REFLECTIONS: Slow, heavy baritones of the 1970s

Last Sunday, August 10, saw the expiry of the life of a musical legend, ten days before his 66th birthday. Isaac Lee Hayes was counted among the great American music makers of the 1960s and the 1970s.

Last Sunday, August 10, saw the expiry of the life of a musical legend, ten days before his 66th birthday. Isaac Lee Hayes was counted among the great American music makers of the 1960s and the 1970s.

He is survived by fifth wife Adjowa Hayes and their son,  ana Kwa jo Haye , as we l as his other 12 children. May his soul rest in eternal piece!

In our time, Isaac Hayes had captured our hearts. His deep, mellifluous baritone did tricks to your head that are impossible to formulate into words.

That voice felt like soft, feathery fur gingerly but heavily blowing over and lightly brushing your head as you ever so slowly waltzed around the dancing hall of your secondary school!

I don’t know about you, but personally, that voice always filled me with sadness because it invariably threw me back to Isaac Hayes’ childhood. His childhood was like that of so many children in Africa.

As toddlers, he and his sister not only lost their mother to sudden death but they also were abandoned by their father.

Their maternal grandparents, to whom they turned for care, were old and frail and could hardly scratch out a living, being poor and down-trodden as sharecroppers.

To keep everybody alive, Isaac constantly interrupted his studies to go and work in cotton fields. Many times he could be seen scrounging for scrap in abandoned car yards.

Still, against all odds, he was able to complete high school, while in between he worked the night clubs for whatever dime he could lay his hands on.

By 1967, he had secured a regular job playing in a nightclub band, and the following year he even had an album to his name, with blockbuster singles like “Big Time Champ” and “Walk on By”.

The rest, as they say, is history: musical awards, Memphis Estate, gold-plated limousine, designer furs, oversized gold chains and all. His shining clean-shaven head and bushy beard in the days of afro and clean chins remain legendary.

He declared bankruptcy in 1974 and the Internal Revenue Service auctioned everything he owned. However, by the time he died he had stabilised into a film-actor and restaurant-owner.

Not everybody was fazed by this background to the great Isaac Hayes, however, and even I only suffered a temporary disorientation.

Otherwise, we all happily and sleepily waltzed to Isaac’s crooning, led by our equally happy but hawkish headmaster, Mr. William Crichton.

You remember Mr. Crichton as the headmaster of Ntare School in Mbarara, western Uganda, who used to stretch out a long step as he waltzed to the great baritones like Jim Reeves, Barry White, Isaac Hayes and the hoarse-voiced Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles.

I’ve told you how at the sound of Isaac Hayes’ deep voice, Mr. Crichton used to get up deliberately slowly, raise one side of his collar, courtesy to a lady teacher (in charge of the student girls) and pick her to open the dance.

As a rule, we all always exploded into a round of applause whenever Mr. Crichton stretched out his leg to open the dance, in his white Yamato short-sleeved shirt and khaki shorts, which were also our uniform.

The applause was even louder whenever the deep voice of Jim Reeves boomed out the lyrics: “Across the bridge, there is no more pain……”, if it was Mary Hill High School in Ntare for the dance!

This was because the girls’ school was found across the river from Ntare.

Of course, there was always the problem of ending up with no dancing partner, if you took too long applauding. That is why the ‘strategic thinkers’ amongst us never indulged in sentimentalities!

While we ‘sentimentals’ clapped and howled “Hooray!” for our dear old Scotsman, the ‘strategists’ would take a fast-paced dive towards a beautiful dancing partner, whom they’d have already secretly identified.

When the rest of us eventually remembered to scramble for a partner, we’d be lucky to even get a ‘reject’ still at a chair!

To add to the misery, songs by Barry White or Isaac Hayes took all of six minutes and many seconds, instead of the usual three minutes for other songs.

Even then, that was not the end of the misery. Since the songs were long, by the time a song ended the dancing couple would already have got ‘glued’ to each other, such that they continued to dance even when the song had ended – even if you could hardly tell if they were moving!

However much we liked the likes of Isaac Hayes, therefore, we slow ones could not help preferring Elvis Presley and his rock-n-rolls, for dancing. Here you kept jumping apart, and so there was no chance for ‘glue’.

Better still, there was rumba from Franco, Rochereaux, Verckies, Bavon Marie-Marie and other Congolese singers to fall back to. In rumba, at least you were obliged to separate and dance apart like is done today, in the second part of the song.

Of course, we had a chance to ‘lodge a case’ against those who were so ‘glued’ as to deny us a dancing partner. Only problem was, you’d go to report to Mr. Crichton or the teacher only to find them also ‘glued’ to each other!

Hooray for the days of slow, heavy baritones – without glue!