Balls, Balls, Balls!

The return of Isaac Hayes

In the 1970s, Big George Foreman was this baleful, menacing, glowering figure who frowned like a gargoyle, pitched temper tantrums and knocked the holy bejesus out of people without evidence of mercy. Shortly after Joe Frazier made Ali his bitch, Big George bounced Frazier around the ring like a flubber yo-yo. He was the Mike Tyson of his era, even though he didn't chew off anyone's ear. Then he disappeared for a dozen years and inexplicably resurfaced as lovable, wacky old Uncle George, who grinned like he'd been thwacked about the head with a fungo bat and wanted you to say your prayers, be kind to your fellow man and buy lots of his hamburger grills.

ISAAC HAYES has followed a similar trajectory—with a twist. He, too, cut an ominous figure with his bald, testicle-cognate head, chain-mail suits, bulging muscles and dour persona. Hayes was the herald of the blaxploitation era of American cinema and viewed as a sable superhero. It was a time of ridiculous floppy hats, Huggy Bears, wacka-wacka guitars, mirrored shades and bad movies with unsubtle implications of African-American penile superiority—all images that Hayes' visage and music called forth. He was known as Black Moses, and if you didn't believe him, he'd shove those stone tablets right up your little pink starfish.

Hayes' latest incarnation has been in the role of happy-assed Chef in the winsome, delightful, animated children's show South Park. As Chef, Hayes performed one of the most popular songs of his career, an anthem that had all of young America celebrating. I refer, of course, to "Chocolate Salty Balls," with its buoyant, sing-along choruses of "Suck on my balls!" The song is a great one by any barometer and among Hayes' finest moments for several reasons: it's an ass-shakin' R&B workout full of percolating clavinets and featuring perhaps the most enthusiastic vocal performance ever heard from the characteristically restrained Hayes. In its double-entendre guise as a little ditty about chocolate pastries, it's clever, offensive and wonderfully subversive all at the same time, pissing off parents throughout America like a whole football team full of Beavis & Butt-heads. Finally, there's the glorious redemption factor—after a roller-coaster career featuring majestic highs and desperate lows, the song is like a gigantic, extended middle finger. Hayes gets the last laugh, he knows it, and he sings the song like he's relishing the bloody hell out of it. Yet, like Big George, he does it all with a wink and a smile. The primeval bad-mutha-shut-yo'-mouth is now a happy-ass as well.

Hayes started out as an undistinguished recording artist in the early 1960s—one history book even refers to him as "a Brook Benton imitator." His first taste of glory was as a staff musician and songwriter for Stax Records in the mid-'60s. Along with songwriting partner David Porter, Hayes penned such R&B classics as "Soul Man," "Hold On, I'm Coming" and "I Thank You" for Sam & Dave. By the end of the decade, Hayes was recording in his own right again and assuming his greasy, silk-sheets persona. Hayes' endlessly imitated bedroom-baritone vocal style, experimental soul compositions, outlandish costumes and menacing visage bespoke the newfound black pride (and anger) of the late '60s/early '70s. And then came Shaft in 1971, and with it a musical revolution (not to mention an Oscar for Best Soundtrack). Suddenly, mighty Isaac was world-famous, the first badasssss-fancypants black man embraced by mainstream America.

Somehow or other, Hayes fell quick and hard. He all but disappeared from the charts by the '80s and declared bankruptcy amid much public humiliation. He re-created himself as an actor, appearing as a winking self-caricature in movies such as Escape From New York and as a recurring character on TV's The Rockford Files. Then he seemed to disappear from public view once again, until his recent reincarnation on South Park.

Isaacmania has hit once more, and it seems you can hardly open a magazine these days without finding a feature about him—accompanied by a picture of Hayes wearing a chef's hat and an idiotic grin like he was just thwacked about the head with a fungo bat.

Isaac Hayes cordially invites you to suck on his chocolate salty balls Friday night at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. They're packed with vitamins and good for you.

Goddamn it, I love B.B. KING, who plays the Sun Theatre on Friday night. His Live at Cook County Jail was the first blues album I ever owned. That record made me decide, at age 13, to learn guitar and research the whole history of the blues. When I was a student journalist, B.B. King was the first big name I ever interviewed. He invited me up to his hotel room and was impossibly patient and gracious about the whole thing. He's a gentleman and a genius, no doubt about it.

Therefore, with all the grace in my heart, I hereby publicly forgive B.B. King for making that awful, sell-out corporate blues album with Eric Clapton (which was, predictably, nominated for a blues Grammy) and for playing at Dubya's inaugural. I even forgive him for saying nice things about Jonny Lang. Just had to get that off my chest. But please, can you cut the crap now, B? My own patience has its limits.

 
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