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A look back at Stax Records with Steve Cropper, Booker T. and Isaac Hayes


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli. Stax Records produced some of the most important Southern soul music of the 1960s - music by such performers as Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Booker T and the M.G.'s, Isaac Hayes and The Staple Singers. Here are some examples of the Stax sound.


SAM AND DAVE: (Singing) Don't you ever be sad. Lean on me when times are bad. When the day comes and you are down in a river of trouble and about to drown, just hold on. I'm coming. Hold on. I'm coming. I'm on my way, your lover.


RUFUS AND CARLA THOMAS: (Singing) You know the night time, yeah, yeah, is the right time to be with the one you love, with the one you love. You tell them, Carla. Baby, baby - I said tell them, Carla. Baby...


R AND C THOMAS: (Singing) 'Cause her love is better than any love I know. It's like thunder, lightning - the way you love me is frightening. I better knock on wood...


R AND C THOMAS: (Singing) It's early in the morning, about a quarter til 3. And I'm sitting here talking with my baby over cigarettes and coffee, now...


THE STAPLE SINGERS: (Singing) Oh, I know a place, ain't nobody crying, ain't nobody worried, no. Ain't no smiling faces, no, no, lying to the races. Help me. Come on. Come on! Somebody help me, now. I'll take you there.


ISAAC HAYES: Who's the Black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks? Shaft. You're damn right.

BIANCULLI: Stax Records was based in Memphis. It evolved out of the pop and country label Satellite, which was started in 1957 by Jim Stewart, who ran it with his sister, Estelle Axton. The first letters of their last names, S-T from Stewart and A-X from Axton, gave the new label its name. Their interracial operation was an anomaly in Memphis at that time. The new four-part documentary "Stax: Soulsville U.S.A.," streaming on Max, is an excellent and exciting series that tells the story of the label. Here's a clip from the first episode. Booker T. Jones is explaining how lessons in music theory led him to come up with one of Stax's first big hits.


BOOKER T JONES: What if, I started thinking, the second chord didn't always go to the major? What if it went - (playing piano)? And then the four-chord - what about that? (Playing piano). That sounds kind of odd. It sounds kind of cool, though. (Playing piano). Oh, yeah. (Playing piano).

BIANCULLI: For this Memorial Day holiday, we're going to feature interviews with a few of the people who helped create the Stax sound. First, Steve Cropper - he was the house guitarist at Stax Records. The house band recorded its own records under the name Booker T. and the M.G.'s. Cropper also worked as a songwriter and producer for Stax. He produced some of Otis Redding's hits. Steve Cropper spoke to Terry Gross in 1990. He told her he always thought of himself as a rhythm guitar player.


STEVE CROPPER: I never really was a lead player. I never tried to be a lead player. I've been lucky enough to have played a few solos on some great artists' records. But really, I'm a rhythm man, and my best forte, I think, is capturing the feel of a song during its inception in the studio. That's - I think that's where I'm best. Even though people fly me in all over to play on their records and overdub, I think they would be better using me on the ground floor, you know, as a building block rather than as a cherry on the cake.

TERRY GROSS: You had your first hit with a band called The Mar-Keys, and it wasn't long after that that you became affiliated with Stax Records. And you became the guitarist in the house rhythm section. You became a producer. You became a songwriter with...

CROPPER: And a floor sweeper.

GROSS: Yeah, right (laughter).

CROPPER: Tape copier and editor. Yup.

GROSS: How did you get affiliated with Stax?

CROPPER: Well, it started - Charles Axton, the tenor player, and the funny story about Charles Axton...

GROSS: He was the tenor player with the Mar-Keys.

