SHAFT – Isaac Hayes

November 30, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

In the 1960s and 1970s the larger than life screen detective genre flourished with stars such as Paul Newman in Harper), Frank Sinatra in Tony Rome, and Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry. Producer Joel Freeman and MGM Studios sought to cash in on the genre and decided to adapt novelist Ernest Tidyman’s last book Shaft. It was decided that Tidyman and John D. F. Black would collaborate in writing the screenplay. Gordon Parks was given the reins to direct and he made a truly audacious move by casting the titular character with Richard Roundtree, a black former model and actor. In the novel, Shaft is white, and this bold move would ultimately prove transformative in the Hollywood film industry, unleashing the Blaxploitation film genre. Joining Roundtree would be Moses Gunn as Bumpy Jonas and Charles Cioffi as Lieutenant Vic Androzzi.

The film is in the Harlem district of New York City and centers on a kidnapping of a notorious crime boss Bumpy Jonas’s daughter. He sends two of his men to setup a meeting with private detective John Shaft in hope of recruiting his services. Against this backdrop simmers a turf war between the downtown hoods controlled by the Mafioso and the Uptown hoods controlled by Bumpy. Two murders escalate tensions and Lieutenant Androzzi of the NYPD fears that events could spiral out of control and ignite a race war. Well, Shaft is able to locate Marcy and arranges a sophisticated military style operation that successfully retrieves her and saves the day. The film was a stunning commercial success earning $12 million or twenty-four times its production costs of $500,000, which saved MGM from bankruptcy. It also achieved critical recognition, earning two Academy Award nominations for Best Original Song and Best Film Score, winning one for Best Original Song. The film was not the first Blaxploitation film, but it was a seminal event in that it was enormously successful not only in the black community, but the white community where it found broad appeal. It also showed that blacks need not be restricted to roles of sidekicks, villains or victims, but could successfully be cast as heroes. Its legacy was ensured in 2000 when it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

In a fortuitous twist of fate, Isaac Hayes auditioned for the titular role, but lost out to Richard Roundtree. However, the creative team was so impressed with his background and talent that they hired him to write the score. Hayes was already a fine musician and who had worked at Stax as one of the label’s best writers, composing songs for its top acts. In the late 1960s his style evolved beyond pop and began to include sophisticated orchestrations. He was also a master at setting a mood, and eliciting emotions in his music. He had never written a score and songs for a film, yet believed he had the knowledge, training, and experience of a musician to make it work. He understood that never before in modern cinema had a black man been given the role of a hero, and that this special opportunity could not be squandered. He further understood that this was a gritty urban drama and that he would have to speak directly and culturally to both Roundtree’s and Harlem’s blackness. His crafted his music and songs to have the modern vibe of the early 1970’s, so as to resonate with the black community, while also infusing the necessary energy to assist with the film’s pacing and narrative flow.

His approach was to conceive a defining main theme for Shaft, and then a series of songs and set pieces attuned to each scene. It suffices to say that his theme for Shaft perfectly captured the film’s emotional core, and Shaft’s status as a confident, competent and empowered black hero. Most of the syncopated theme is funky yet also soulful featuring a determined drum cadence with a rich array of instruments joining in a steady build. Soon a new rhythm emerges and is empowered by ballsy trumpets and violins energico, which eventual usher in a final rhythm change where Hayes vocal joins. The lyrics are racy for the time, full of swagger, and speak to black male confidence, as well as raw sexual power and strength. A second theme for Shaft’s girlfriend Ellie was also written, which has a mellow, easy-going ambiance, with the gentle swaying rhythms of vintage 1970s Pop. There is a definite slow dancing vibe, with strings and horns playing atop vibraphone, and the orchestration reminds one of classic Burt Bacharach. Lastly, for the action and suspense scenes Hayes composed rich textural writing offering an amazing degree of sophistication, instrument combinative complexity, instrument shifting, and rhythm variance.

The film opens to the pulse of street life with music entering at 0:46. “Theme From Shaft” supports the roll of the opening credits and offers the Academy Award winning highlight for Best Song, a song which earns Isaac Hayes immortality. We see a confident Shaft with some swagger walking through traffic on the bustling street carried by the wah guitar and percussive rhythms of his theme. His walking cadence syncs with the music’s and is soon joined at 1:42 with a new rhythm propelled by violins energico and ballsy trumpets as we see determination in his eyes. We feel we got who this man is when the lyrics join at 2:40 providing a much more raw, graphic, and sexually charged description;

Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks? (Shaft)
You’re damn right
Who is the man that would risk his neck for his brother, man? (Shaft)
Can ya dig it?
Who’s the cat that won’t cop out when there’s danger all about? (Shaft)
Right on
You see this cat Shaft is a bad mother (Shut your mouth)
But I’m talkin’ about Shaft (Then we can dig it)
He’s a complicated man but no one understands him but his woman (John Shaft)

Shaft comes across a street vendor who informs him that two men are looking for him with a description of their clothing. The music closes supporting his arrival at a shoe shine store. In a master stroke Hayes sets the tone of the film and fleshes out the nature of our hero. Lieutenant Androzzi meets him also inquiring why two uptown guys are looking for him. Shaft is not forthcoming coming across as a tough badass who can’t be bothered. He departs and Androzzi asks that he keep him informed. The Scene is unscored. In “Shaft’s First Fight” he sees someone one of the gangsters in a store’s and runs around into the alley and enters from behind surprising the man, who he muscles into an elevator, and then grabs the gun he was packing. Menacing piano chords, bongo sounds, forlorn woodwinds and metallic ambient textures support him forcibly taking the man to his office. The music intensifies joined by horn stingers as they approach the office. At 1:11 they open the office door and he flings the man into a second man waiting inside. Ever shifting drum rhythms and strikes with horns barbaro propel the fight as we see Shaft misdirect one man’s charge out through a window to a death fall, while he subdues the other man. He forces a confession that Bumpy, the uptown boss wanted them to bring him up for a meeting.

Shaft is questioned by Androzzi but he will not come clean and so is facing a possible manslaughter charge. Andorozzi agrees to give him 48 hours to come up with an explanation of what happened or he will lose his license and face charges. As he departs in “Reel 2 Part 2” some funky percussion ushers in a jazzy piano line with bass and guitar, which carries him to a telephone booth where he calls Bumpy. Bumpy says he wants to meet, and Shaft says he has an office and hangs up. Later, Bumpy meets with Shaft and informs him that his daughter has been kidnapped. He presses him to find her but Shaft is resistant. At 1:00 we segue into “Cat Oughta Be Here”, a tension cue as Bumpy presses Shaft to take the job. We see Bumpy tear up and Shaft agreeing to take the case with a hefty budget and freedom to move about in Harlem. Hayes scores the scene with random plaintive horn, piano and forlorn woodwind textures. “Bumpy’s Lament” reveals Bumpy’s tearful relief after Shaft accepts the job. Hayes offers classic Blues, with some Gospel undercurrents, which speaks to Bumpy’s anguish for his daughter, and his fear that she may be harmed or killed. We close with discord as Shaft warns Bumpy that if he ever sends men with guns to get him, he will kill them and come looking for you.

“Soulsville” offers a profound score highlight where this soulful song and lyrics achieve a perfect confluence with the film’s narrative. If you are a white person and truly listen to the lyrics you gain insight into the deprivation, sadness and futility of living as black people in America. For me it is the lyrics which raise this song to greatness, not the melody. The song supports a montage of scenes as we see Shaft canvassing Harlem and talking to folks trying to obtain a lead.

Black man, born free, at least that’s the way it’s supposed to be
The chains that bind him are hard to see, unless you take this walk with me
The place where he lives, God, he gives them names
The Hood, The Projects, The Ghetto, they are one and the same
And I call it “Soulsville”.

Any kind of job is hard to find, That means an increase in the welfare line
The crime rate is rising too, but if you are hungry, what would you do?
The rent is two months past due, in a building that’s falling apart,
Little boy needs a new pair of shoes, and this is only a part of Soulsville.

Some of the brothers’ got plenty of cash, tricks on the corner is going to see to that,
Some like to smoke and some like to blow, some are even strung out on a $50 Jones
Trying to ditch reality, by getting so, high,
Only to find out, that you can never reach the sky,
because your roots are in, Soulsville. Oh, yes they are.

Every Sunday morning, I can hear the church sisters sing “Hallelujah, Hallelujah,
Trusting the Lord to make a way, oh yeah,
I hope that He hears their prayers, because deep in their souls they believe,
Someday He’ll put an end to all this misery that we have in, Soulsville.

