Hayes sang in church since age five, but stopped when his voice cracked in adolescence. Years later, "when I started back singing, my voice was in the basement." He was persuaded by his high school guidance counselor to enter a talent show, singing "Looking Back," Nat King Cole's 1958 hit. "When I finished, the house was on its feet, man, and I was a hit." Overnight the girls, even those a couple of grades ahead, were sending lunch invitations. "Career change! So I started pursuing music big time."
He joined the school band and learned to play saxophone from Lucian Coleman (brother of hard-bopper George Coleman). Hayes sang gospel with a group called the Morning Stars, doo-wop with Sir Isaac & the Doo-Dads, the Teen Tones, and the Ambassadors, even some jazz with the Ben Branch house band at Curry's Club Tropicana out in north Memphis. He started playing sax and singing blues with Calvin Valentine and The Swing Cats, and doing prom dates with The Missiles. He took a crash course learning piano by literally faking it for the first time on a New Year's Eve R&B job at the Southern Club with Jeb Stuart, "because I needed the money."