R.I.P. Isaac Hayes (1942-2008)

Presenting the late great Black MosesIsaac Hayes passed away today (August 10th), just 10 days shy of his 66th birthday, and although he’ll be best remembered by film fans as the man who wrote the famous Oscar-winning theme for Shaft, he was a multi-talented and highly charismatic person who knew he was an important cultural force.

As the first African American to win an Oscar for Best Song composition, he furthered the steps begun in 1968 when Quincy Jones’ theme for Banning and score for In Cold Blood (both 1968) earned Oscar nominations. Jazz had been around in film music for decades, but when Hayes won the bald gold statue in 1971, it was an acknowledgement that blues, jazz, soul, and the lyricism of African American music was a permanent force in the film industry.

The success of Shaft spawned a mass (and some would argue a mess) of increasingly cheap and derivative Blaxploitation films until the Hollywood studios gave up on a genre they created purely for money.

Shaft, as its director Gordon Parks stated in his autobiography, was an attempt to prove black talent was just as good as white, in front and behind the camera. Shaft was made out of a need by indie talent to survive in an industry dominated by studios still desperately trying to connect with younger audiences, and to prove black is beautiful; headed by Richard Roundtree and underscored by Hayes, it was a perfect match of virile rebelliousness set to a graceful, funky, score.

Hayes may be remembered by other fans for his reinvented career as Chef on Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s South Park, but to really get a feel for the artist and his immense talent, you have to go back to his music, and virtually everything is in print.

The first time I saw Shaft, I was bored and found the movie technically rough, and its music dated. Years passed, and a friend (vowel brother MRI) kept going on about the music, so when I was still gobbling up vinyl from collectors and retailers, I snapped up the old two-platter Enterprise release to dub to CD as a birthday present, and you know, I heard something far different then.

Refreshingly melodic, rooted in blues, graced with silky orchestral arrangements, and wonderful percussion with a nice thick bass sound. Dammit. MRI was right!

Soon after, I had a flashback to the deleted LP floor at the now-dead Sam the Record Man, and all those Blaxploitation soundtracks with goofy covers I ignored because they were marked down to less than $3.

This was the sound I found silly?

The heck was I thinking?

The more I played the Shaft LPs (actually crisply re-recorded and expanded versions of the actual mono film soundtrack), the more I realized this was a style that deserved looking into, and to my delight Hayes actually scored two films soon after, even appearing in those films when producers realized Hayes was a striking presence (or maybe his ego felt he time to act had come).

It also may have come from his appearance in Mel Stewart’s Wattstax (1973) concert film, which featured a charismatic Hayes performing a great version of “Rolling Down a Mountainside” and the epic “Ain’t No Sunshine” (17:33), as well as the Bar-Kays performing their tribute tune “Son of Shaft.” Four LPs from that concert were released, along with two CDs featuring most of the LP cuts – all worth hunting down.

On his non-film albums, Hayes obsessively pioneered the ultimate epic songs that ran for 10, 15, or 20 minutes. The D-side of Shaft, brief theme recap excepted, is ONE SONG.

“Do Your Thing” (19:31) just builds into this massive thing with more textures and funky beats than anyone could imagine. Indulgent? Absolutely, but it must have been used by hot and bothered couples to underscore some epic sweaty foreplay, because the whole song is one big climax, coming to a needle-screeching halt.

Hayes’ song for the film, “Soulsville,” is a silky social criticism of drug addicted youths and ruined lives, and shows off some solid lyrics – elements that kind of went loopy ("A House Full of Girls") when he tried to recapture the sound of Shaft in lesser works like Tough Guys (1974) and Truck Turner (1974) – the two films in which he starred and showed off his impressive physique. The former was released on a short (and tin-sounding) LP, whereas the latter was given the deluxe treatment via 2 bass-friendly LPs and a cover shot of a topless Hayes firing a gun. (The instrumental intro from Truck Turner’s Main titles was also featured in Kill Bill Vol. 1, when Uma Thurman hurries in a wheelchair to reach Buck’s pickup truck.)

