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Musician and actor Isaac Hayes

Remembering Soul Icon Isaac Hayes

Award-winning soul singer Isaac Hayes died August 10. Hayes' "Theme From Shaft" won both Academy and Grammy awards, and his album Hot Buttered Soul helped pave the way for disco.

34:02

Other segments from the episode on August 11, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 11, 2008: Obituary for Isaac Hayes; Obituary for Bernie Mac.

Transcript

DATE August 11, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Isaac Hayes discusses his music and acting career
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Isaac Hayes, the singer, songwriter, composer and producer whose soul sound
changed the world of music, died yesterday at his home in East Memphis,
Tennessee. He was 65.

Hayes is perhaps best known for his bass baritone voice and the theme to
"Shaft," which won an Academy Award in 1972. Born in rural Tennessee in 1942,
Hayes began playing with local bands and became a songwriter, producer and
arranger for Stax Records, the legendary Memphis R&B label. He recorded
several hits there, including the album "Hot Buttered Soul" and the
Grammy-winning "Black Moses," which influenced later generations of disco and
hip-hop artists. Hayes also developed a trademark look with his shaved head,
gold chains and bare chest. In the '80s and '90s, Hayes found an acting
career, with roles in the "Rockford Files" and the films "Escape from New
York," "The Duke," and the loving parody of blacksploitation films "I'm Gonna
Git You Sucka." And he gave his voice to the character Chef on the animated
series "South Park" until 2006. He continued performing in recent years
despite health problems. Terry spoke to Isaac Hayes in 1994.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Now I know before you started making your own records, before you started
singing in your records, you produced for other people, and also you played
piano and keyboards. And you used to play with Booker T. & the MGs. Now how
did you learn to play piano, growing up as poor as you did? I know there were
times in your life when you didn't have shoes, let alone a piano.

Mr. ISAAC HAYES: That's true. How did I do that? Well, let's see. A
friend of mine I grew up with, Sidney Kirk, used to be my accompanist. We
went places and he'd play for me. He joined the Air Force; he wasn't there.
There was a call in to him about a gig New Year's Eve. His sister knew that I
was destitute and I needed money, so she asked me if I wanted to play? Well,
I could play maybe "Chopsticks" and stuff like that. And I said, `Yeah, I'll
take it.' I took the gig out of desperation. And when I got to the club, I
was petrified. I said, `Oh, my God, they're going to shoot me. I can't
play.' And musicians started coming in, you know, setting up, tuning up, and
I'm sitting there, you know, trying to be cool. I said, `God, they're going
to find me out.' And the featured artist came in and said, `Hey, man, do you
all know such-and-such?' This is the first time this band had been put
together. We didn't rehearse anything.

And everybody said, `Yeah, we know it, and blah, blah, blah.' So he kicked off
the tune, and it sounded horrible. Everybody did. I said, `Wow, these guys
can't play either.' So I'm comfortable. And, you know, being New Year's Eve,
the clientele was drunk, and they thought we were cooking, you know? And
somewhere along the line, the club owner--he was sauced--he came up and said,
`You know, you boys sound real good. You all want a regular job?' `Yeah,
we'll take it.' And that was in Memphis and it was a regular gig, and each
night I would learn something more and more on the keyboards. And that's how
I got started.

GROSS: That's great. And then you started sitting in with Booker T. & the
MGs.

Mr. HAYES: Well, I wound up at Stax Records. I changed bands and I joined
Floyd Newman's band, who was a staff musician at Stax. He played baritone
saxophone. All those ba-dups, stuff like that, that was Floyd. So he was up
for a recording. He said, `Man, you know, we're going in the studio.' And
prior I had been to Stax about three different times with a blues band, with a
vocal group, you know, trying to get a break, and was always turned down.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HAYES: This time I went in with Floyd and Howard Grimes, a drummer, he
and I wrote some songs, some instrumentals and things like that. And Jim
Stewart, who, you know, was co-owner of Stax, he said, `You know, you sound
pretty good on keyboards. Booker T. is off at Indiana U. in school. Would
you like to become a staff musician here?' `Yeah!' You know? So that's how I
got in Stax.

And my first session, I think it was an Otis Redding album session, I was
scared to death, but he made it easy. And I learned a lot and I fit right in.
And I became a staff musician. So when Booker came back, he and I both played
on sessions. We'd switch around. Sometimes I'd play organ and he'd play
piano, and sometimes I'd play piano, he'd play organ. And with "Duck," Steve
and Al, we were the nucleus of Stax, the rhythm section, and then, of course,
the horns and so forth.

GROSS: Now you were not only a house musician at Stax, you became a house
songwriter. And you wrote a lot of songs with your partner then, David
Porter. And some of the most famous songs that you wrote were for Sam and
Dave, like "Soul Man" and "Hold On, I'm Coming." What do you remember about
writing "Soul Man"?