CROPPER: He was a tenor player with the Mar-Keys. He was on the record "Last Night" and everything. He came to me, and he said, I hear you guys got a pretty good band. He said, you know, I play saxophone. I'd like to be in your band. And I said, well, I'm not really interested. I don't think we're interested in adding horns to the group. And I said, how long have you been playing, you know? And he said, oh, I've been, I've been taking lessons for three months. And I'm going, oh yeah, great, you know? And somewhere in the conversation, he goes, oh, by the way, my mother owns a recording studio. And I said, can you show up for rehearsal on Saturday?


CROPPER: And that is a true story. Now, I might stretch it a little bit, but that's an actual truth. And we went out - his uncle, Jim Stewart, the owner of Stax Records, had a little studio in his garage in Memphis, and we went out there and jammed around, and then they moved from his garage to a little place out in Brunswick, Tenn., where they had the Satellite label. And we would go out there every weekend and play and all that. And of course, Jim Stewart said, we never had a chance. We'd never make it. But I think he just was being devil's advocate to just see if he could push us into something. And we kept trying. We cut a bunch of instrumentals and some crazy little things that never saw the light of day. And until the time that we came up with "Last Night."

But what happened was Estelle - I don't know. Estelle Axton - I don't know if she saw any talent there or what she saw, but she liked me enough to keep me around, and she put me to work in her record shop, and I sold records. That's what I did. And I kept working on - on the weekends, I would kind of do a little A&R because people were always coming in, and on Saturdays I would hold auditions because people are always bringing in songs and all that, and that's sort of how I got started, you know, in the A&R thing. And finally Jim said, wait a minute. He said, you know, Steve's spending more time in the studio than he is in the record shop and whatever. And so they got together and decided that I would be - start getting my salary from the record company rather than the record shop. And I started working, I guess, A&R full time at that point.

GROSS: Well, you, with the group Booker T. and the M.G.'s, had the hit of "Green Onions." And I think this was a - it's a big hit, and it helped out Stax Records a lot. How did the four of you - Booker T., Al Jackson, Donald "Duck" Dunn and yourself - get to play together and become the house rhythm section?

CROPPER: Well, what it all stemmed from basically was there we were with all this great success doing "The Dick Clark Show" and everything as The Mar-Keys. And we had this big hit record, "Last Night," and it was a lot of fun. And then all of a sudden it wasn't fun anymore. It became work, and what you call a road burdened and that sort of thing. And seven of us or eight of us traveling in one car and trying to make all these shows, and I found out that I wasn't too happy with the road. And so what I really wanted to do was get back in the studio. I mean, that - I already knew that that's what I wanted to do. Anyway, that's what I did. I came back to Memphis. I went to work in the studio again. I helped put together the rhythm section.

I found out - I've been playing with another band called the Club Handy Band, and we had done some sessions for Don Robey, I think. I don't even remember which songs, but I played on the Five Blind Boys albums. I played on Al "TNT" Braggs. I think there was some Bobby "Blue" Bland stuff that that I played on. But I played with a lot of those musicians, and we were asking around to find out who was a real good keyboard player. We had used several. And they said, there's this kid - he's still in school - named Booker T. Jones, and he's incredible. And they had worked with him on a lot of other stuff and on stage as well. And so we got Booker over on a session and everybody just fell in love with him.

GROSS: Let me play some of "Green Onions." And...


GROSS: ...Because we're only going to play an excerpt, I'm going to start this a little in because I want to get to your guitar solo in it (laughter). So this is "Green Onions," Booker T. and the M.G.'s.


BIANCULLI: That's "Green Onions" by Booker T. and the M.G.'s. More of Terry's interview with guitarist Steve Cropper after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We've got a special show today about the Memphis records label Stax. Let's get back to Terry's 1990 interview with guitarist Steve Cropper.

GROSS: You co-wrote "Dock Of The Bay" with Otis Redding, and you produced the record as well, right?

CROPPER: Right. Correct.

GROSS: What was your collaboration with him like when it came to writing songs?

