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Postcards From the Road by Joey Huffman: Isaac Hayes, 1989
1989 – I was home from being out on tour for a few months and needed something to do. I was playing in a local cover band when I got the call to play with Isaac Hayes. I thought, “Cool, he wrote Soul Man. He wrote Shaft!”
I agreed to do the gig, being too stupid to know that playing in a soul band might be different than playing in a rock band. I got some show tapes and started working on Isaac’s material. I was in way over my head. This music had a lot of fancy chord changes. I had to revert back to music theory and apply it to Isaac’s music to work out he chord changes. It was challenging but I made it work. There were three or four distinct keyboard parts on the tape and I didn’t know which one to play so I worked them all up. I vigilantly programmed the synth, strings and horn sounds. I worked eighteen hours a day for a week before our first rehearsal.
The day of the first rehearsal arrived and off I went. As I was getting set up, a man walked up to me and handed me a bunch of musical charts, something that would have saved me a lot of time had I had them when I was working out the chord changes for the gig. At the time I could read the charts but I couldn’t read them by sight the first time through. I do better when I have a day to memorize the charts.
I also discovered that my part in the band was to play electric piano and some synth lines. There was another keyboard player and Isaac played piano center stage. We ran down some songs and I faked my way through them. I kept waiting to play Shaft because I had all these string and flute parts worked up. When we finally got to Shaft I found out that all the orchestration for Shaft was pre-recorded to tape. The band played along with the tape. The drummer received a click track through a set of headphones. I was disappointed. I started playing the flute part along with the tape and Isaac turned around and said to me we’ve got that. Or in other words, “don’t improvise…just play your part.” All I had to do was play a two chord piano part and act like I was playing the orchestral parts. At the end of the song where the majority of orchestration occurs, Isaac would stand up and face the keyboard riser and pretend to direct the orchestra in a very animated manner. It was a cross between an orchestral conductor and Elvis doing karate moves. Isaac was a very big man. It was hard not to laugh at him and his choreography.
I was starting to think that maybe I made a bad career move. He didn’t do anything that he wrote for Sam and Dave, like “I Thank You, Hold On I’m Coming, Soul Man or When Something Is Wrong With My Baby.” He played a twenty-minute version of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” and a thirty-minute medley of some of his popular soul songs, which was the longest thirty minutes of my life. But this was the first step in my sideman career and being out of your element is good for you musically. Bottom line… a gig is a gig, so I just accepted my position and off to Europe I went with Isaac Hayes.
When we arrived at Gatwick Airport north of London, I was informed that Isaac’s people didn’t acquire a work permit for me. They told me to act like I wasn’t with them at passport control and customs. The customs agent that was servicing me seemed to know that I was with the band. He interrogated me relentlessly. He asked me who I was visiting and where I was staying. Luckily I had the addresses and phone numbers from some of the crew from the Keith Richards tour. He asked me to show him how much money I had in my wallet. It was very stressful. Finally he relented and stamped my passport and sent me on my way.
We played the Dominion Theater in the West End of London for my first gig. We take the stage and it’s going pretty good. I’m feeling good about my parts. Then we came to the part of the show where Isaac introduced his “aggregation.” He started on the opposite side of the stage from me and introduced the band members one by one. When he gets to the keyboard riser he explains to the audience that this is where the strings, horns, electric piano and orchestration was emanating from. He says, “Ladies and gentlemen, on the keyboards…Joey, ugh, Joey, ugh,” It was at that moment I felt the smallest I have ever felt in my life. He turns around and shouts over the music, “Hey Joey, What’s your last name?” I was so embarrassed I think it took me half the tour to recover. But I did recover and I can laugh about it now.
I played with Isaac for six months off and on. When I arrived back stateside, I started playing with my buddies in the cover band again. I was just having fun playing music. I didn’t care whose music it was. I probably could have been content to play clubs around Atlanta but like it has been so many times in my musical journey, fate would lend a hand…more to follow.