Mr. HAYES: Well, I remember getting the idea from watching TV and the riots
in Detroit, and it was said that if you put soul on your door, your business
establishment--they would bypass it and wouldn't burn it. And then the word
"soul"--you know, the clenched fist, you know, "soul brothers," soul this--it
was a galvanizing kind of thing as far as, you know, African-Americans were
concerned. And it had a kind of effective unity, and they said it with a lot
of pride. So I said, `Well, hm, why not write a tune called "Soul Man"?' And
all you had to do was write about your own personal experiences because, you
know we, everybody, all African-Americans in this country, during those times
especially, had similar experiences. So we did that. But realized that, in
addition to being an African-American experience, it was a human experience;
so therefore it crossed the board. And then the groove and everything else
that went with it just made it, you know, very, very commercial.

GROSS: So did you arrange this too?

Mr. HAYES: Yes. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And are you featured instrumentally?

Mr. HAYES: I wasn't featured. I just played piano on it. Well, you know, I
did some little hot licks in there and stuff like that.

GROSS: OK. Well let's hear "Soul Man," co-written by my guest Isaac Hayes.

(Soundbite of "Soul Man")

SAM and DAVE: (Singing) Coming to you on a dusty road.
Good lovin', I got a truckload.
And when you get it--Ha!--you got some.
So don't worry 'cause I'm coming.
I'm a soul man. Yeow! I'm a soul man.
I'm a soul man. Whoa! Hey! I'm a soul man,
and that ain't all.

Got what I got the hard way,
and I'll make it better, each and every day.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: So how come it took several years for you to actually record your own
vocals?

Mr. HAYES: Well, I started singing in high school. I sang before ninth
grade, preteen, I used to sing. But I sounded like somebody in the Vienna
Boys' Choir.

(Singing) My voice was way up there like that.

And they would call me, `Oh, man, you're a sissy.' So when I reached puberty,
my voice started cracking and squeaking, and then when it cleared up, it was
down in the basement. So I started singing again, and I was singing jazz
during my teenage years. I was singing jazz in a little nightclub, I was
singing with blues band, I was singing with a rock 'n' roll group called the
Teen Tones, I was singing with a gospel group called the Morning Stars. We
had a little combo, and during my senior year we played. So I had all this
experience, and I would to go Jim Stewart and say, `Hey, Jim, I want to
record. I want to try some.' `Well, Ike, you know, we have an R&B label and
your voice is too good. It's too good for what we're doing here.'

So I never did get the shot until one day it was someone's birthday party at
Stax, and we always serve champagne and cake. And we had gobbled down some
cake, and Duck Dunn and I grabbed a couple of bottles of champagne and ran
into the ladies restroom and closed the door. And we just guzzled this
champagne down. I mean, I got a buzz. Came out, Al Bell, who at that time
was the head of national promotion--he wound up being executive vice
president--but he said, `Ike, I want to cut something on you.' `OK, yeah. I
don't care.' I was feeling no pain. So we were going into the studio, Al,
Jack's on drums, Duck on bass and myself on piano. And I said, `Man, you all
follow me.' It was all impromptu. And we stayed in the studio a few hours.
And we finished. Al said, `OK, I got what I want.' And that wound up being
"Presenting Isaac Hayes," my very first album.

GROSS: You developed a style of singing in which you did long raps. It kind
of gave a back story to the song. And the rap would lead you into the song.
And the songs are often, you know, like pop tunes other people had written,
like "By the Time I Get to Phoenix."

Mr. HAYES: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: But you'd kind of make up the whole story leading up to it. How did
you start doing that, combining these raps with pop tunes?

Mr. HAYES: Remember the famous quote in "Cool Hand Luke"? I forget the
actor's name. "What we have here is a failure to communicate."

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. HAYES: Remember that?

GROSS: Sure.

Mr. HAYES: Well, I did that. The rap came out of the necessity to
communicate. And the way it happened was, there's a local club in Memphis
predominantly black that was called the Tiki Club. And, you know, we'd hang
out there, the Bar-Kays were playing there sometimes, and we'd hang out there
and sit in. You know how musicians do. And this one day, I heard this song
by Glen Campbell, "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." I said, `Wow, oh, that
song's great. I mean, this man must really have loved this woman.'

And so I ran down to the studio later on that day and said, `Man, you all hear
this song "Phoenix"? Man, it's great.' Everybody, `Yeah, yeah.' You know, no
enthusiasm. I was saying, `These guys don't feel what I feel. What, are they
getting it?' So the Bar-Kays were scheduled to play the Tiki Club a couple of
days later, and I said, `Hey, man, I'm coming down to sit in with you guys.
Learn "By the Time I Get to Phoenix."' They said, `OK.' I told them the key,
in E flat.