CROPPER: Well, of course, we wrote a lot of songs together. The inception of "Dock Of The Bay" was really no different than any other one. Otis was one of those kind of guys who had 100 ideas, and he always had with him, anytime he came in to record, 10 or 15 different pretty good ideas, either intros or titles or whatever. And he had been in San Francisco doing the Fillmore. And the story that I got, he had rented a boathouse or stayed out at a boathouse or something. And that's when he got the idea of watching the ships come in the bay there. And that's about all he had. I watched the ships come in, watch them roll away again, and I'm sitting on the dock of the bay, and I just took that. We just sat down and I just kind of learned the changes that he was kind of running over. And I finished the lyrics.

And if you listen to songs that I collaborated with, with Otis, most of the lyrics are about him. Well, he never really - he might say, the big O, in a song or something like that, but he - Otis didn't really write about himself. But I did. Songs like "Mr. Pitiful," "Sad Song Fa Fa" (ph) - they were all about Otis and Otis' life. And "Dock Of The Bay" is exactly that. I left my home in Georgia headed for the Frisco Bay - it was all about him going out to San Francisco to perform. And that's kind of the way I wrote with Otis. I wrote the bridge and stuff like that. And that's the way we collaborated. He trusted me. you know, I always seem to do the things that he liked - you know, worked on songs that came out the way he wanted them.

And I also worked on a lot of songs with Otis arrangementwise and helped him put them together and all that, where I didn't, you know, claim any writers or anything because it wasn't necessary. Otis had most of it finished to begin with, and I just helped him do it. But a lot of these things where he had just bits and pieces, I would actually put them together, and we'd make whole songs out of him and go in the next day and record them. So we had a lot of fun together. Otis was a great guy to work with and he was a great friend.

GROSS: Well, let's listen to the record. This is "Dock Of The Bay."


OTIS REDDING: (Singing) Sitting in the morning sun. I'll be sitting when the evening come, watching the ships roll in. And then I watch them roll away again. Yeah. I'm sitting on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away. Ooh, I'm just sitting on the dock of the bay, wasting time. I left my home in Georgia, headed for the Frisco Bay 'cause I've had nothing to live for, and look like nothing's going to come my way. So I'm just going to sit on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away. Ooh, I'm sitting on the dock of the bay, wasting time. Look like nothing's going to change. Everything still remains the same. I can't do what 10 people tell me to do. So I guess I'll remain the same - yes, sitting here, resting my bones. And this loneliness won't leave me alone. It's two thousand miles I roamed just to make this dock my home. Now I'm just going to sit at the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away. Ooh-wee, sitting on the dock of the bay, wasting time.

GROSS: I want to ask you about another record, and this is also a song you co-wrote. You co-wrote this one with Wilson Pickett, and it's "Midnight Hour." This was, I think, for the first session that you played with Wilson Pickett.

CROPPER: Right. It was.

GROSS: Tell me about writing this song with him.

CROPPER: Well, it's real simple. We knew that he was coming down - and, of course, my connection with the record shop. And I went up and found some stuff that he had sung on. Of course, he sang, you know, with The Falcons, and he had sing some spiritual things. And it seemed like every time that he sang lead on something, when he got down to the fadeout, he would go, oh, wait till the midnight hour - whoa, see my Jesus in the midnight hour, and all that. So I said, that's the guy's ID. So I just took that right there and presented it to him with a little idea. He had a couple ideas. And what happened was that we picked him up at the airport. They dropped us off at the hotel, and Jerry Wexler and Jim Stewart went out to get something to eat and just talk business. And when they came back - I don't know. It was a couple hours later. We had "In The Midnight Hour" written and "Don't Fight It." They said, we're going to get out of here, let you guys keep going. And they left, and we wrote a thing called "I'm Not Tired." And we went in the studio the next day, recorded all three songs, and all three songs were hits - very lucky me.

GROSS: (Laughter) Well, let's hear "In The Midnight Hour."


