Marsha Music

A Grown Woman's Tales from Detroit

The Death of Isaac Hayes and Memories of a First Date

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I received an email from an old friend; my first boyfriend, in fact.

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He had moved to the South few years ago, after retirement, and when he heard the news about the death of Isaac Hayes, he emailed me an anecdote that he had posted on one of the websites he frequents.

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It was about the day, almost 40 years ago in Detroit, when we went on our first real “date”, to see Hayes in concert. He wrote that it was November 30, 1969; How he knows this, I don’t know, but I’ll take his word for it. I decided not to reply right away, but to write about that day, and send it to him.

____________
 
Memory being what it is, I’d always remembered that first date was our going to see Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, two new artists on the music scene at that time.
 
But, we were both right. Roberta and Donny were the opening acts for Isaac Hayes that night. It was to be a concert of the “new music” – not the Motown sound, the soundtrack of our town – but the new hip, “conscious” soul.
 
 
Roberta‘s sweet “Strumming’ my pain with his fingers” was sweet, exhilarating, but downright odd back then. Donny, in his “apple cap” and turtlenecks, made bassed-up dance songs about “the Ghetto” – before the term was a prejorative – on LPs mixed-up with madrigals, blues and cowboy songs. We classically trained orchestra and band students loved him.
 
 
Isaac’s Stax Soul sound was familiar, like the Southern Blues of our fathers, but funked up for our new, hip times. We knew he was something altogether different – in a day of sharp-suited Temps, Tops and Pips, Isaac broke on the scene with chains draped on his buck naked chest. A thrilling, disconcerting next step into some new realm of Negritude.
 
 
He turned his masculinity upside down, posturing like Mandingo while singing sweet songs of women (Walk on By), children (Never Can Say Goodbye) and white country boys (Phoenix); so secure was he in a Black manhood that he was helping to define.
 

Heck he even sang silly stuff – Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymstic. I was chagrined in later years, when one of my sons knew him only as the voice of a cartoon, but I was delighted when he met Hayes and asked him to record his voicemail message – so I could hear Isaac Hayes every time I tried to call my son

But I digress.

My boyfriend had gotten tickets for the concert -to be held at the regal Masonic Hall, and I had been getting my outfit together for days; the excitement had rubbed off on my mother, who not only agreed that I could go on the date, but gathered up all her gumption and drove me to the rough and tough part of the East Side, to get my hair done at “Dicky’s”, the premier barbershop of Detroit at that time.

 
It was Afro-chic for girls and women to get our hair done in barber – not beauty – shops in those days, and despite all the long-haired styles that were driving both black and white barbers out of business, Mr. Dicky had taken the ‘fro to it’s beautific, architectural heights and making a whole new career out of Black is beautiful. You had to wait in line for the privilege of getting your cut and “blown out“ for the night.
 
 
 
His barbers were masters of the ‘Fro, cutting styles straight out of Ebony and Jet, with such precision that my hair stood around my head in a centrifugal halo, the Afro Sheen sprayed on ‘til it glowed.
 
 
 
I had made my outfit myself, sewing furiously for days; a pair of extra-wide bell bottoms with a green halter that exposed waist, back and arms – might as well had on a swim top. In November? I now wonder how.
 
I was a Black Power mermaid, all pubescent curves and a ball of hair.
 
It never occurred to me that this first date was a passage of sorts not just for me, but for Momma too. It was she, after all, who had brought the Isaac Hayes record home, playing it on the record player in our oak-beamed den; stepping out of her characteristic reticence, cigarette in hand, popping her fingers and singing to herself. My brother and I loved Isaac Hayes, in part, because she did; he was someone the grown folks liked whom we could share. He was a bridge between Motown smooth and Southern, Stax Blues.
 
 
Or maybe we were just getting older, our teen ears now understood the meaning of songs about love lost and found. And I suppose that all kids have a time when they realize that all parents have an inner life obscured from their familial gaze
 
 
Mama’s strict church upbringing – though she’d been distant from church for years – made her shy away from really dancing, but she‘d shimmy around the den and raise her famously pretty hands when Isaac sang “By the time I get to Phoenix”.
 
 
It was the longest record we’d ever heard, it even had a Part 1 and 2! The AM radio stations couldn’t even play the whole thing, and we started listening to the new “FM” in order to hear all the new extra-long records and rock LPs.

 

It was a country song, a “cross-over” hit by Glen Campbell, and we knew it well already because in those days we listened to all kinds of music – most often on CKLW Radio, broadcasting from across the Detroit River in Windsor, Canada.