And so I went down and the club was packed. Go up on stage, `Ladies and
gentlemen, you know, you all know him, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Isaac
Hayes.' And, I mean, it's all kind of conversations going, you know, `Blah,
blah, blah, blah, blah.' I said, `Oh, man, how am I going to get these
people's attention?' So I said, `Hey, man, the first chord in the song, you
all hang up on it. It's a B flat 11. Just hang up on the chord. Just keep
cycling it.' And I started talking. And I just started telling this story.
It was a scenario about what could have happened to cause this man to leave,
you know. And I started talking and, halfway through the rap, the
conversations started to subside. And when I reached the first line in the
song, when I said, "By the time I get to Phoenix," everybody went `Oh, wow.'
And, you know, when I finished the song, there wasn't a dry eye in the house.

GROSS: Well, I want to play an excerpt of your recording of "By the Time I
Get to Phoenix." This is Isaac Hayes.

(Soundbite of "By the Time I Get to Phoenix")

Mr. HAYES: (Speaking) But one day, one day, old boy got sick and he had to
come home. I don't have to tell you what he found. Only it hurt him so bad.
He said, `Baby, mama, why?' That's all he could say. But she said, `Oh, go
on, fool. You're doing it.' But the man wasn't doing it. But that's the only
excuse she could give him. He said, `Mama, I can't take it. I got to leave
you. I'm going to leave you.' Well, she tried to straighten up. She said she
was going to straighten up. She got a little job to help him out with the
bills, too. But that was just a sham. Because he found it again. And again.
And seven times he left this woman, and seven times he came back. And he'd
taken all that he could stand. And the eighth time that this went down, he
said, `Mama, I got to go.' He said, `I'm leaving my heart right here.'

(Singing) Ooh, I don't want to go,
but I got to leave you, mama.
He said, `By the time I get to Phoenix, she'll be rising.
Oh, and she'll find a note I left hanging on the door.
She'll laugh when she reads the part that says I'm leaving.
Yes, she will.
Why? 'Cause I've left that girl so many times before.

Oh. By the time I make Albuquerque, she'll be working.'

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: Isaac Hayes. We'll hear more of his 1994 interview with Terry in a
moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: Today we're remembering Isaac Hayes, who died yesterday, by listening
to his 1994 interview on FRESH AIR.

GROSS: Now you recorded the theme for the movie "Shaft" in, I guess, it was
1971. How were you asked to do this?

Mr. HAYES: Well, it was a whole concept. Hollywood recognized that they had
to look further than they had been looking to get business. I think it was
fledgling at the time. It was a bit stagnant. And Melvin Van Peebles had put
out a movie called "Sweetback's Baadasssss Song." And they said, `Hm. There
might be a market there. If we come up with a concept to have a black leading
man, black director, maybe a black composer, we might hit that market.' MGM
was the one that pioneered the idea. So we had a meeting out there at MGM
with Stax execs, and they asked me to come. And they talked about the
concept. And would I do the music? Would I be interested in doing the music?
Yeah. I said, `I want to act, too. Have you all cast for the lead role?'
`Well, no. We'll look into that.' But anyway, I think that was a stick and
carrot, you know? So.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. HAYES: So I agreed to do the music. They had already cast Richard
Roundtree, which was rightfully so, he's perfect for the part. And I agreed
to do the music. And that's how that whole idea came about.

GROSS: Here's where you really get into orchestrating, right?

Mr. HAYES: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So tell me how you started using that wah-wah guitar funk style.

Mr. HAYES: Ha, ha. Well, OK. Trade secrets. What happened was, I had been
doing the arranging all the time. I did a lot of arranging with the horns and
stuff at Stax, and the first string arrangements I tried was a thing that
David and I did on Sam and Dave; and that album was like a big flop, but we
tried it anyway. But I had a taste for it. And once I had a taste for the
strings, I couldn't let it go. Now sometimes, in the studio, you're working
on various grooves and stuff and you can't find a name for it or you can't tag
it with anything. You just, if it feels good, you say, `OK, I'm going to file
that.' And you put it up. You put it back and you store it.

Now when it was time for me to do the "Shaft" theme, I said, `What can I do?'
You know, they explained the character to me, you know, `A relentless
character, always on the move, always on the prowl. And you got to get
something to denote that for the main theme.' I said, `What can I do?' I
thought about--if you remember Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness," I had
a hand in that arrangement, too. In the end, Al Jackson was doing some stuff
on high-hat similar, you know. "You got to na, na, na, chicka, chicka,
chicka, chicka, boom." You know? So I thought about that. I said, `Maybe if
I just sustain that particular thing on the high-hat, that will give you a
dramatic effect and it's something that's relentless. Now what else can I
do?' I thought the guitar lick. And I went and pulled it out, played it; and
Charles Pitts, we called him "Skip," he played the thing on the wah-wah. I
said, `Hey, play this line.' And he started it. And I told Willie the
drummer, I said, `Willie Hall,' I said, `Give me that high-hat man, some 16
notes.' You know, chicha, chicha, chicha, chicha, you know. And he did that.
And it worked. I said, `That's the kind of dramatic effect I want.'

