Rhythm Regatta

Isaac Hayes performs in the hallowed halls of Powell as part of the Blues, Roots, Honks and Moans Festival

Isaac Hayes, the music legend who has performed gospel, blues, jazz and R&B -- sometimes all in the course of a single lengthy song -- is an ideal choice to headline this week's Blues, Roots, Honks and Moans festival at Powell Hall. His career has taken him from a rural church in Tennessee through an apprenticeship in Memphis blues and jazz clubs to worldwide fame as an R&B singer and a composer -- even as a cartoon character on the popular TV series South Park. He joins jazz musicians Cyrus Chestnut, Christian McBride and Dianne Reeves; gospel singer Twinkie Clark; and such local performers as the Young Jazz Messengers and the Symphony's In Unison Chorus in celebrating both the foundations of jazz and the current state of the music this Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 18-20.

"All the performers we're bringing in are able to reach beyond the traditional boundaries of specific styles," says Gene Bradford, director of operations for the St. Louis Symphony, which is hosting the festival. "It's going to be exciting mixing gospel, jazz and R&B together and showing people how natural and easy it is to move between these genres because of their common roots. And we especially want young people to hear and understand the ways that jazz, gospel and rhythm and blues connect. For example, we're going to reach over 4,000 students alone in our three jazz and big-band programs on Friday.

"I was born in Covington, Tenn., 38 miles north of Memphis, and raised by my grandparents, who were sharecroppers," says Isaac Hayes, speaking from his home in New York City, where he hosts a 6-10 a.m. daily radio show, treating listeners to his distinctively deep, soulful voice in between classic soul and R&B tunes. "And my first public performance was at the age of 3 in our local church. My sister and I sang in an Easter program while my grandmother accompanied us on piano. So I definitely had my roots in gospel."

Hayes heard -- and played -- lots of blues as well, especially after his family moved to Memphis when he was 7. "I sang in plenty of blues bands growing up," he recalls. "Harmonicas and guitars -- I found out that I really dug that sound. And Memphis was a real destination for blues musicians from Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee. Some would pass through and keep going. Others would stay, like B.B. King. I remember listening to his radio show every day on WDIA. He called himself the 'Beale Street Blues Boy.'"

There were other musical influences in Memphis as well, and in his teenage years, Hayes found himself most attracted to jazz -- and the honk of saxophones pouring out of local clubs. "Memphis has a strong jazz tradition," states Hayes. "Phineas Newborn Jr., Booker Little, Charles Lloyd, Hank Crawford -- there were plenty of great jazz musicians. When I was a kid, I used to stand on trash cans outside clubs on Beale Street so I could peer into the windows and see the musicians. And when I was in high school, I used to borrow a sax from a friend of mine named Lucius Jackson. That's how I learned to play. And I made my real professional debut in a jazz club called the Tropicana.

"I remember one Sunday evening, James Moody was going to play there. His band members came in early, and that afternoon they did a jam session and workshop at the club. I tried to sneak in past B.B. King's bass player, who was taking tickets at the door. He wasn't going to let me in because I was too young. Well, Fred Ford, a local sax player who used to play with the greats when they came to town, saw me and said, 'Come on in, Bub.' I was about 15 or 16, and they called me up onstage. I knew I was supposed to be the brunt of a joke, and they didn't think I could hold my own with Moody's musicians. I told them I wanted to sing 'The Very Thought of You,' so they asked me what key, and I told 'em G. They said, 'Oh, really?' -- kind of impressed I even knew a key to call. And after I started singing the place went silent, and when I finished, I got a thunderous ovation and Ms. Curry, one of the proprietors, came up and said, 'Young man, you sing so well. Do you want a job?' I told her, 'Yes, Ma'am,' and that's how I got started."

From those beginnings, Hayes broke into the inner circle at Stax Records, playing on sessions with Otis Redding and subbing on keyboards with Booker T. and the MGs at concert appearances when Booker Jones was away at college. He then teamed up with David Porter -- who had competed against Hayes in high-school battle-of-the-bands contests -- to form one of the most successful songwriting teams of the Stax era. He and Porter wrote hit after hit for Sam and Dave, from "Hold On, I'm Coming" and "You Don't Know Like I Know" to "When Something Is Wrong with My Baby."

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