WILSON PICKETT: (Singing) I'm going to wait till the midnight hour. That's when my love come tumbling down. I'm going to wait till the midnight hour, when there's no one else around. I'm going to take you, girl, and hold you and do all the things I told you in the midnight hour. Yes, I am. Oh, yes I am. One more thing I just want to say right here - I'm going to wait till the stars come out.

GROSS: That's Wilson Pickett, "In The Midnight Hour," co-written by my guest Steve Cropper, who's featured on guitar. You also did a lot of work playing behind Sam and Dave, and Sam and Dave were the inspiration for the Aykroyd and Belushi group The Blues Brothers, and you played with them as well. What did you think of The Blues Brothers when they got started or when you got started or whatever?

CROPPER: (Laughter).

GROSS: What'd you think of - did you think that it was a parody that was in bad taste at all - you know, like, two white guys doing their parody of Black singers, two white guys who probably fantasized about themselves sometimes of being Black singers? What was your take on it?

CROPPER: Well, you know, they got a lot of bad rap on that, I think, initially. And a lot of people, for some reason, thought that John and Danny were kind of scoffing Black musicians for some reason. That's not the case at all. And what I found out was really the contrary to all of that. They had such a love for that kind of music, for rhythm and blues and so forth. And I couldn't believe it. I went to John's house one day, and he showed me a collection of blues stuff that just blew me away. I'd never seen that big of a collection of blues music. Of course, being in Chicago, he had a lot of access to a lot of stuff that, of course, we never heard in Memphis and so forth. It never really - most of it didn't reach the record shop that I worked in.

But you mentioned about Sam and Dave being their influence. That is something that really came about whenever they decided to put a band together and got Duck Dunn and myself involved in the group because they were - from the show, you know, from the routine they did on the show, their concept of an album at that point was strictly doing nothing but blues kind of songs and, you know, things with the Downchild Blues Band and, you know, Delbert McClinton stuff and all those kind of things. And I felt - you know, I'd been in the business a long time, and I felt if they wanted me to contribute anything to this, I thought they should go a little bit more commercial.

And so it was my suggestion, along with Duck Dunn and all, that we do something like "Soul Man." And we later did "Who's Making Love" as well. But we talked them into doing that, and then they started asking about, well, how did Sam and Dave do it, you know? And so we kind of started showing them some of the routines, like, some of the dance things that Sam and Dave would do on stage. And they'd go, yeah, man, this can be fun. So that's something that was sort of a new ingredient put in The Blues Brothers' act as we started making a preparation to do a show.

BIANCULLI: Steve Cropper spoke to Terry Gross in 1990. After a break, we'll hear from two more of the Stax Records music-makers, Booker T. Jones and Isaac Hayes. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


SAM AND DAVE: (Singing) I've been watching you for days now, baby. I just love your sexy ways now, baby. You know my love will never stop now, baby. Just put your loving in my box, baby. Wrap it up. I'll take it. Wrap it up. I'll take it. No more will I shop around, baby. I know I got the best thing in town, baby. I've seen all I want to see, baby. Bring your loving straight to me now, baby. Wrap it up. Yeah. I'll take it. Wrap it up. I'll take it.

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University. Today we're featuring the work of artists from the legendary label Stax Records, which was based in Memphis and produced some of the most important soul music of the 1960s. There's a new four-part documentary series, "Stax: Soulsville U.S.A.," now streaming on Max.

Booker T. Jones is the organ and piano player, songwriter and producer who led the band Booker T. and the M.G.'s. The band's hits in the 1960s and '70s included "Green Onions," "Hip Hug-Her," "Soul Limbo" and "Time Is Tight." They also were the house band for Stax Records, backing up artists like Rufus and Carla Thomas, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Albert King and The Staple Singers. Terry Gross spoke with Booker T. Jones in 2007. Let's hear some more of Booker T. and the M.G.'s first big hit, "Green Onions," recorded in 1962. It came out of an informal studio jam and featured Steve Cropper on guitar, Al Jackson on drums and Lewie Steinberg on bass. Steinberg later was replaced in the band by Donald "Duck" Dunn.