(Soundbite of instrumental introduction of "Shaft")

Mr. HAYES: Then I started putting the other things in, you know, the base,
the accents and all that stuff, but that's how that whole wah-wah thing came
about.

GROSS: Well, why don't I play some of your theme from "Shaft," a classic.
This is Isaac Hayes.

(Soundbite of "Shaft")

Mr. HAYES: Who's the black private dick that's a sex machine to all the
chicks?

Unidentified Backup Singers: (Singing) Shaft!

Mr. HAYES: You damn right!

(Singing) Who is the man that would risk his neck
for his brother man?

Backup Singers: (Singing) Shaft!

Mr. HAYES: Can you dig it?

(Singing) Who's the cat that won't cop out
When there's danger all about?

Backup Singers: Shaft!

Mr. HAYES: Right on.

(Singing) They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother

Backup Singers: Shut your mouth!

Mr. HAYES: I'm talking about Shaft.

Backup Singers: Then we can dig it!

Mr. HAYES: (Singing) He's a complicated man,
but no one understands him but his woman.

Backup Singers: John Shaft!

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: Isaac Hayes spoke with Terry Gross in 1994. We'll hear more of their
conversation in the second half of the show. Hayes died yesterday at the age
of 65. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.
Today we're remembering singer, songwriter and composer Isaac Hayes, who died
in East Memphis yesterday at the age of 65. Terry spoke to Isaac Hayes in
1994.

GROSS: At the time that "Shaft" and "Super Fly" were really popular, I mean,
everybody now, all the black filmmakers now just credit those films with
paving the way to all the new work that's happening now. But at the time the
NAACP was appalled at the black action films. And I wonder what your reaction
was then to their reaction?

Mr. HAYES: Well, you know, I had mixed emotions about that. That position
was that, you know, it was painting a bad image...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HAYES: ...you know, for the kids and so forth, and there were no
alternatives. Had there been some alternatives at that time, then I don't
think the NAACP would have come down so hard. But what happened was when they
did that it was like it turned off the tap. It totally dried up for us
because I was a, `Whoops, hands off.' And they dropped everything. And our
whole little thing just died. I think, you know, in hindsight, had there been
a little more patience at the time maybe it could have taken off in some other
directions because that was--it was in its embryonic stage at that time, you
know, the black cinema.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HAYES: And anything in its infancy you going to get some--you'll get a
lot of crap. You're going to get some inferior things and all of that and
quality and so forth, and even questionable subject matters. But as that
particular genre grows then, you know, you start getting better films and so
forth. And I think they might have made a move a little bit too soon; because
when we were doing these things, we weren't taking ourselves seriously, not as
the characters. We were just glad to get the work, glad to get the
experience, glad that our people could see us on screen.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HAYES: You know, I mean, and...

GROSS: And as leading men.

Mr. HAYES: Yeah. You know, and not with a broom and a mop and bowing and
saying, `Yes, sir, boss.'

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HAYES: So, you know, so that's why, you know, it took off and was so
widely received. And I think had it had a little time to go, a little longer,
you know, you spin off in some other areas and Hollywood would have recognized
that there is more that could sell than, you know, the pimps and the hookers
and, you know, the private eyes and so forth.

GROSS: I want to spend a couple of minutes talking with you about how you
developed your image. When did you start shaving your head?

Mr. HAYES: I started shaving my head not long after I got out of high
school.

GROSS: It wasn't fashionable then, at least not to my knowledge.

Mr. HAYES: No, it wasn't.

GROSS: What inspired you to do it?

Mr. HAYES: Well, you know, during those times, as musicians, we--it was a
fad. We had a relax in our hair, called it a "do," a cork process. And
during that time mine was cut very low and just slicked down on my head all
the way around like a coconut, you know. And it was hip. It was the style.
But in the summertime, it was hard to keep up; and you sweat, and it come
undone and you had to sleep with a stocking cap on on the couch. I go, `I'm
sick of fooling with this stuff. I'm going to cut it off.' So I went to the
barber shop around the corner from Stax. I said, `Mr. King, cut it all off.'
`What?' `Cut it all off. I'm going to grow a new crop.' And when he cut it
off, you know, I went outside, you know, and I said, `Wow, it's a breeze out
here. It feels great. I can feel the wind on my head. Hey, I think I'll
keep it like this.' I already had the beard. And people would look at me and
say, `Oh, wow. Oh, look at this guy. Man, he's got a bald head and a beard.'
But I didn't care because it was different and I like being different, you
know, I like swimming up stream.