Hayes stepped away from film composing thereafter, and only had a few rare flings with the medium as composer, but he was a solid writer, a fine musicians, and had a beautifully resonant voice that made listeners stop and feel like something important or super-cool was about to be said, either in prose, or instrumentally.

Of his non-film works, I like some of the songs on some of his early seventies releases, but admit my tastes couldn’t get into his stylistic changes when shifts in pop, synths, and disco crept in and minimized the prior blues and jazz influences.

In the Shaft canon, Hayes had a song (“Type Thang”) featured in the sequel, Shaft’s Big Score! (1972), which Parks also directed and chose to score himself (having scored his own 1969 feature film debut, The Learning Tree). Shaft’s Big Score! is worth tracking down because it’s a great, cheeky mix of songs on the A-side, and a beautiful orchestral jazz montage of score cues on the B-side, with Freddie Hubbard screaming on trumpet.

That MGM LP is one that’s been deserving an expanded release on CD for decades, and one hopes perhaps Film Score Monthly might strike the same gold as they did in rescuing Oliver Nelson’s Zigzag (1970), another MGM release, from oblivion.

Shaft in Africa (1973) was scored by Johnny Pate, a veteran jazzman, and featured the incredible song “Are You Man Enough” by the Four Tops. The MCA Hip-O CD, The Best of Shaft, features all of the original LP cues except one instrumental, although apparently the full album was given a complete release in 2005. (The Hip-O compilation has some vocal cuts from the first and second Shaft albums, but lacks the bass oomph present on the vinyl discs.)

Pate also scored the short-lived Shaft TV series (1973-1974) that starred Roundtree, and has yet to be released on DVD. If MGM has any brains, they should replace the old budget DVDs of the first 3 films with proper special editions that place each in its historical context. The studio fumbled big time by sticking to virtual bare bones DVDs and lackluster transfers when Hayes and Parks were still around and undoubtedly could’ve provided some great material for a dream commentary that’s now an impossibility.

Various cover versions of Hayes’ Shaft theme were also recorded over the years, but the original is still the best. Like Nelson’s Zigzag, the LP featured re-recorded versions of the film themes, and it would be amazing to hear the original score recordings on CD, much in the way FSM presented Nelson’s complete music on a 2-CD set.

Hayes’ style was also heavily imitated in Italian crime films by Italy’s own (and still underrated) scoring giants – but locally, as part of the Blaxploitation genre (which Shaft really isn’t, but is credited with starting under the tutelage of major studios) some good music was written by some major talents.

To name just a few, Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man (1972) has a stunning, tragic main theme and a very innovative underscore that showed the gifted artist could’ve enjoyed a scoring career had Hollywood cared; Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s The Education of Sonny Carlson (1974) features a tragic title theme that’s oft-repeated, but beautifully orchestrated for large soul-orchestra; although Herbie Hancock came from a modern jazz background, his score for Death Wish (1974) is a classic, boasting a fine, brooding title theme, and some harsh electronic and jazz cues for the film’s assault and revenge scenes; and the great Curtis Mayfield scored Gordon Parks Jr.’s film debut, Superfly (1972).

Eventually Hollywood would've noticed African American composers (note the cluster crunch of titles packed between 1971 to 1974), but Hayes entered the scene with an unforgettable title cut, and a personal performance style that broke the mold of the composer as an older, quiet white dude. Hayes was beautiful, and if your exposure to his work is a song or two, or just South Park, go watch Shaft.



*** small postscript ***

Literally a few days after Hayes' passing, Film Score Monthly announced the September release of a boxed set featuring the original score recordings for Shaft, the complete score for Shaft's Big Score! and music from the short-lived Shaft TV series. The project was apparently a while in the works, and you can read further details HERE. Of course, we'll have a review of this delicious set when it arrives.

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