GROSS: Booker T., welcome to FRESH AIR. It's an honor to have you on our show.

JONES: Thank you, Terry. I'm glad to be here.

GROSS: Would you tell us the story behind the track that we just heard?

JONES: Well, that happened as something of an accident. We were at the studio as session musicians to play a session for an artist who didn't show up. So we used the time to record our blues, which we called "Behave Yourself." And I played it on Hammond M3 organ. And Jim Stewart, the owner, was the engineer, and he really liked it, thought it was great actually, and wanted to put it out as a record, and so we all agreed on that. And Jim told us that we needed something to record for a B-side 'cause we couldn't have a one-sided record. And one of the tunes that I'd been playing on piano, we tried on Hammond organ so that, you know, the record would have organ on both sides, and that turned out to be "Green Onions."

GROSS: So how did "Green Onions," the B-side, end up being the hit?

JONES: One of the disc jockeys, I think, did King Cole, the - flipped it over one day, flipped over the blues, and all of a sudden, "Green Onions" was on the air and got calls for it. And that eventually became - they started pressing it again and re-pressed it with "Green Onions" as the A-side.

GROSS: Now, you know, Booker T. and the M.G's basically became the house band for Stax Records. And you played on a lot of their recordings. How did you become a member of the Stax house band?

JONES: Well, I was in 11th grade, and my friend David Porter knew that Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla were recording one day, and I guess they had requested a baritone sax part on a song, and David thought of me. David drove over to the high school, came up with some type of hall pass and got me out of class and somehow came up with the band director's car keys and keys to the instrument room. So down we went to get the baritone sax out of the instrument room and into the borrowed car and over to Stax Records and through the door. And there I was.

GROSS: Why don't we hear the recording that you played baritone sax on, which is your first recording for Stax? You want to introduce it for us?

JONES: It's called "'Cause I Love You" by Rufus and Carla Thomas.

GROSS: OK, let's hear it.


RUFUS THOMAS: (Singing) I done take very best girl of mine, yeah. I done take very best girl of mine, yeah. Going to straighten up, baby. Stop that cheating and lying.

CARLA THOMAS: (Singing) The way you lied about me, you lied about Louise, too.

R THOMAS: (Singing) Oh, no. Oh, no.

C THOMAS: (Singing) Yeah. You lied about me. You lied about me.

R THOMAS: (Singing) Oh, no. Oh, no.

C THOMAS: (Singing) You got me feeling so bad, I don't know what to do.

GROSS: That's Rufus and Carla Thomas. The first recording that was - that featured Booker T, but he wasn't on keyboards. He was on baritone saxophone. And Booker T. is my guest. So you stayed, obviously. I mean, you were in 11th grade. You made this recording, and you ended up becoming part of the house band. How did they - was it hard to convince you to stay? Did you have to convince them that they needed you?

JONES: Oh, I convinced them. I actually had a paper route. That was my job in the afternoon. And no, I convinced them to try me out on piano and eventually organ. And I eventually played on a organ on a William Bell song, which - they liked that part. "You Don't Miss Your Water" - on one of the sessions. So after I played that part, I had the job.

GROSS: So what was it like going to high school and making records at the same time?

JONES: Oh, it was unreal. I was in a rush to get out of school and get my papers thrown and get over to Stax. That was my thrill every day - to get to go there and play music until, you know, 10 or 11 o'clock every night.

GROSS: Do you remember the first time you met Otis Redding?

JONES: Yes. Otis was a valet for a band from Georgia, and he was carrying the clothes, and he was doing the driving and going for the food and coffee and shining shoes or whatever he had to do to keep the band going. And I remember the day he pulled up with - Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers was the name of the group he was working for. They just basically came in and he sat around and waited, and they did their demo for Stax. And after they did their demo, Otis asked if he could sing a song, which was a little inappropriate, but they - we allowed him. Jim and Steve Cropper and the rest of us allowed him to sing a song with us, and that song was "These Arms Of Mine." And so everyone was moved by that. So at that moment, he became Otis Redding.

