In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover the soundtrack to Shaft by Isaac Hayes, which went to No. 1 on November 6, 1971, where it stayed for one week.
When Isaac Hayes died suddenly at 65 on August 10, 2008, he left a massive discography that reached back nearly five decades and included more than 20 solo albums, dozens of collaborations and production credits—AllMusic lists 3,519 credits for him—and a legacy as one of the progenitors of the Memphis soul sound. Yet the many obituaries that followed only went an average of 17 words before mentioning Shaft.
The New York Times, 14 words. Billboard, 13. The Associated Press, 16. People, a scant nine. The Washington Post, 13. CNN and Variety made it into the 20s. Even in a follow-up story with the headline “More Than ‘Shaft’: Hayes Was Major Influence,” Billboard conceded the theme song from the 1971 blaxploitation film was “the defining work of Hayes’ career.”
Hayes wrote and performed the entire soundtrack to Shaft, which stretched 15 mostly instrumental tracks across two LPs, but when people talk about the Shaft soundtrack, they’re usually talking about its opening salvo, “Theme From Shaft,” which made for one of the most unforgettable opening-credits sequences in film history.
Were it not for Hayes’ soundtrack, it’s safe to say that Shaft would simply be remembered as an unremarkable entry in the short-lived blaxploitation genre. That goes for several of the genre’s films whose soundtracks provided some measure of immortality, such as Super Fly, Across 110th Street, Black Caesar, and The Mack, but only Hayes’ work earned an Oscar for Best Original Song (the first time a black person won the award), two Grammys, and a Golden Globe. The Shaft soundtrack would become the fastest-selling album in the history of Stax Records, the storied Memphis soul label that released it.
Hayes had never scored a film when he was approached by director Gordon Parks, but he was hardly an unknown quantity: He had a long history as a musician, songwriter, and producer for Stax, and his 1969 solo album, Hot Buttered Soul, still qualifies as one of the boldest R&B/soul records of all time. But none of that necessarily meant Hayes knew how to score a film, so producers flew him to New York to see raw footage of three scenes to score as a sort of test.
“I never did read the screenplay or the book,” Hayes told The New York Times in 1972. “They thought I did, but I didn’t. Even so, I had ‘Ellie’s Love Theme’ and part of the main theme written down by the time I went back to Memphis.”
He convinced the producers, but he hadn’t necessarily convinced himself. “I started thinking about big movie scores—[Doctor] Zhivago and things like that—and I thought, ‘Wow, can I do that?’” The producers had brought on a consultant named Tom McIntosh to help with technical matters and offer guidance, and he gave the 27-year-old Hayes some crucial advice: “You don’t have to go through a whole lot of changes. Just do your thing; be yourself. Your experience is a black experience, and that’s how you should relate to it.”
Hayes had written those three basic tracks in Memphis, but had to travel to California to complete the score reel by reel. Backed by The Bar-Kays and the Movement, Hayes famously had a culture clash when he first entered the studio, as he recounted in Rob Bowman’s Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story Of Stax Records. “We walked in, and the engineer says, ‘Okay, where is your sheet music?’ ‘We ain’t got no sheet music. We don’t use music. We don’t write anything. We’re just going to do it headwise.’ ‘Say what? You ain’t got no music?’”
Still, Hayes banged out the rhythm tracks in less than a day (they’d allotted him two). The string and horn parts followed the next day, then vocals on the third day. Hayes, who always struggled writing lyrics, finished writing some of them in the limo on the way to the studio, according to Soulsville U.S.A. It took six weeks for Hayes and his band to complete the score.
The most famous song on the Shaft soundtrack, “Theme From Shaft,” came last. Although Hayes had written a basic rhythm track for it in Memphis, he wanted to complete the rest of the score before finishing the song. “I wanted it to be a kind of abstract of the other melodies in the picture. I put them in there in such a way that they can’t be easily detected, but they’re in there, all right,” he told The New York Times.
By the time he worked on the Shaft soundtrack, Hayes had a large discard pile of ideas that never found a home. He and guitarist Charles “Skip” Pitts had recorded some experiments with a wah-wah pedal, but the track never went anywhere—until Parks gave some direction to Hayes: Focus on the character. “Shaft was a relentless guy,” Hayes says in In Their Own Words: Songwriters Talks About The Creative Process. “He was always in pursuit; he was always on the move. Gordon said, ‘That’s what your main theme should denote.’”
Hayes helped convey that using a 16th note hi-hat, something he had used in 1966 on Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness.” It needed something else, so Hayes remembered that wah-wah recording. “I went back and pulled that tape out and said, ‘Skip, come here a minute. Play this lick.’”