 

It was a stunning incongruity that Hayes – who called himself “Black Moses” – remade this country song as an urban ballad, with its Hammond B5 intro and plaintive soul wails. He, the Ultimate Black Man, all big nose and bared chest and draped in chains, revealing both heartsick vulnerability and the power of the Black male.

As Hayes moaned about making it to Albuquerque, having left his woman behind, I worried as to what invisible audience my mother sang, for she and my dad were often in the midst of drama, involving Johnny Walker Red, slammed doors and separate beds. But, being young and in love, I could care less that my mother was helping me to get dressed, so that I could go to see her favorite new singer sing her new favorite lovesick song.

My date arrived. In the email he’d sent to me last month, he said he’d gone out with “the prettiest girl in the world” – and at that moment, 40 years ago, I felt like it. He surely was the cutest guy, with an Afro even bigger than mine.

Mama stood on the porch, looking out on John R street, and waved us goodbye with my little sister and both brothers. We’d doubtless conspired to keep this date thing WAY under Daddy’s radar; he was known for meeting potential suitors at the door with his .38 caliber father figure.

My boyfriend and I walked to the Woodward bus. Yes, neither of us could drive, and in those days – unlike today’s couch potato kids – we were used to treking miles at a time. We walked and took the bus everywhere, all day long.

I held onto the rail of the bus really tight so that my hair and outfit wouldn’t get mussed. I was very aware of a guy across the aisle snickering at my date and I all dressed up, in a city where autos were a birthright. I snuggled closer to my date to pledge my allegiance to our pedestrian love.

We arrived at the grand, old Masonic Temple, and were surrounded by a crowd of late 60’s Black humanity. There was nothing like Detroit back in the day. Folks of every shade of cream, brown and black, everybody “sharp as a tack”, vibrant and young and full of Temptations cool and Sly Stone funk, hip talkin’’ jive walkin‘, “dressed and pressed“.

A group of local black militants, whom I had seen outside our high school, were there too, passing out leaflets on the struggles of the day. I nodded at them in smug, grown up recognition, and told my date – “let’s talk to those people when we get back to school” (we did – and kept talking to them for the next few decades)

I don’t remember much of the concert. I remember Isaac Hayes was smaller than I thought he would be. I had thought he’d be 8-feet tall from his double-faced album cover and stretched out form. But no, he was a regular-sized guy.

I remember the “wah-wah” guitars, a new thing back then, and Donny Hathaway in his apple cap and maple syrup voice. And Roberta, who sang such a different type of music we weren’t sure what to make of her; not saucy like the Supremes, not soulful like Aretha, but something new.

We felt all smooth and grown up listening to her sing; a new hip mix of Nina Simone, Bessie Smith and maybe Edith Piaf, too.

_____________

These things came back to me when my friend wrote to me about the death of Isaac Hayes and our first date, back in the day. I had just heard too, that the comedian Bernie Mack had died, and I thought about that old superstition, “death comes in threes”.

I began writing this story, and my friend’s wife called. Her husband, my friend, the guy of my first date, who had become like an elder brother to me after all these years, had had a heart attack. He lay in a coma, a thousand miles away.

Immediately, my memories began to rearrange themselves around this new shock. I had never even thought of him – more “fit”, I thought, than any of us in our circle – leaving this earth before me. In fact I counted on him saying droll and clever things about me at my own “home-going”, whenever that might be.

He was trying to leave this world and I had the feeling that he would be taking sizable chunks of me with him, in the form of a million memories,  critiques of me, down through the years. He was on life support. My mind flashed to my mother, dying on a respirator this year, her frail body still working but her lungs unable to breathe.

I talked to his wife each day about his progress, trying to reassure her that it wasn’t his time to leave, when I wasn’t so sure about that myself. fter many days, he began to recover; thank God he is better now, and eventually came back to Detroit.

So I write this so he will know that I remember, too; that years ago when we were young in Detroit, with Afro’s like dark cotton candy, we went to see Roberta and Donny and Isaac Hayes, on a crisp, 60’s night, under a Detroit moon.

And I am glad that he has not joined Donny and Isaac and Bernie Mack, all gone too soon.

Marsha Music

[first posted on the BelleLettes forum of ThePuristS.com, Oct, 08]

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One thought on “The Death of Isaac Hayes and Memories of a First Date

  1. Girl you know you taking me back to such great memories. We’re the same age. You have awesome writing skills Marsha

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