If Isaac Hayes updated the 1971 movie theme that became his personal anthem (and foreshadowed the whole disco era), he might well have titled it Shafted. “I was ripped off all the way around,” says Hayes, 36, referring to the 1976 bankruptcy that nearly ended his career as the king of Hot Buttered Soul. “From then on I was playing dives,” he says, “and it was rough. I wasn’t in demand. I worked and worked and still wound up in the hole.”
Now, though, Hayes has dramatically bounced back. He has his first gold album in five years, Don’t Let Go. The title track and Déjà Vu, Dionne Warwick’s Top 20 tune which he co-wrote, are both up for song Grammys this week. But Hayes’ troubles are far from over: The day after the awards his lawyers will go to federal court to try to stave off a multimillion-dollar suit that could kayo the singer again.
The litigation, for alleged breach of contract, was filed by Wallace Johnson, the 78-year-old co-founder of Holiday Inns, and Dr. Joe Mayes, an evangelist fund raiser. The two men teamed up in 1978 to resurrect and manage Hayes’ career in exchange for 25 percent of all his earnings through 1985. Johnson, who extricated Hayes from a million-dollar mess with a Tennessee bank and got the IRS to lift a lien on his Memphis home, will contend in court that he “set up tours Hayes has refused to go on.” Johnson has also moved to evict Hayes from the mansion he settled him into a year and a half ago on Atlanta’s fancy West Paces Ferry Road.
Isaac, who was desperate for backing—and, he hints, resisting mob offers—when he signed the seven-year deal with Johnson and Mayes, now wants out. “The dates I’m refusing to work didn’t make sense,” he claims. He is also uneasy with Johnson’s other interest in him. Long known as the “praying millionaire,” Johnson heads up a $1 billion Christian crusade called “Here’s Life.” “He wanted me to come into the fold, to be almost like a disciple,” says Hayes, whose Black Moses nickname became an album title in 1971. “He always said, ‘Mr. Hayes, you can be a great leader for your people.’ But I don’t want to be a messiah.”
Nevertheless, Hayes swears he isn’t bitter—aside from the $1 million in legal fees he claims to have spent since 1973. He’s preparing to vacate the house, now a highlight of Atlanta’s Gray Line tour, and is looking for a new one—in the $500,000 range because “I need the space.” His family consists of his third wife, ex-model Mignon Harley, 30, their two children and two more by his first marriage. Four other kids (three by Isaac’s second wife and one he fathered out of wedlock) often visit. “They deserve a nice place,” says the singer. “They’ve been through hell for me.”
Isaac never knew his mother, Eula, who died in a mental institution when he was 1½, and only met his father, Isaac Sr., in 1972 after a 10-year search. Raised by his grandparents, who were Tennessee sharecroppers, he remembers picking cotton at 5. Too skinny for football, he played sax in the high school band and was working in a meat-packing plant when he met David Porter, the salesman who became his collaborator on a string of ’60s hits for Memphis soul stars like Sam & Dave, Rufus Thomas and Otis Redding. After “locking himself in the men’s room at the Stax Records office with three bottles of champagne” during a 1967 party, Hayes, feeling “very mellow,” cut his own first LP. “We just started doing some things impromptu in the studio, and the tape was rolling.” By his next LP, Hot Buttered Soul, Isaac was in the big time. He became a touring superstar (performing in bare chest and gold chains), acted in two B movies and in 1972 won an Oscar for his Theme from Shaft. In those high-rolling days, Hayes was the black Elvis with a gold-plated ermine-lined Caddy and assorted Memphis homesteads. Then he went into retirement for almost two years while a string of investments soured and his finances suffered from “mismanagement and greed.” In 1976 the bottom fell out when Stax went bankrupt—leaving Hayes somehow $6 million in the red.
Hayes, who moved to Atlanta when friends “turned on me” after the bankruptcy, is projecting a less exotic image these days. He tools around in an off-the-lot Lincoln and, because he’s recognized everywhere, grocery-shops at 3 a.m. He’s also given up parties to work on photography (he snapped his own last two album covers) and to finish his next LP and some new material for Warwick. He is resisting cashing in on the disco craze he helped found, explaining, “I feel kind of like Pandora. Disco has a formula but no soul.”
A “health nut,” Hayes says he gave up grass after his first try and wards off any depression by jogging eight miles a day. He also works out on Nautilus machines and observes a modified Pritikin diet. Along with his body, Hayes is getting his professional life back into shape too. “I had my biggest successes without managers and I can do it again,” he says. He’s tutoring with an economics professor in Atlanta in order to “diversify” his finances against the all-too-familiar “ups and downs” of showbiz. “I want to be a billionaire within five years,” Isaac insists, adding, “At least if something goes wrong this time, it’ll be by my own hand.”