|"Theme from Shaft"|
|Single by Isaac Hayes|
|from the album Shaft|
|Released||September 30, 1971|
|Format||7" single, 45 RPM|
|Recorded||1971, Stax Recording Studios, Memphis, Tennessee|
|Length||3:15 (single edit)|
4:34 (album version)
|Isaac Hayes singles chronology|
"Theme from Shaft", written and recorded by Isaac Hayes in 1971, is the soul and funk-styled theme song to the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film Shaft. The theme was released as a single (shortened and edited from the longer album version) two months after the movie's soundtrack by Stax Records' Enterprise label. "Theme from Shaft" went to number two on the Billboard Soul Singles chart (behind "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" by Marvin Gaye) and to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States in November 1971. The song was also well received by adult audiences, reaching number six on Billboard's Easy Listening chart. The song is considered by some to be one of the first disco songs.
The following year, "Theme from Shaft" won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, with Hayes becoming the first African American to win that honor – or any Academy Award in a non-acting category – as well as the first recipient of the award to both write and perform the winning song. Since then, the song has appeared in numerous television shows, commercials, and other movies, including the 2000 sequel Shaft, for which Hayes re-recorded the song. In 2004 the original finished at #38 in AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs survey of top songs in American cinema.
In 2000, Hayes told National Public Radio that he had only agreed to write and record the Shaft score after the film's producer, Joel Freeman, promised him an audition for the lead role, which was taken by a then-unknown Richard Roundtree. Hayes, who also had no acting experience, never got the chance to audition, but kept his end of the deal anyway. Director Gordon Parks also had a hand in composing the theme, describing the character of John Shaft (the "black private dick/who's a sex machine/to all the chicks") to Hayes and explaining that the song had to familiarize the audience with him. Hayes recorded the rhythm parts on the theme first, scored the entire rest of the film, then returned to the theme song.
Hayes told Mojo in 1995:
"As this was my first such undertaking, at the initial meeting I had with the producer and director in New York you could see the anxiety on their faces. They tested me by giving me the opening scene - footage of Shaft coming out of the subway - to take away and see how I got on. I remembered a guitar line I had in a tune I'd never used, got it off the shelf and had our guitarist play it exactly the same, but with a wah-wah. Then I got our drummer to play 16-note sequences on the hi-hat and we had it. The core rhythm for the tune, the springboard for the whole soundtrack, we'd cut in under two hours."
The opening sixteenth-note hi-hat ride pattern, played by Willie Hall, was drawn from a break on Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness", a Stax record on which Hayes had played. Guitarist Charles Pitts' wah-wah effect was common in 1970s funk; the riff had originally been written for an unfinished Stax song. The synthesized keyboard is played by Hayes. Even on the edited single version, the intro lasts for more than one and a half minutes before any vocals are heard. The arrangement was by Hayes and Johnny Allen.
The lyrics describe John Shaft's coolness, courage and sex appeal and Hayes' lead vocals are punctuated by a trio of female backup singers. At one famous moment, Hayes calls Shaft "a bad mother--;" before the backup singers (one of whom is Tony Orlando and Dawn's Telma Hopkins) interrupt the implied profanity with the line "Shut yo' mouth!" Hayes immediately defends himself by replying "I'm talking about Shaft", with the back-up vocalists replying, "We can dig it." Other well-known passages include "You're damn right!" also uttered by Hayes, and "He's a complicated man/but no one understands him/but his woman/John Shaft." Hayes' utterance of the word "damn" made this the first #1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 pop singles chart to include a curse word.
The song was considered very racy for its time. As late as 1990, censors at the Fox Network thought it too risqué to be sung on The Simpsons (until it was pointed out that the song had been played on television before).
The song was not intended to be a single, but the success of the film and the popularity of the track in nightclubs led to a 45 record of the theme being released on Enterprise Records two months after the soundtrack. Within two months, it hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed there a second week. It peaked at #4 in the UK Singles Chart. The song had an enormous influence on the disco and soul music of the decade.
In 1972, Hayes performed "Theme from Shaft" as part of the Academy Awards ceremony in his signature chain mail vest, but accepted the Academy Award for Best Original Song later that night wearing a tuxedo. He dedicated his historic win to his grandmother, Rushia Wade, who joined him onstage as he accepted the award. Following the Academy Awards, Hayes, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Stax staff dedicated the win to the black community at an Operation PUSH rally. "When it hit so big I was in severe disbelief ..." he later reflected. "Then when it won an Academy Award -- it won Best Song, but the album was also nominated for Best Soundtrack -- I was in a state of shock. This was after the Academy tried to disqualify it, too, saying, because I can't write music, it wasn't my composition. Quincy Jones got in there and argued my case; saying that, even if I didn't physically write it down, they were my ideas."
Later that year, Hayes performed "Theme from Shaft" live at the Wattstax concert in Los Angeles. Film footage of this performance was recorded for Mel Stuart's documentary film of the concert, but was cut before the film's release due to legal complications with MGM, who would not allow Hayes to perform his Shaft songs in any other film until 1976. A 2003 remastered version of the Wattstax film reinstates Hayes' performance of "Theme from Shaft".