In “Ellie’s Love Theme” Ellie arrives home to find a naked Shaft reclined on her sofa. She comes to him, asks if he is alright, and he takes her into a kissing embrace. He undresses her and we see them making love. Hayes supports the scene with a mellow, easy-going ambiance, with the gentle swaying rhythms of vintage 1970s Pop. There is a definite slow dancing vibe, with strings and horns playing atop vibraphone, and the orchestration reminds one of classic Burt Bacharach. “Shaft’s Cab Ride” reveals him taking a cab ride supported by some energetic, funky traveling music, which perfectly carries the scene. At 1:02 we segue darkly into “Shaft Enters Building”. Hayes uses chattering bongos, portentous woodwinds, drum strikes and sparkling metallica to sow tension as Shaft enters the building, intending to meet with Ben. We segue into the song “I Can’t Get Over Losin’ You” whose female vocals speak of lost love. The upbeat tempo plays against the danger Shaft is in as he walks up a darkened staircase in a rundown tenement building. “Reel 4 Part 6” provides an animated piece that also incorporates a funky gospel sound, which again plays against the film as machinegun shots ring out and one of Ben’s men staggers in shot and dies. In “Reel 5 Part 1” Hayes propels the suspense by offering kindred percussive rhythms to the Main Theme, now augmented with muted trumpets, funky plucked bass as Shaft and Ben make their escape from the mass murder scene.

“A Friend’s Place” reveals Shaft and Ben finding safe refuge in Ellie’s Apartment. Shaft puts Ben up in Ellie’s apartment and then goes to meetswith Androzzi. The music Hayes composed was evidently dialed out the film. It features a slow dance-like ambiance with organ, guitar, piano, bass guitar and soft percussion. “Shaft and Androzzi” Androzzi alerts him of a rising turf battle between the Mafia and Bumpy, which he fears could trigger a race war. The scene is unscored. “Bumpy’s Blues” offers classic Blues, soft and unobtrusive, which plays in the background as Willy greets Shaft and Ben. He refuses to let them in to see Bumpy unless they disarm, which Shaft refuses. Willy concedes when Bumpy orders him to let them in as is. The Blues carry them into Bumpy’s office. “Bumpy’s Lament (Reprise)” Bumpy admits that he knew the Mafia kidnapped his daughter and asks for Ben’s men to help. They agree at a price of $10,000 a man, and they depart as Shaft prepares a plan to free Marcy. Hayes conceived of supporting the scene with a reprise of the music from cue 4, but the music was dialed out of the film, letting the dialogue carry the scene. “Early Sunday Morning” reveals Hayes channeling Bacharach, but it appears to have been edited out of the film. It offers slow sax driven piece that with piano and bass guitar playing over a soft drum cadence.

“Do Your Thing” reveals Shaft going to a bar to have a drink. Hayes sets the ambiance with a casual bongo supported rhythm with trombones. The song speaks of love;

If the music make you move, ‘cause you can really groove, then groove on, groove on
If you feel like you wanna make love under the stars above, love on, love on
If there’s something you wanna say, and talking is the only way, rap on, oh, rap on
Cause whatever you do, oh, you’ve got to do your thing

If you feel like you wanna scream, ‘cause that’s your way of letting off steam, scream on, scream on
If you feel like you wanna sing, ‘cause singing is your thing, sing on, sing on
If you wanna make love all night, and you feel its right, right on, right on
Cause whatever you do, oh, you’ve got to do your thing, do your thing…

Shaft casing the joint, sees two mafia gangsters and relieves the bar tender. He gives them Scotch on the house and drinks with them, noticing that they keep looking out the window at his apartment across the street. “Be Yourself” ramps up the energy and with wah guitar and a more festive drum line as Shaft talks with a gay man who alerts him that his friend Linda has the hots for him. “No Name Bar” offers a fine energetic set piece that has a big band vibe driven by a funky bass guitar, trombones, guitar, over a steady drum beat. The transfer of the melody to flute is a nice touch. Shaft continues to drink with the two gangsters and alerts Vic by phone who sends a squad car. When they arrive Shaft pulls a gun, introduces himself and turns them over to the police.

“Shaft Strikes Again” offers the score’s most romantic cue, where we see that Shaft has taken Linda back to his apartment. She clearly wants him, and so rather than wait when he goes to take a shower, she joins him. Hayes supports with a sultry, slow, steady cadence piece born by lush strings, woodwinds and muted horns as we see them making love in the shower. A scene change, which is unscored, reveals Shaft at the police station where Vic allows him to speak to the gangsters, who he will be releasing. Shaft negotiates a deal on condition he is granted access to Marcy to determine her status. At 1:01 we segue into “Return Of Shaft” where the romantic music ambiance reprises as Shaft returns home, caresses Linda saying they must do it again, but then asks her to go so he can attend to business. “Café Regio’s” reveals Shaft meeting Poerco from the Mafioso. There is no love lost between the men, and they agree to proceed to location where Marcy is held, but only after exchanging the usual racial slurs. Hayes offers a score highlight with an upbeat and breezy piece that perfectly captures the ambiance of the café. Soft bongo rhythms, guitar, bass guitar, piano, woodwinds and trumpets weave a wonder piece of music that just carries you away.