“When Skip played, I got down on my knees and worked the wah-wah pedal with my hands, then he got the feel and took over from there.”
Hayes had come up through Stax Records writing pop songs for the likes of Sam And Dave—soul songs, yes, but pop music all the same—but left to his own devices, he never felt obligated to fit into pop’s constraints. He only hinted at it on his 1967 debut, Presenting Isaac Hayes, which mostly featured standards that Hayes mixed into long medleys. The opening track, “Precious, Precious,” was edited down from 19 minutes to 2:42 for the album. But when Hayes returned with his landmark album Hot Buttered Soul in 1969, he didn’t bother editing himself. The shortest song on the four-track full-length clocked in at 5:09, while the opening song, a cover of Burt Bacharach’s “Walk On By” lasted 12 minutes. The closer, a cover of Jimmy Webb’s “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” lasted nearly 19 minutes and featured a long, spoken-word prelude from Hayes. His “raps,” as they were known, became a Hayes signature, particularly during live performances.
Although “Theme From Shaft” ran a relatively svelte 4:39, it still went 2:40 before Hayes’ vocals. (“Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?”) “Do Your Thing”—echoing Tom McIntosh’s advice—was 19 and a half minutes long, taking up an entire side of the double-LP soundtrack. Never before had such brazenly ambitious music accompanied what was, in essence, a Hollywood action film. “I was just trying to make it work within the context of the film,” Hayes told Billboard later. “When I finished on the soundstage with the film, I was just so relieved that producer and the director were pleased with my work.”
Shaft hit theaters July 4th weekend in 1971 and quickly became a hit across racial lines, and the soundtrack followed suit. It reached No. 1 on the albums chart in November, with “Theme From Shaft” hitting the top spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 two weeks later. (Surprisingly, the song peaked at No. 2 on the R&B singles chart.) An edited version of “Do Your Thing” was released as a second single in 1972 and peaked at No. 3 on the R&B singles chart. “Four years since soul had taken over the pop charts and coronated Aretha Franklin its queen, mainstream America was inured to the sound of true, unprocessed black music—music that told it the way it is,” writes Ashley Kahn in the liner notes to the 2009 reissue of the Shaft soundtrack. “A number of the tune’s utterances—‘You damn right,’ ‘Shut your mouth!’—became a ubiquitous part of American phraseology.”
Hayes took home a Golden Globe in February 1972 for Best Original Score, two Grammys in March, and then in April, the ultimate indicator of mainstream success: an Oscar. The telecast did its best to coat Hayes’ performance with a thick layer of cheese—how many dancers can be crammed onto one stage?—but it still must have been startling for viewers to see a bare-chested black man wearing large-link gold chains performing onstage during the same ceremony that gave Fiddler On The Roof three Oscars. (The French Connection and The Last Picture Show were the other big winners that night.)
As Kahn remarks in his Shaft liner notes, 75 percent of all TV sets in the U.S. at the time were watching. “Whoever had yet to feel the impact of Parks’ film or its soundtrack got a wake-up call as to the state of black pride, black attitude, and black music in 1972.”
Hollywood sure did. Shaft cost $1.2 million to make but earned back $10.8 million during its first year, which “confirmed the industry’s discovery of a hungry black audience that would wait in lines around the block to see black heroes victorious on screen,” writes Ed Guerrero in Framing Blackness: The African American Image In Film.
Eleven months after Hayes’ soundtrack reached No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart, the soundtrack to another blaxploitation film, again written and performed by a black musician, took the top spot: Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly. Where Shaft held the position for one week, Super Fly did it for four. Bobby Womack’s soundtrack for Across 110th Street also came out in 1972.
A slew of black soundtracks for black films would follow in 1973: Marvin Gaye and Trouble Man; James Brown and Black Caesar; Motown’s Willie Hutch and The Mack (along with Foxy Brown in 1974); vibraphonist Roy Ayers and Coffy. Motown producer Norman Whitfield would do Car Wash in 1976. (Ice-T assembled some of the best tracks from all of them on the 1992 compilation Pimps, Players & Private Eyes.)
And that’s just the respectable ones—the sound Hayes crafted on the Shaft soundtrack would be imitated and sampled countless times over the following decades. As Hayes told our Noel Murray during a 2006 interview, “the Shaft thing” quickly became played out. “Everybody was going ‘chicka-chicka-chicka-chicka.’ They wore that out. So much so that, you know, I kind of laid back, because that’s all I could hear, was me. [Laughs.] I needed something new to hear.”
Hayes would try a lot of new things the rest of his life, but “the Shaft thing” would remain a huge part of his legacy—so much so that people talking about him can only go 17 words without mentioning it.
Next: The Go-Go’s stay atop the charts for six weeks with Beauty And The Beat.