Sunday, August 10, 2008

Isaac Hayes -- "Theme From Shaft" (1971)

I had Isaac Hayes' "Theme From Shaft" lined up to do at some point, but his sudden death today at the age of 65 prompted me to post this tonight in his honor.

While most people under the age of 30 probably know Hayes best as the voice of Chef in the Comedy Central cartoon "South Park" and his song from the show "Chocolate Salty Balls."

However, in the early 70's Hayes reached the pinnacle of the music world with his breakthrough soundtrack to the movie "Shaft," which was pretty much the blueprint for all the blaxploitation movies that followed it. More than the music, Hayes represented an unusual, sexy and magnetic figure for the the black power movement, enough so that his follow-up album to the Shaft soundtrack was a double album called Black Moses.

Even before Shaft, Hayes and his partner David Porter were one of the ace in-house songwriting teams at Stax Records, penning such hits as "I Thank You," "Soul Man" and "Hold On I'm Comin'" for Sam and Dave. When he stepped out as a solo performer, he first made his mark on his album Hot Buttered Soul, which was an early landmark in the "quiet storm" genre. The cover unveiled the trademark Hayes appearance: lots of gold chain jewelry, sunglasses, many colored flowing robes, and a closeup photo of his very bald head. The album contained epic slowed-down versions of Bacharach and David's "Walk On By" and Jimmy Webb's "By The Time I Get To Phoenix," with all kinds of soft strings and horns, electric piano chords, and Hayes' deep bass oozing voice.

Both "Shaft" the movie and Hayes' soundtrack were landmarks in many ways. In a first for a mainstream Hollywood movie, the black man was the hero front and center -- a handsome New York City black private detective played by model Richard Roundtree not taking any gruff as he tried to find the missing daughter of a mobster, make love to his girlfriend, and bully his way around Italian gangsters. With "Shaft" being such a success, it opened the doors for many other "blaxploitation movies" like "Coffey," "The Mack," "Trouble Man" and "Cleopatra Jones."

For the musical score, Hayes had a double-album tour de force of jazz ballads, bluesy riffs, and gospel preach-alongs, many with those unmistakable vocals, eventually winning an Academy Award. "Cafe Regio's," named after the Bleeker Street joint in Greenwich Village, was a superb jazzy instrumental, prominently featuring a bouncy octaved guitar lead. Another instrumental, the short "Shaft's Cab Ride," was used in WCBS-TV News' commercials.

"Theme From Shaft" was the big hit, a four-minute mostly instrumental journey through the urban jungle, mostly built on two chords, the wah-wah guitar up front in the mix and the pounding hi-hat rhythm keeping pace with John Shaft's on-screen plow through the streets of New York. Hayes' sparse call and response lyrics with the female singers were pretty straight forward: you don't mess around with Shaft.

Who's the black private dick
that's a sex machine to all the chicks?
You're damn right!

Who is the man
that would risk his neck for his brother man?
Can ya dig it?

Who's the cat that won't cop out
when there's danger all about
Right on

You see this cat Shaft is a bad mother...
(Shut your mouth)
But I'm talkin' about Shaft
(Then we can dig it)

He's a complicated man
but no one understands him but his woman
(John Shaft!)

When Hayes went to pick up his Academy Awards, it was an unforgettable sight -- imagine a huge bald black man covered in colorful robes, gold chains hanging around his neck and across his bare chest, gleaming sunglasses on his face, something that the mostly white Hollywood had just never quite seen before.

Here are a four great videos as a tribute to Isaac Hayes and his classic Shaft score. First, Hayes performing the song live in 1973, accompanied on stage by the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Then a wonderful behind the scenes video of Hayes teaching his band "Cafe Regio's" and "Theme From Shaft" and if you want to see how black studio musicians dressed and played at that time, well, there you go, with the funky clothes, cigarette dangling from their mouthes. Then a three minute trailer with numerous scenes and gunplay from the movie and Hayes' score ("Shaft! Hotter than Bond! Cooler than Bullitt!"). Finally, the classic opening credit scene from the film.

No comments: