironically the loss of his partner that set Isaac Hayes on the route to success. Fanny Kirk phoned him just before New Year to see if he knew a piano player for the New Year's Eve party at The Southern Club. Getting desperate for money, Isaac found himself saying that he would play the gig:

"After I accepted it, I broke into a cold sweat ... I was scared to death. I said "What am I doing? I don't know how to play piano. They gonna kill me!"

Read what happen
ed next here from an excerpt of Rob Bowman's Soulville USA: The Story of Stax Records...

Buy Soulsville USA. Now!

Information and photos for this post come courtesy of Rob Bowman's research, and the dedication of Scott and Preston Lauterbach at Lost And Found: The Memphis Sound. The recordings here are from a reissue by San American records (#950), of Little Rock Arkansas, where Joe Lee was sound engineer and did some work with Allen Orange in the 70s. Go over to the Soul Detective to read more about this...


Preston Lauterbach said...


Tasty post, and thanks very much for the attribution and proper use of the Memphis Sound work. That's what it's there for.

I wanted to clarify that with the exception of one post, the work at Memphis Sound is mine alone. Scott [Barretta] is a good friend and stalwart researcher of Mississippi blues, whom I invited to guest post about his Mississippi Blues Trail project. He's listed as a team member because I want him to be able to post anytime he wants, but that has turned out to be never, unfortunately!

I realize that you're just trying to give credit where it's due. No harm at all.

The Memphis Sound project is expanding into the Backroads of American Music project, which I hope you'll check out. It's comparable to Memphis Sound, though it includes a community blog for other American music history buffs to post on. Don't hesitate to post something and use it to promote your excellent site.

Keep up the great work. I always learn a great deal reading your stuff and feel honored to have contributed a little something.

Feel free to remove or shorten this, as its more communicative than informative.

Warm regards,

p.s. Anytime you'd like to swap flats and stay a week in Memphis, the Mrs. and I are ready to spend time in a little seaside town!

Rob Whatman said...

Hi Preston,

You have done some amazing research over at Lost And Found, long may it continue at your new blog.

p.s. ooh, that is a very tempting offer! I may hold you to that one day! :)