BIANCULLI: Booker T. Jones speaking to Terry Gross in 2007 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2007 interview with Booker T. Jones, who led the band Booker T. and the M.G.'s, which was the house band for Stax Records out of Memphis.

GROSS: Now, when you were playing at Stax Records, when you were in Booker T. and the M.G.'s and you were the house band and making your own records, the South was still pretty segregated. But your band was comprised of African American and white musicians. Did tensions from - did racial tensions from the outside world ever affect the band or did you feel pretty well-protected by that - from that?

JONES: Well, we were insulated, you know, as most Southern social institutions are. We were insulated because we had our little door there that we locked behind us at Stax. And nobody knew what was going on in there or who we were, so we weren't affected until we became pretty famous. Around '67 or '68, after Dr. King came to the city and Dr. King was murdered in a place that was very close to us - he was murdered at the Lorraine Hotel. And that was our meeting place. And that was a place where we ate very often, so that affected us. But in general, we didn't have big racial issues there.

GROSS: When you say the assassination affected you, I mean, I imagine everybody in the band was pretty upset about it. Did it cause any tensions within the band? Yeah.

JONES: What I mean is it brought outside attention to us and what we were doing there.

GROSS: Right.

JONES: ...The fact that we were interracial. I like to call it a not too well-kept secret that we were interracial. I think, you know, when we were playing music that nobody really cared that we were interracial. I think they cared more about the music. I think whites and Blacks both didn't pay too much attention to the racial aspect of it.

GROSS: Did you feel there were times you needed to keep it kind of a secret?

JONES: Absolutely. The logistics of it demanded it. You know, we couldn't travel when we started without having two of us go get food - and sometimes those two were myself and Al, or sometimes those two were Steve and Duck - but the other two would have to check into hotels and…

GROSS: Right, because two of you were white, two of you were Black.

JONES: Exactly, exactly.

GROSS: Yeah.

JONES: So we always had to have - we were always in somebody else's territory no matter where we were. But Steve and Duck and all of the white members of Stax began to love soul food. And I think they preferred to hang out at our restaurants (laughter), you know? So we just really didn't have a problem as long as the rest of the world didn't have a problem with us.

GROSS: I want to play another record that you're featured on that's included on the "Stax 50th Anniversary Celebration." And this is a song featuring Mable John. It's called "Your Good Thing (Is About To End)." You're featured on piano on this. I think a lot - I think Mable John isn't that well-known right now. Do you want to say something about her and about this recording?

JONES: Yes. I'm still in touch with her also. She's a special person. Do you remember sister - Willie John, Little Willie John? That was her brother. But, yeah, she's just such a down-to-earth, great home singer. Mable was such a great influence at Stax on everybody. She was really one of the most loved people in the family.

GROSS: It's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much for talking with us.

JONES: Yeah, thank you for having me, Terry.


MABLE JOHN: (Singing) I don't have to beg you to hold me 'cause somebody else will. You don't have to love me when I want it 'cause somebody else will. Your so-called friends say you don't need it when all the time they're trying to get it. Look out - your good thing is about to come to an end.

BIANCULLI: That's singer Mable John. Terry spoke to Booker T. Jones in 2007. Coming up, Isaac Hayes on working with the singing duo Sam and Dave and composing the theme for "Shaft." This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: Isaac Hayes recorded several hit records for Stax, including "Hot Buttered Soul," "Black Moses," and "Shaft." He also was an important behind-the-scenes figure, working as a producer, songwriter and arranger. He co-wrote hits for Sam and Dave, Carla Thomas and Johnnie Taylor. Isaac Hayes died in 2008. Terry spoke with him in 1994 about his work at Stax Records. She asked him what he remembered about writing Sam and Dave's hit "Soul Man."


