20 November, 1971
Staff at Stax Records’ headquarters, at 926 East McLemore Avenue in South Memphis, were elated. Released on Stax’s Enterprise subsidiary, Isaac Hayes’ soundtrack to the movie Shaft had become their fastest-selling album, topping the US pop album charts. Additionally, the long-player spawned a massive-selling hit single whose exaltation of “the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks” would enter the vernacular of pop.
How had they got here? Maybe because in early 1971 Melvin van Peebles had written, directed and starred in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song on a shoestring, using his own money plus a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby. When it grossed an unbelievable $11 million, Hollywood took notice. By the close of 1971 roughly a quarter of America’s film output was black-orientated and Shaft was top of the heap. Directed by Gordon Parks, the first black director on a feature film at a major US studio, it was promoted by black advertising firm Uniworld and starred the little-known Richard Roundtree as the eponymous hero.
A theme that musically replicated the macho image of John Shaft was required. Hayes duly fashioned one that delivered, propelled by drummer Willie Hall’s hi-hat rhythm, funky orchestrations and Charles Pitts’s insistent wah-wah guitar riff.
When the film’s producers heard this opening salvo, they commissioned Hayes to write the whole soundtrack. It was first recorded in Hollywood, but then re-recorded and extended to double-album length at Stax in Memphis.
Ironically, Hayes wasn’t impressed with the film itself. Though he found that “overall the idea was quite entertaining”, he added: “It was really a B picture. I think Shaft could have been a better film… but it was the first time for everyone.” However, he was ready to enthuse about the soundtrack, which he claimed he had personally head-arranged.
”All the rhythms, the strings too, but I had to dictate it to an orchestrator,” Hayes said. He said that what some had categorised as a unique string sound was down to his own ignorance of orchestration.
This failing surfaced during the first day of recording on the extended soundtrack. Sessions had been going smoothly enough when an engineer emerged from the studio to ask if the musicians were ready. Hayes recalled him asking, “Where’s your charts?”
“We don’t have any charts,” replied Hayes. “It’s in our heads already.”
The engineer returned to his post perplexed. Not that Hayes and his musicians, who included members of The Bar-Kays, had any qualms regarding what was required and the basic tracks were completed well ahead of schedule.
The results were sensational. Just two weeks after the soundtrack album reached Number 1, the Theme From Shaft single topped the US Hot 100. When Grammy time came around, the album and single would pick up awards for Best Instrumental Arrangement, Best Engineered Recording and Best Original Score written for a motion picture. Additionally, at the 44th Academy Awards ceremony, held at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, Hayes’s theme won Best Original Song, though it lost out in the Original Score category, where Michel Legrand’s Summer Of ’42 pipped it at the post. Even so, MC Sammy Davis Jr, who recorded his own version of the song with a different lyric, was ecstatic.
“Tonight,” he announced, “the Academy is honouring two films about my people – Shaft and Fiddler On The Roof.” (Norman Jewison’s adaption of the 1964 Broadway play had won Best Cinematography, Sound and Best Music). At which point Isaac Hayes, clad in a shirt made of chains, arrived on-stage to perform Shaft.
The film itself received generally favourable reviews. In the US, Time decided: “Shaft is a fast-moving pleasure… the movie hardly pauses for breath.” In Britain, The Guardian adjudged that ”Gordon Parks directs with a crisp certainty that is almost wholly enjoyable.”
“The rhythm was John Shaft – relentless, just like this cat.”
Several other blaxploitation movies briefly flourished in Shaft’s wake, particularly Superfly, another Gordon Parks film, which came graced by a superior Curtis Mayfield score that provided a soundtrack album of double-platinum quality.
But the surge couldn’t, and didn’t, last. The first Shaft sequel, Shaft’s Big Score, which featured a soundtrack fashioned mainly by Parks himself, did reasonably well, but Shaft In Africa (with The Four Tops providing the title song) and the Superfly follow-up TNT (featuring the music of Osibisa) both proved vastly inferior to the originals.
Blaxploitation, bless its exploitative sex and violent heart, quickly peaked and wilted. But Hayes, who remained a black music icon ’til the end of his days, and the music of Shaft, endured.
“The rhythm was John Shaft,” Hayes later reflected of his signature song. “Relentless, just like this cat.”