After starting his career as one of the creative geniuses behind Stax Records, Issac Hayes moved from behind the scenes to center stage in 1968 with the release of his debut solo album, Presenting Isaac Hayes. That time around, the album flopped. A year later, he released his second effort, Hot Buttered Soul, which did anything but. For the rest of his career, Hayes flitted back and forth between acting, writing, singing, and producing. Whatever he turned his hand to, you could always bet it would be soulful. Here’s our pick of the 10 best Issac Hayes songs of all time.
10. I Want To Make Love To You So Bad
Some soul artists spent the mid-’70s losing their hearts to disco and their fans with them, but Hayes was one of the few that managed to make dance floor-ready floor fillers without losing the essence of himself in the process. Case in point, I Want To Make Love To You So Bad, a disco thriller with the kind of urgent, soulful heart that makes it anything but throwaway.
9. Going In Circles
No one could convey an emotion like Issac Hayes. As udiscovermusic.com says, on Going In Circles, he takes apart what The Friends Of Distinction had achieved on their original version of the song in 1969, and puts it back together again to form one of the most emotionally powerful cuts on Black Moses. Every note has a place, and every note is dripping in feeling.
8. Feels Like The First Time (with Millie Jackson)
If any other singer could have gone head to head with Hayes in the ’70s and stood a chance of being the sexiest and most soulful of the two, it was Mille Jackson. On Feels Like The First Time, the two come together on what has to be one of the sultriest, grooviest songs of the decade.
7. Let’s Stay Together
In fairness, Let’s Stay Together was an epic song long before Hayes even came near it. First recorded by Al Green in 1972, it reached number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and spent nine weeks at the top of Billboard’s R&B chart. Since then, it’s been named one of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and been voted into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Dozens of artists have worked their magic on it in the years since, but even though Tina Turner’s version gets most of the glory, there’s something extra exhilarating about Hayes’ wonderfully soulful take from 1972.
6. Never Can Say Goodbye
Motown hitmaker Clifton Davis originally wrote Never Can Say Goodbye for the Supremes, but before they got a chance to record it, it was decided it would be a better fit for the Jackson 5. It became one of the group’s best-selling singles, reaching number one on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart in the US and number 33 on the UK Singles Chart. Numerous artists covered it in the following years, with Issac Hayes giving it a typically funky makeover for his 1971 album Black Moses. That time around, the song hit number five on the Billboard R&B chart and number 22 on the Hot 100. Over 30 years later, he revisited it for the film Soul Men.
5. The Look of Love
A song written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and originally recorded by sixties pop siren Dusty Springfield doesn’t sound the most natural fit for a ’70s soul man like Issac Hayes, but even if the pairing sounded strange on paper, it sounded beautiful on the radio. Obviously, he couldn’t resist mixing things up, with the result that his version and Dusty’s sound a world apart. Either way, they’re both phenomenal.
4. Walk On By
Hayes’ first solo album, Presenting Isaac Hayes, bombed. Bombed so badly, in fact, he was on the verge of cutting his losses and going back to being a songwriter and producer when Stax Records suddenly lost its entire back catalog and ordered every one of its artists to record an album, pronto. Hayes reluctantly agreed, but only on the condition he got full artistic control. Stax agreed, and the result was Hot Buttered Soul, a seminal moment both in Hayes’ career and in the history of soul music in general. There’s not a bad song on the album, but the soulful, funky delights of Walk On By are particularly irresistible.
Joy, Hayes’ sixth studio album, was a hit, charting at number 16 on the Billboard 200 and eventually certifying gold. It’s also a giant slice of funky goodness, with the title track standing out as one of its most divine moments. Described by the LA Times as “epic” and “maybe the most sensual outing he ever recorded,” it’s pure, unadulterated bliss.
2. Don’t Let Go
Issac Hayes might not have invented disco (although considering that Shaft is widely regarded as one of the very first disco songs, there’s a good argument to be made that he did) but he certainly perfected it. Don’t Let Go is one of the most soulful, funky dance floor fillers to ever make it to tape. Released as the lead single from the 1979 album of the same name, it signaled the last big pop hit of his career… but what a way to bow out of the top 20.
Obviously, there can only be one song at the top of our list of the ten best Issac Hayes songs of all time, and just as obviously, that song was always going to be – had to be – the theme tune to Shaft. Even if you’ve never seen the film, the song will have been indelibly printed on your brain since you were old enough to understand the value of a funky bassline and a certain turn of phrase. Whether it was “Shut yo’ mouth!” or “I’m talking about Shaft” that grabbed you most, Shaft was the moment Hayes stopped being a funky song and dance man and turned into a stone-cold legend. Released as a single in 1971, the song shot to number 2 on the Billboard Soul Singles chart and number one on the Billboard Hot 100. The next year, it bought home the Academy Award for Best Original Song, making Hayes the first black person to ever win an Academy Award in a non-acting category.