HAYES: I remember getting the idea from watching TV and the riots in Detroit. And it was said that if you put soul on your door, your business establishment, they would bypass it, wouldn't burn it. And then the word soul - you know, the clenched fist, you know, soul brother, soul this - you know, it was a galvanizing kind of thing as far as, you know, African Americans were concerned. And it had that kind of effect of unity. And they said it with a lot of pride.

So I said, well, why not write a tune called "Soul Man"? And all you had to do was write about your own personal experiences because, you know, we - everybody, all African Americans in this country during those times especially had similar experiences. So we did that but realized that in addition to being an African American experience, it was a human experience. So therefore, it crossed the border. And then the groove and everything else that went with it just made it, you know, very, very commercial.

GROSS: So did you arrange this, too?


GROSS: And are you featured instrumentally?

HAYES: I wasn't featured. I just played piano on it. Well, you know, I did some little hot licks in there and stuff like that, you know.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK. Well, let's hear "Soul Man," co-written by my guest, Isaac Hayes.


SAM AND DAVE: (Singing) Coming to you on a dusty road. Good loving - I got a truckload. And when you get it, you got something. So don't worry 'cause I'm coming. I'm a soul man. Oh. I'm a soul man. I'm a soul man. Come on. I'm a soul man. And that ain't all. Got what I got the hard way.

GROSS: My guest is Isaac Hayes. You developed a style of singing in which you did long raps that kind of gave a backstory to the song, and the rap would lead you into the song. And the songs are often, you know, like, pop tunes other people had written, like "By The Time I Get To Phoenix," but you'd kind of make up the whole story leading up to it. How did you start doing that, combining these raps with pop tunes?

HAYES: Remember the famous quote in "Cool Hand Luke," what we have here is a failure to communicate?

GROSS: Yeah.

HAYES: Remember that?

GROSS: Sure.

HAYES: Well, I did that - the rap came out of the necessity to communicate. And the way it happened was - there's a local club in Memphis, predominantly Black, that was called the Tiki Club. And, you know, we would hang out there. The Bar-Kays were playing there sometimes, so we'd hang out there and sit in. You know how musicians do. And one day I heard this song by Glen Campbell, "By The Time I Get To Phoenix." I said, wow. Oh, that song is great. I mean, this man must really love this woman.

So the Bar-Kays were scheduled to play at the Tiki Club a couple of days later. And I said, hey, man. I'm coming down to sit in with you guys. Learn "By The Time I Get To Phoenix." They said, OK. I told them the key, in E-flat. And so I went down and the club was packed, go up onstage. Ladies and gentlemen, you know, you all know him - blah, blah, blah, blah, blah - Isaac Hayes. And, I mean, there's all kind of conversations going, you know, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I said, oh, man, how am I going to get these people's attention?

So I said, hey, man. The first chord in the song - y'all hang up on it. It's a B-flat 11. Just hang up on the chord. Just keep cycling it. And I started talking. And I just started telling this story, how - it was the same scenario, about what could have happened to cause this man to leave, you know? And when I reached the first line in the song, when I said, by the time I get to Phoenix, everybody went, wow. And, you know, when I finished the song, it wasn't a dry eye in the house.

GROSS: Well, I want to play an excerpt of your recording of "By The Time I Get To Phoenix." This is Isaac Hayes.


HAYES: But one day - one day - ol' boy got sick and he had to come home. I don't have to tell you what he found. Oh, it hurt him so bad. He said, baby, mama, why? That's all he could say. But she said, oh, you gone, fool. You doing it. But the man wasn't doing it, but that's the only excuse she could give him. He said, mama, I can't take it. I got to leave. I'm going to leave you. Well, she tried to straighten up. She said she was going to straighten up. She got a little job to help him out with the bills, too. But that was just a sham because he found it again and again. And seven times he left this woman, and seven times he came back. And he had taken all that he could stand. And the eighth time that this went down, he said, mama, I got to go. He said, I'm leaving my heart right here.

(Singing) Oh, I don't want to go, but I got to leave, mama. He said, by the time I get to Phoenix, she'll be rising...

GROSS: Isaacs Hayes, do you feel a kind of special affinity with rap music now? Do you feel a connection between what you were doing and what's being done now?

HAYES: Well, some people try to equate it. In the sense that it's rap - now, the only way I came close to this rap is the first verse in this song, "Shaft." And that is, who's a Black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks? Well, that's rhythm. That's rapping in rhythm. And that's what this rap is today. I think that's the only similarity that you might - I might have with the rap of today. Everything else - it's - it differs, you know?

GROSS: Well, I'm glad you mentioned "Shaft" 'cause that's the next stop on this tour of your work. Now, you recorded the theme for the movie "Shaft" in - I guess it was 1971. How were you asked to do this?

HAYES: Well, that was the whole concept. Melvin Van Peebles had put out a a movie called "Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" (ph). And they said, it might be a market there. We had a meeting out there at MGM with Stax execs, and they asked me to come. And they talked about the concept, and would I do the music? Would I be interested in doing the music? Yeah. I said, I want to act, too. And have you all cast for the lead role? Well, I don't know. We'll look into that. But anyway, I think that was a stick and carrot, you know?

GROSS: (Laughter) Right.

HAYES: So I agreed to do the music. They had already cast Richard Roundtree, which was rightfully so. He's perfect for the part. And I agreed to the music, and that's how I - that's how that whole thing, that whole idea came about.

GROSS: Here's where you really get into orchestrating, right? So tell me how you started using that wah-wah guitar funk style.

HAYES: What happened was 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 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. Now, when it was time for me to do the "Shaft" theme, I said, what can I do? They - you know, they explained the character to me, you know, a relentless character, always on the move, always on the prowl. And you got to get something to denote that for the main theme. I said, what can I do?

I thought about - if you remember Otis Redding's "Try A Little Tenderness," I had a hand in that arrangement, too. In the end, Al Jackson was doing some stuff on the hi-hat - some, you know, you got the (vocalizing), you know? So I thought about that. I said, maybe if I just sustain that particular thing on the hi-hat, that will give you a dramatic effect as something that's relentless. Now, what else can I do? I thought about the guitar lick, and I went and pulled it out, played it. And Charles Pitts - we call him Skip. He played the thing in a wah-wah. I said, hey. Play this line. And he started it. And I told Willie, the drummer - I said, Willie Hall - I said, give me that hi-hat, man, some 16th notes - you know, (vocalizing), you know? And he did that. And it worked. I said, that's the kind of dramatic effect I want. Then I started putting the other things in - you know, the bass, the accents and all that stuff. But that's how that whole wah-wah thing came about.

GROSS: Well, why don't I play some of your "Theme From Shaft," a classic? This is Isaac Hayes.


BIANCULLI: The theme from "Shaft." Isaac Hayes spoke to Terry Gross in 1994. The four-part documentary "Stax: Soulsville U.S.A." is now streaming on Max. On tomorrow's show, we talk with journalist Rachel Somerstein about the history of C-sections, why we're seeing an increase, her own harrowing experience of having one without anesthesia and how the medicalization of childbirth has, in some instances, taken agency away from a mother's ability to control her birthing experience. Somerstein has a new book. I hope you can join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Charlie Kaier. For Terry Gross and Tonya Mosley, I'm David Bianculli.


SAM AND DAVE: (Singing) Don't you ever be sad. Lean on me when times are bad. When the day comes and you are down, in a river of trouble and about to drown, just hold on. I'm coming. Hold on. I'm coming. I'm on my way, your lover. If you get cold, yeah, I will be your cover - don't have to worry 'cause I'm here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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