And a funny thing. One time Booker T., by some error, somebody booked two
dates on the same day for Booker T. and MGs. And one date was in--I think
Booker had to go to Oklahoma somewhere, and I went to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
with Al, Duck and Steve, and David Porter was a vocalist, and I was to pretend
to be Booker T. And I'm at the organ, we kicked off the tune, kicked off
"Green Onions," you know, and grooving. Somebody said, `Hey, man, that ain't
no Booker T. He ain't got no hair.' And I mean they were ready to riot. I
jumped up from the organ and got out there with David and started dancing and
singing and doing any other things trying to appease the people, you know.
But finally they said, `Well, OK, what the hell. We'll accept him.' And, I
mean, I played the entire gig. And, of course, years later I went back as
Isaac Hayes and I played Harrisburg and I told that incident and some people
remembered it and they cracked up.

GROSS: That's funny.

Mr. HAYES: But I mean I was an unknown, but I just looked different. I
liked the different look.

GROSS: Are you still doing it?

Mr. HAYES: Oh, yeah. You see the thing about it is it's ageless. So when I
go naturally no one will know.

GROSS: Now, how did you start wearing gold and velvet and furs?

Mr. HAYES: Well, you mean just day to day or...

GROSS: Well, I don't know what you wore day to day, but I know you certainly
wore that on stage.

Mr. HAYES: Oh. On stage I wore, OK, French rabbit boots. I wore tights of
different color. And I wore chains. Now--and I come out with a cape and a
floppy hat. Why did I do that? OK, a sense for the dramatics. OK? You see,
at first I would wear, during the days of the hippies, I would wear a lot of
rawhide with fringes and beads and stuff and moccasins and bell bottoms. And
it was hot. It was hot. And later on I thought, I said, `When I see
entertainers perform, they come out with three piece suits on, with ties, and
the first thing they do is loosen the tie and throw the jacket off, and then
they might take the vest off.' I said, `Well, I'm going to go out there
already comfortable. So what can I do?' So I started wearing the vest and the
tights. Tights are comfortable. Ballet dancers wear tights, so why can't I?
And a guy gave me a chain necklace and a belt, and I tried that on stage. And
when I came out like that, women were screaming. You know, I was always
taking mental notes of effects and so forth. And I said, `Hmm, maybe I'll do
this.' And I started doing it and somebody suggested, `Why don't you put a
robe on because you want to go out there and give it to them all at one time.
Put a cape on and then throw it off when you get out there.' I tried that
effect. Wow. Then I put a floppy hat on and showed my head later, because I
remember one time I went out on stage and I had a hat on and I started
sweating. I took it off to wipe my head and women screamed. `Hmm. OK, I'll
use that too.' And then this guy named Charles Rubin said, `Isaac, I have an
idea. I'm going to make you some chain vests.' I said, `OK, try it out and
we'll see.' And he made them and it worked, and that's how that came. But I
just like--I was a renegade. I had a renegade mentality. I always liked to
be different.

GROSS: Did you dress like that in private?

Mr. HAYES: No. No. I mean, I dressed, I mean, I dressed real fly. If you
remember in Guralnick's book, he described I had a purple suit on with some
purple shoes and--whatever it was--standing outside of Stax. Remember? So I
always dressed flamboyantly. I mean, you know, always flashy. I would dare
to wear things nobody else would try to wear. I, you know, I had a girl that
made me some Nehru suits and stuff like that back when nobody would wear them.
I saw the "Pink Panther" and I liked the way that--remember the first one
where Capucine, her chaperone, this guy was always around--tall, slim guy--had
these Nehru collars and stuff on, and I liked that look. So I had a girl to
make a lot of those things for me.

GROSS: So this must have been real different from when you were growing up
and you virtually had no clothes, you had no shoes.

Mr. HAYES: Hey, you could put me out in the corn field and I'd scare the
crows away, you know. You know, when you're like that, when you grow up in
poverty and you think about that meal you're going to have, you'll never be
hungry again, Scarlett O'Hara. You think about the clothes you're going to
wear. You think about the house you want to live in. You think about the
cars, you know. So when you start acquiring affluence, money, you buy these
things and you enjoy it. And I worked all of my child--I didn't have a normal
childhood, you know, like growing up, because I had to become the man of the
family at an early age; so I didn't have a lot of chance to do the play things
that kids do. So when you grow up and have the money, these things become
toys and it becomes fun to you.

GROSS: I thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. HAYES: Well, Terry, it's been my pleasure.

DAVIES: Isaac Hayes speaking with Terry Gross in 1994. Hayes died yesterday
in East Memphis, Tennessee. He was 65.

