By David Waters
Thank goodness Isaac Hayes wrote “Soul Man” before he became a Scientologist. Whatever would have become of Sam and Dave or the Blues Brothers if they had belted out a song called “Thetan Man”?
According to beliefs promoted by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, the immortal soul — or “thetan” — passes from one body to the next through reincarnations over trillions of years. When a person dies, Hubbard said, the thetan goes to a landing station on Venus where it is programmed with lies about its past life and its next one.
Hubbard taught his followers to choose a location other than Venus. So here’s hoping that Hayes, who died Sunday at age 65, chose to keep his immortal soul in Memphis where it belongs, and where he made me question my own suspicions about all Scientologists.
That Hayes was a Scientologist was known to everyone who ever visited South Park, the animated show for which Hayes was the voice of the soulful cafeteria worker Chef, a role he quit in 2006 after an episode mocked his religion and fellow Scientologist Tom Cruise.
The church of Scientology has always seemed beyond bizarre — grounded more in a Me-ology than a Theology — but of all the celebrity Scientologists in America, Hayes was the only one who made me wonder if there might be something to it. He was the only one who didn’t fit the mold.
Hayes grew up in the Baptistcostal (equal parts Baptist and Pentecostal) streets of inner-city Memphis, where Jesus walks with hustlers and dealers. He was baptized in Soulsville, the heart of the Memphis soul music world populated by such stars as David Porter (brother of a Pentecostal bishop), Aretha Franklin (daughter of a Baptist preacher) and Al Green (who became the Rev. Al Green). Writing hit songs for Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and himself, Hayes became the Black Moses of Memphis Soul, a funky blend of gospel and blues, church and street, sacred and profane.
Scientology is as welcome in Memphis as Falun Gong is in Beijing. And yet in 1997, Hayes and Lisa Marie Presley funded a Scientology mission church in Memphis. Later that year, they threw a Christmas party at the church, which I covered. It was a surreal site watching the Black Moses and the daughter of The King promoting Dianetics while singing Christmas songs to inner-city children in the land of the Delta blues.
Hayes saw something in Scientology that he thought would help inner-city children. He was introduced to Hubbard’s work in the mid-1990s by Rev. Alfreddie Johnson, a former Baptist pastor who joined Scientology after the L.A. riots in 1992. At Johnson’s urging, Hayes took two Dianetics classes, “The Ups and Downs of Life” and “Personal Values and Integrity.”
“These were the tools that I had been looking for, to improve my life and other people’s lives,” Hayes told the Memphis Flyer in a 1998 interview. “Scientology is the key to life and total freedom. The minute that I started doing these courses and things, I started pulling in all kinds of wonderful jobs. It’s the key to my survival. Knowledge about one’s self is always the key to one’s survival.”
Hayes joined Johnson’s World Literacy Crusade, an organization that uses Hubbard’s “study technology” to promote literacy inner-city neighborhoods. Critics say it’s merely a ruse to promote Scientology in the schools. Hayes defended the program in a 1998 A&E documentary called “Inside Scientology.”
“If a building is on fire and my child is on the second or third floor, do you care, do you think I care about who comes to save my child? We’re just simply talking about saving lives, and some people try to confuse the issues. “Oh, don’t take that stuff ’cause they’re going to try to make you become a Scientologist.” No, no, no, no, no.”
Maybe Hayes was just spouting the company line, and I still think Scientology is beyond bizarre, but if it worked for Shaft and Chef, for a man who took his grandmother to the Academy Awards where he was honored for writing a song about “a sex machine to all the chicks”, then right on. I can dig it.