Hello there! This is another entry in our blog series Tim’s Cover Story Goes to the Movies. In these posts, we review a rock and roll tune that features prominently in a film.
This week’s entry is Theme From Shaft. This is a great funky tune written by Isaac Hayes. We will discuss the movie Shaft, for which this was the theme song. We will then review a cover of that song by The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain.
Isaac Hayes and the Theme From Shaft:
In an earlier blog post, we discussed Isaac Hayes’ cover (with The Osmonds) of the Dave Mason song Feelin’ Alright? Here we will provide a brief discussion of the life and career of Isaac Hayes.
Isaac Hayes, born in August 1942, was a noted singer-songwriter and producer. He was also an accomplished actor. During the mid-60s, Hayes was one of the many talented musicians who made Memphis-based Stax Records such a soul and R&B powerhouse. At Stax, Isaac Hayes partnered with David Porter in writing and producing a number of records, both for themselves and for others.
Below is a photo of Isaac Hayes appearing at the Montreux Jazz Festival.Embed from Getty Images
In addition to songwriting and producing, Isaac Hayes was also a talented session musician. For the most part, the group Booker T & the MGs functioned as the Stax house band. However, Hayes would sit in on keyboards on occasions when Booker T Jones was traveling, and Hayes also played on a number of the songs that he produced.
Hayes had written a few movie scores previously, but he really hit the jackpot in 1972 with the score to the action movie Shaft. The title song from that movie, featuring an iconic wah-wah guitar lick, went to #1 on the Billboard pop charts.
The theme song introduces John Shaft as cool, courageous and sexy. Isaac Hayes sings the lead, complemented by three female backup singers, whose lines appear here inside parentheses.
Each stanza begins with a question posed by Hayes (e.g., Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?). The backup singers provide the one-word response (Shaft), which is then followed by an interjection from Hayes.
Who’s the black private dick
That’s a sex machine to all the chicks?
(Shaft) Ya damn right
Who is the man that would risk his neck
For his brother man?
(Shaft) Can you dig it?
Who’s the cat that won’t cop out
When there’s danger all about?
(Shaft) Right on
They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother – (Shut your mouth)
But I’m talkin’ ’bout Shaft – (Then we can dig it)
So here is Isaac Hayes appearing on The Late Show with David Letterman and performing the Theme From Shaft.
Isn’t this a great live performance? Here Hayes is backed by the Late Show orchestra. The guitarist goes to town with the funky “wah-wah” sound, while the drummer strenuously pounds the hi-hat throughout the song. Meanwhile, the horns enter at regular intervals, accompanied by a jazz flute.
After an instrumental intro of more than two minutes, Isaac Hayes enters with the vocals, with his backup singers providing a chorus at the end of each line. The orchestra is clearly having a great time, and the audience loves it.
Unfortunately, in the mid-70s Isaac Hayes got into dire financial straits. Stax Records was seriously overextended, and local banks had floated significant loans both to the record company and to individual producers.
Hayes’ efforts to stabilize his income were unsuccessful, and in 1976 he and his wife declared bankruptcy. By the end of 1977,
Hayes had lost his home, much of his personal property, and the rights to all future royalties earned from the music he had written, performed, and produced.
Fortunately, Isaac Hayes was also an accomplished actor. He appeared in several movies, most notably the Keenan Ivory Wayans satire I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, and the Mel Brooks parody Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
Hayes also appeared in TV shows such as The Rockford Files, Miami Vice and The A-Team. Perhaps his most famous role was as “Chef” in the potty-mouthed animated cartoon show South Park.
On South Park, Hayes’ character Chef became an unlikely cult favorite. He parodied the sexual innuendo common in soul tunes with songs such as Chocolate Salty Balls, which – believe it or not – became a #1 hit in the U.K. This led to the release of a commercially successful record, Chef Aid: The South Park Album.
Eventually, Hayes had a falling-out with the show’s creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker. That duo would frequently create shows that lampooned the practices of various religions. After Stone & Parker aired a show that satirized the practices of Scientology, Hayes (a practicing Scientologist) criticized the pair and was eventually released from his contract.
In 2002, Isaac Hayes was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In August 2008, Isaac Hayes died of a stroke, just a few days before his 66th birthday. We were very sad to lose this funk and soul pioneer.
The film Shaft:
The 1971 film Shaft was one of the first and most influential “blaxploitation” movies. It was directed by Gordon Parks (1912 – 2006), who had an illustrious career. Parks first became famous as a photographer for Life magazine. He subsequently became an acclaimed composer, writing various concertos and symphonies, in addition to a ballet about the life of Martin Luther King.
Parks next produced and directed a number of documentary films, before being tapped to direct Shaft. He was the first African-American to direct a major-studio Hollywood picture. Parks contacted Isaac Hayes, who had carved out a successful career as a songwriter and producer at Stax Records.
Parks requested that Hayes write the theme song for his movie Shaft. In addition, he promised that Hayes would get a shot at the title role for the film.
Well, Hayes never got a chance to audition for the character John Shaft. That role went to Richard Roundtree, who forever defined the character of John Shaft. At left is a poster for the movie Shaft.
Richard Roundtree has a singular distinction: there have been several Shaft spin-offs and sequels, and thus far Roundtree has played the role of John Shaft in every one of them (a 2000 sequel, also titled Shaft, features Samuel L. Jackson in the title role; however Jackson’s character is the nephew and namesake of the original John Shaft, played by Roundtree).
The screenplay for Shaft was written by Ernest Tidyman and John D.F. Black. The concept was taken from a series of novels by Tidyman, a former New York Times editor turned novelist. Although the hero in Tidyman’s novels was white, the character was re-written as an African-American.
As played by Roundtree and directed by Parks, John Shaft was portrayed as a super-cool inner-city male; ads in Variety described Shaft as
‘A lone, black Superspade—a man of flair and flamboyance who has fun at the expense of the (white) establishment.’
Gordon Parks created a signature look for Shaft, who appears almost exclusively in a dark leather coat and turtleneck. It is fascinating that Roundtree appears extremely hip and stylish, even though Shaft’s wardrobe looked unlike anything inner-city blacks were wearing at the time.
Furthermore, Parks filmed a number of dark and somber inner-city Harlem locales for the movie, although Shaft himself lives in Greenwich Village.
Shaft is portrayed as almost supernaturally tough and cool. In addition, he is irresistible to women and comes off as rather sexist. There has been considerable criticism of Shaft’s treatment of women, and this has been connected with male chauvinism in the black-power movement.
I am unconvinced by this criticism. To me, John Shaft seems very much like a black counterpart to James Bond. One could argue that Bond himself treats women like objects, and that Shaft’s behavior is more symptomatic of a macho lone-wolf character than anything race-related.
Isaac Hayes’ Theme from Shaft had a tremendous impact on movie soundtracks as well as on soul music. In addition, it is credited as being one of the first disco tunes. The song is interesting in that it hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts, but only made it to #2 on the Billboard Soul Singles list (behind Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues).
In the movie, the song begins with more than two minutes’ worth of instrumental music before any lyrics are heard. Isaac Hayes contributes the keyboard synthesizer part, and most of the instrumental parts are provided by session musicians The Bar-Kays, who backed up a slew of hits for Stax Records in Memphis.
Initially, it was not intended that the Theme from Shaft would be released as a single. However, both the movie and the soundtrack album were so successful that the song was issued two months after the album soundtrack.
Here are the opening credits for the movie Shaft, featuring Isaac Hayes’ theme song.
The theme song begins as soon as the title Shaft appears onscreen. As the credits appear, John Shaft wanders around Times Square and Manhattan, dressed in his trademark brown leather coat and turtleneck.
The theme music perfectly sets the scene for the film. This tune won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1972, making Isaac Hayes the first African-American to win an Oscar in a non-acting category.
The Theme from Shaft also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Soundtrack. According to Hayes, there was a move by members of the Academy to disqualify Hayes from this nomination, on the grounds that he could not read music and hence was incapable of composing a soundtrack. Apparently Quincy Jones convinced Academy members that Hayes personally oversaw production of the music, even if he didn’t actually write down the notes.
The plot of Shaft begins when Harlem gang boss Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn) brings Shaft to his office. Jonas explains that his daughter Marcy has been kidnapped by a group of Mafiosi, and asks Shaft to free her.
Shaft communicates with police Lt. Vic Androzzi (Charles Cioffi). The cops are scared that the violence between black gangs and the Mafia could escalate into a race war. Accompanied by his friend Ben Buford (Christopher St. John), Shaft goes to the apartment where Marcy is being held.
A gunfight breaks out. Two of the Mafia gangsters are killed, while Shaft is shot in the shoulder. As he recovers, he formulates an elaborate plan to free Marcy, who has now been moved to a hotel room. As part of his plan, Shaft enlists the help of a group of black nationalists.
Buford and Shaft each lead groups of men to the hotel where Marcy is being held. Ben’s men are disguised as hotel workers. Shaft goes to the rooftop and throws a bomb into Marcy’s room. Ben’s men deal with the Mafiosi, and rescue Marcy. Shaft has arranged for a fleet of taxis to pick up Marcy and Ben’s soldiers. The movie ends after the plan is successfully carried out.
The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain and The Theme From Shaft:
The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain (or UOGB) is an ensemble founded in 1985. It is dedicated to providing arrangements for ukulele performances, and to educating audiences regarding the versatility of the ukulele.
The group generally consists of seven or eight ukulele players plus an acoustic guitar and/or a bass guitar. Over the years, the UOGB has performed at venues such as Carnegie Hall, the Sydney Opera House, and the Glastonbury Festival.
Below is a photo of the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain performing at Carnegie Hall in Oct. 2012.Embed from Getty Images
In addition to playing ukulele arrangements of classical standards such as Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, UOGB has also arranged ukulele performances for pop songs such as Bang Bang by Sonny & Cher, and Substitute by The Who.
One of the group’s more popular arrangements is their version of Isaac Hayes’ Theme From Shaft. Here is the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain (UOGB) performing the Theme from Shaft. This took place at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 2007.
Isn’t this great fun? The funky lyrics are performed deadpan but with wry good humor by the group’s leader George Hinchliffe.
I particularly enjoy the part where Hinchliffe deviates from Hayes’ lyrics and begins asking his own questions (What’s the most important element of a coal mine, apart from the coal? [Shaft?]. No, it’s the Davy safety lamp.)
As you can see, the group is a terrific hit at this venue. We wish them all success and hope that they succeed in spreading the popularity of an instrument that has been associated with Hawaiian music, although it is actually a Hawaiian variant of instruments brought to those islands from Portugal. Aloha!