Coming up, we remember comedian Bernie Mac who died Saturday.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Bernie Mac discusses his career as a comedian
DAVE DAVIES, host:

Comedian Bernie Mac died Saturday at the age of 50 due to complications from
pneumonia. With his five year run on the Fox series "The Bernie Mac Show," he
was one of the few African-Americans to play a leading role in a network
program. In 2002, "The Bernie Mac Show" won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing
and a Peabody Award. The real Bernie Mac became well known through the
Russell Simmons Def Comedy Jam on HBO, and Spike Lee's performance film "The
Original Kings of Comedy." Bernie Mac also starred in "Oceans 11", 12," and
"13," as well as "Bad Santa" and "Get on the Bus."

Terry spoke with Bernie Mac in 2001 when "The Bernie Mac Show" was just
premiering. The sitcom was loosely based on Mac's experiences raising his
daughter, his niece and his niece's child. On the show, Bernie Mac and his
wife take in his sister's three young children because his sister has a drug
problem and is in rehab. In the first episode of the show, Bernie Mac talks
directly to the audience about his new situation.

(Soundbite of "The Bernie Mac Show")

Mr. BERNIE MAC: America, let's talk. Yeah, my sister's on drugs. That's
OK. Some of your family members messed up, too. What am I supposed to do?
Allow these three kids to go to the state or some foster home or some white
couple. Hold on, this ain't about race. It's not about race. I just don't
want to hear them talking all proper like that, you know what I'm saying?
That's all I'm trying to say. Or they got to sit there and share food with 40
other kids. No, that ain't right. I'm trying to do the right thing.

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: Mac loves the kids he's now responsible for, but they also drive him
crazy.

(Soundbite of "The Bernie Mac Show")

Mr. MAC: I'm going to kill one of them kids. Oh, don't get me wrong, I love
'em. They my blood. I'd give them the shirt off my back. You ever see a
chicken with his neck wrung, laying to the side all lazy and weak? That's
what I'm going to do to them kids. Talk back to me one more time, snap. I'm
gonna snap they neck off. They too sassy. They too grown today. They talk
back too much. Yeah, I know what you're saying, America. I don't care what
you're talking about. `Bernie Mac cruel. Bernie Mac beat his kids.' I don't
care. That's your opinion. Because you don't know the story. You don't know
what went down. And they're not my kids.

(End of soundbite)

TERRY GROSS, host:

Now in the TV show, the Bernie Mac character is not used to being a father.

Mr. MAC: Right.

GROSS: You know, he just inherited these three kids, and he's making a lot of
mistakes. Now the most quoted line from the show so far is something he says
to one of the kids. You know what the line is?

Mr. MAC: Yeah.

GROSS: Why don't you say it.

Mr. MAC: I'll bust your head 'til the white meat show.

GROSS: That's it.

Mr. MAC: Was that it?

GROSS: Yeah, because his impulse is always like if the kids are misbehaving,
hit 'em.

Mr. MAC: Well...

GROSS: And he doesn't really do it, but that's the impulse.

Mr. MAC: Well, he's from the old school. I mean, he believe that ruling
with an iron hand. And, I mean, you have to understand something. He comes
from a generation, or that time period in the '70s and '60s where spankings
were permitted, and discipline was of the high regard. Bernie Mac has no idea
about parenting. And his way of parenting, he's still a disciplinarian. And
he believes in his heart strongly that a kid should be a kid. And that's
where the problem lies. He's not PC. He's not worried about image. He's
living his life, and he's trying to save lives. And that's what makes the
show so interesting, and that's what makes the humor. The humor's not
punch-line jokes. That's something I didn't want.

GROSS: You grew up on the South Side of Chicago.

Mr. MAC: Yes, ma'am.

GROSS: Describe where you grew up.

Mr. MAC: I grew up--I was born on 66th and Blackstone, and that building was
torn down because it was rat infested. We couldn't play outside because the
rats used to be in the walls, on the bannisters. We stayed on the third
floor, and my mom used to literally pick me up--I was three to four years
old--and she would walk me three flights of stairs and kicking rats from her
feet. The city tore the rat--I mean the building down and moved us to 69th
and Morgan. Well, that was a little bit better supposedly, the Englewood area
of Chicago. And at four years old, that's when I--four to five--decided I
wanted to be a comedian. Because I walked in from playing, and I saw my
mother sitting in her favorite chair crying. And as a little kid I saw her
crying, I began to cry, like most kids often do. And I asked her why was she
crying, and she told me, `Nothing.'

At that particular time, Ed Sullivan was introducing Bill Cosby. Bill Cosby
came out and he did a routine about rats and snakes in the bathroom. My
mother began to laugh and cry at the same time. When I saw that, I started
laughing with her. And I told my mom, I said, `That's what I'm going to be,
Mom. I'm going to be a comedian so I never have to see you cry again.'
Because at that particular time, I thought comedians relieved my mother of her
pain. And that's something that I always wanted to do.

