A young Helen Washington seemed mesmerized by a multi-gifted, young artist, Isaac Hayes.
Hayes’ signature bald head and daring stage looks, with chains and barely-there shorts, made everyone sit up and take notice.
And, for a moment in time, Washington’s own bald head and spectacular style of dance became of integral part of the Grammy-award-winner’s stage show.
Washington died Feb. 23. She was 78.
Washington’s daughter, Donna Washington Kirkwood, said Washington was in the care of a skilled nursing facility to address the need for 24-hour care.
Dementia and other health challenges prompted Washington’s family to seek around-the-clock care for her. The Rainbow Rehab & Healthcare Center in Bartlett provided specialized care needed in her latter years. Those closest to her were at her bedside when she died.
Washington, once highly recognizable and associated with Hayes’ as a gifted dancer, retired from the stage after Stax closed in the mid-1970s and opened a dance studio to teach her expressive style of dance to a new generation.
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Hayes, who considered King a friend, seemed to falter in a period of anger and militancy, unable to find his way. But in 1969, Hayes emerged from that unproductive period in his career with a new outlook, according to those who were closest to him.
Hayes’ Black Moses persona stepped onto center stage, serving up Hot-Buttered Soul.
Washington was right there, creating her own space in the music industry with Hayes. Washington co-wrote and co-arranged, alongside Hayes, becoming a valued creative partner in Hayes’ distinctive brand of soul.
Not only did Washington write for Hayes, but she also wrote songs for other Stax Recording artists.
A creative and ambitious Washington started out as a wardrobe assistant, designing Hayes’ signature look, draping chains across his upper body, rather than a shirt, along with dark glasses and custom briefs.
Robes also were used during the performance. Washington helped Hayes create the image of “Black Moses.”
It wasn’t long before Washington expressed a desire to be a part of the live music, stage production.
The first thing she did was shave her head as smoothly as Hayes wore his. Hayes loved the look and brought her out front with the other musicians and background singers.
Washington continued to oversee wardrobe and costuming for the show. But her primary role was front and center on stage, along with Hayes.
On stage, Washington used her petite, sultry frame, not just to dance, but to create movement — mesmerizing interpretive, Washington’s look was bold and daring, which inspired her own signature style.
Large, chunky earrings and necklace combinations, dramatic, light eye shadow and with heavy lashes were her trademarks.
Sometimes in African garb and at other times, scantily clad, Washington influenced the style of African-American youth in the 1970s, who declared that they were “black and proud.”
Washington was immersed in the renaissance brought on by the emerging 1970s. “To be young, gifted, and black” was not just a hit song, but it became the cry of a confident and daring new generation.
Doors were opened, and affirmative action measures sought to level the playing field for “Black youth.”
Washington’s exotic look and style choices landed her on the covers of albums and posters, magazines and news features. She became almost as recognizable as Hayes.
She leaves also leaves three grandchildren, Martavis (Jessica) Kirkwood, Catrina Kirkwood, and Ashley (Steve) Brooks; four great grandchildren, Martavious Kirkwood, London Jenkins, Alaina Brooks and Layla Brooks; her sister, Jane Waye; her brother, James J. Washington; her god-sister, Vivian Renita Porter, and a host of relatives and friends.
A private service for family and close friends, by invitation only, is scheduled for March 10.