GROSS: So what were some of the jokes that went over real big when you were a
boy?

Mr. MAC: I think none. I think that I was a struggling comic, but in my
mind I was successful. People said I was stupid, I was silly. They said I
was buffoonish. I used to dress up, put on my mother wig, put on my
grandmother slip coat. I'd dress up as a woman and portray as Bernice. That
was one of the characters that I created as a young boy, was Bernice. And it
wasn't about being a homosexual or anything like that. I was portraying a
woman. And I used to talk like a woman, put on my grandmother glasses, and I
used to mimic

(Talking in female voice) `Y'all better quit playing up in here. Everybody
better go to bed. I'm sick and tired of all this mess. Lord, Lord.'

And that's how my grandmother used to talk.

GROSS: Right. Who were the comics you loved to listen to when you were
growing up?

Mr. MAC: Sweetheart, I was a student of the game, I had so many. I mean,
from Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley, Pigmeat Markum, Jack Benny, Red
Skelton, Johnny Carson, Steve Allen. Oh, I don't want to leave anybody out.
Jackie Gleason was one of my favorites. Norm Crosby, Don Rickles.

GROSS: What did you do to try to figure out what it is that they did that was
so funny? You said earlier that you tried to do impressions of comics that
you loved when you were young.

Mr. MAC: I watched what made them different. I watched what made them all
successful in their own way. And what made them all successful was style.
They had a unique style about themselves, not like today. You see one comic,
and he gets hot, that's what they want everyone to be like. They want
everyone to be like that individual. Don Rickles--I was so impressed with Don
Rickles, the way he can just come in and just destroy an entire room. I was
so impressed. And I was not offended as a young boy watching this guy and
some of the things--Jews, blacks, Chinese. I mean, he tore you up, but you
knew it was a joke. I got it right away. I was not offended. I was not
saying, `Did you hear what he said?' He was funny.

Jackie Gleason was so impressive to me, whereas he never rehearsed. He
ad-libbed so well, and he took--the energy that he had was something that I
wanted. That's a page of his notebook that I've tested.

GROSS: How did you figure out who you were going to be on stage as a comic?

Mr. MAC: I didn't figure it out until 1987. It's just something that came
to me. I combined them all. Richard Pryor showed me how to laugh at
yourself. That was something that was unheard of, to laugh at your pain.
Redd Foxx was nothing but Richard Pryor, but he was denied. Richard Pryor
modified and moderated Redd Foxx. Redd Foxx made 43-plus albums. That's a
hell of a lot of jokes. But America wasn't ready for Redd Foxx. They said he
was too blue. But Redd Foxx taught me how to be myself. Performing in
Hacienda Hotel in Las Vegas, he told me, he said, `You're a funny guy, but you
don't want to be funny. You want to be liked.' I didn't understand what he
meant at that particular time.

Well, in 1987, I did a show in Chicago, and I was performing and I wasn't at
my best at that particular time, and a heckler kept heckling me. He was
heckling everybody the whole entire night. And it was my turn. Everybody was
really scared to go up, because this guy was a big guy, big red neck. I mean,
he had a table full of cats, and they was just intimidating everybody. Well,
I went up and I was not intimidated, and he said a few words. I kept trying
to do my normal act. I got off my normal act, and I got on him, and the place
went crazy.

DAVIES: Comedian Bernie Mac speaking with Terry Gross in 2001. We'll hear
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: Today we're remembering comedian Bernie Mac who died on Saturday.
Terry spoke to him in 2001.

GROSS: Now when you were getting started, did you play different kinds of
audiences, some black audiences, some white audiences, some integrated
audiences?

Mr. MAC: I performed wherever there was people. I started on the El's of
Chicago. In the '70s I used to ride the El's and perform from 95th Street all
the way downtown. I used to do the subways.

GROSS: Wait, wait, wait. So how would you do it? You'd just walk into a car
and start doing your act?

Mr. MAC: No, I never walked into a car. No, I never did that. What I used
to do was, during the rush hour, people go to work. I would get on the end of
the El and I would go--and I would watch the news and I would read the paper,
see what was going on in the city. And I would get on, and people would first
look at me like I was a bum, until they got acquainted with me and they got
familiar with me, and they said, `Oh, this guy, this guy, this is the El
comedian.' And I actually made people laugh. And I had a box, and people used
to put money in the box. Then when I got to Lake Street, I used to go way
down in the subway, and as people be going back and forth, I would stand
there, and I had this little microphone, little B box thing, and it was like
my speaker; and I would tell jokes and I would talk about current events,
things that had happened in the neighborhood. And plus I would do little
characters and stuff that I had back then. And people would throw money in
the box. I made 3 to $400 a day.

GROSS: Wow, that's great.

Mr. MAC: But I was not happy.

GROSS: That's probably more than some of the comedy clubs paid.

Mr. MAC: Yeah, but I wasn't happy.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. MAC: I wasn't happy at all because I felt like I was begging. I felt
like a bum.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. MAC: I wanted to be legitimized. In 1977, I went to the clubs.

GROSS: Did you find that white audiences and black audiences reacted
differently to your material, or reacted differently in general?

Mr. MAC: Well, they act different in general, because white audience come to
be entertained; black audience want to entertain you. And white audiences are
more cordial, more respectful of the artist. And even if you're bad, I mean,
you know, the audience has changed. I'm talking about the audience back then.
The audience has changed all the way around the table now. But white audience
was more cordial to you. Black audience are--they just tell you like it is.
If you suck, you suck, and they don't want to hear--you ain't getting nothing
but two or three minutes. You come out the gate with that old sorry stuff,
you in a world of trouble.

GROSS: Now you opened for acts like Gladys Knight, The Temptations, The
O'Jays. What's it like to open for big-name music acts? What were the pros
and cons of that?

Mr. MAC: Well, the pros were that you made it, that you were on your way and
you were pretty good to be there. The cons were, if you believe that stuff,
you was in a world of trouble. You know, that's one reason why I don't hear
the voices. You know, you can be up today and down tomorrow. Comedy is
something that, you know, you have to really, really have in your heart;
something that you just don't wake up and say you want to do or be. Comedy is
something that has to be in your bones, because it's you against the world.
In boxing, you have single activity, but a judge can determine your fate, or a
referee can stop the fight early. Tennis, hey, a bad call here and there can
determine your fate. But comedy, you have no excuses. It's you and the mike,
and a bunch of people who don't give a doggone about you. And then once you
get out there, you're on your own. And that's one thing that I love about
comedy. I love that kind of pressure.

GROSS: You're in the remake of "Ocean's 11," the new versions of it. Who do
you play in it?

Mr. MAC: I play a character of the name of Frank Catton, who's a con man.
I'm the cat that enabled everyone to get into the casinos, because I know the
casinos like the back of my hand. I play as a card dealer. I'm a con man.
But I get the maps and I lay everything out and I get us in and out of all
these casinos. And that's my job.

GROSS: Were you a fan of the Rat Pack, and specifically of Sammy Davis Jr.,
when you were young?

Mr. MAC: Oh, no question.

GROSS: Yeah?

Mr. MAC: No question. Troy Bishop, Peter Lawford. I mean, Sammy, I thought
those cats were--Dean Martin. Dean Martin had a certain suave about him that
was undescribable. And honestly speaking, he sang better than Frank Sinatra.
Frank Sinatra, I could think of a million other cats...

GROSS: No. No way.

Mr. MAC: Oh, please.

GROSS: No.

Mr. MAC: Frank Sinatra's over, overrated to me.

GROSS: No.

Mr. MAC: But I like his persona. I like what he stood for, and I like the
respect that he had. Offstage, his presence was more powerful than all.
Frank Sinatra was mediocre to me. Andy Williams, Mel Torme, Dean Martin tear
his tail up any day. Those are my favorites. And Dean Martin was funny.
Dean Martin had a certain pizazz about himself that was just unbelievable.
Frank Sinatra just had that persona. He had that halo on him that people was
afraid to touch. And there's nothing wrong with that. I think he's very
talented. I love the Rat Pack, but that's just my personal opinion of my
favorite. I can name some more: Perry Como, much better singer.

GROSS: Now you're my guest, so I'm not going to argue with you about Andy
Williams being a better singer than Frank Sinatra.

Mr. MAC: OK.

GROSS: But if we meet on the street sometime...

Mr. MAC: You know what?

GROSS: ...we'll talk more about it.

Mr. MAC: That's a beautiful day.

(Singing) "I got my candy."

Oh, he was all right. He was all right. And I'll tell you what, whenever you
meet me, we've got to debate.

GROSS: You bet. I have strong feelings about Sinatra.

Mr. MAC: I got facts. I'm bringing facts with me.

GROSS: OK. I've got strong feelings about Andy Williams, too. I never
really liked him.

Mr. MAC: OK. That's all right. But he beat Frank.

GROSS: All right.

Mr. MAC: All right, baby.

DAVIES: Comedian Bernie Mac speaking with Terry Gross in 2001. He died on
Saturday at the age of 50. He'll appear in the film "Soul Man" which is
scheduled to be released later this year. In it he plays a soul singer
returning to the stage after 20 years. The film also features Isaac Hayes as
himself.

(Credits)

DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(Soundbite of "Soul Man")

Unidentified Singers: (Singing) I'm a soul man, yeah
I'm a soul man

Grab the ropes and I'll pull you in
Give you hope and be your only boyfriend
Yeah, yeah

I'm talking about a soul man
I'm a soul man
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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