In “Walk From Regio’s” Poerco and Shaft exit the café and begin walking the street, trailed by Ben and two of his men. Hayes uses textural writing with slow intensification, weaving in and out various sounds from bass guitar, trumpets, tense woodwinds, stick percussion and frenetic bongos, which carry their progress. At 1:04 flute and kindred woodwinds join and propel the music as we see Ben and his two men trailing. At 1:36 trumpets move to the forefront as Poerco and Shaft enter a tenement building. We end on a diminuendo of uncertainty as Shaft puts a gun to Poerco’s head and orders him to open the apartment door.

“Shaft’s Pain” reveals Shaft trying to force an exchange with gangsters Dom and Billy; offering Poerco for Marcy, but Billy refuses to deal and fires off his machine gun. Shaft takes out Dom, but Poerco is killed by Billy and Shaft wounded in his left arm. Billy spares him, but orders him to tell Bumpy that he must deal in 24 hours or they kill Marcy and he has a war. Music enters as he kicks Shaft and exits with Marcy. Hayes sow tension again using intense and harsh textural writing with a grim four-note ostinato joined by chattering bongos, flute, piano, trumpets, snare drums, and strings barbaro. At 1:08 they enter Ellie’s apartment on a diminuendo, with the music shifting to vibraphone, forlorn flute, metallic effects, bass strumming and muted bongo. At 1:39 Ellie’s Theme reprises on woodwinds with electric guitar counters as she tends to her man. An accelerando closes the scene as Shaft is treated by Sam and he calls Bumpy to send cabs to pick up Ben’s men for the rescue operation.

“Rescue” Shaft and Ben organize their team for the assault and move upstairs both on the main staircase, stairwell and external fire escape to the roof. As Shaft looks through the stairwell window, the music enters with Hayes once again scoring the scene texturally, weaving in various instruments sounds and rhythms to sow unease and tension, including grim piano shimmering metallica, dire drums, portentous woodwinds and chattering bongos. At 0:40 an intensification begins with dark electric piano chords, chattering bongos, strummed bass guitar and wailing flute as they take the uniform of the elevator operator at gunpoint, and Shaft’s team opens the roof skylight. At 2:46 loud chattering bongos support the team knocking out two of the gangsters and cutting the phone line. The bongo and electric guitar driven textural writing continues as the teams move into assault positions. At 7:12 a piano tremolo ushers in the attack, which explodes at 7:24 as Shaft swings through an exterior window and guns down the lone gangster in the room with Marcy. Then one after the other Ben’s team takes out the rest, propelled by Shaft’s Theme as they all escape just before the police arrive. We end with Shaft informing Vic that his case just busted wide open and that he’ll have to close it. Shaft’s Theme is sustained as we flow into “The End Theme” at 9:36 and the roll of the end credits.

I would like to thank by Cary Mansfield, Mason Williams and Craft Recordings for the long sought historic film score “Shaft” by Isaac Hayes. The two CD album which features the remastered editions of both the original soundtrack song album and the film score offers excellent audio quality and an outstanding listening experience. There had been earlier Blaxploitation films in Hollywood such as The Story of the Three-Day Pass (1968) and Watermelon Man (1970), but while these unlocked the door for the genre, “Shaft” blew the door off its hinges, gaining universal appeal with both black and white audiences. It was a seminal event in the history of cinema that established that black men need not be restricted to side-kick, comedic and victim roles, but could play lead roles and be heroes. Shaft set into motion and firmly established the Blaxploitation genre that at last gave the black community films to which they could relate culturally and not be relegated to the sidelines. I also believe that Hayes’ score was also a seminal event in that it opened doors and possibilities for black composers. “Shaft” was the first widely popular film score by a black composer, which established that they were talented and capable of scoring films. Subsequent efforts that offer testimony to this include Curtis Mayfield and Superfly (1972), Roy Ayers and Coffy (2973), James Brown and Black Caesar (1973), The Impressions and Three the Hard Way (1974), and Arthur G Wright and Dolemite (1975).

In the final analysis, not only did “Shaft” transform the cinematic experience, but it also transformed the film score experience, serving as a catalyst for progress and employment opportunities for black composers. In regards to Hayes film score, his now iconic Main Theme song soared to #1 in the Billboard Hot 100 charts and earned the praise of the Academy winning Best Song. He also secured a nomination for best Film Score, losing to Michel Legrand’s “The Summer of 42”. “Shaft” was one of those musical songs, which captured a film’s emotional core, defined its hero and set the tone of a film. We knew all we had to know about Shaft before he spoke a single word, an outstanding musical accomplishment. Hayes song choices were culturally spot on, with his “Soulsville” offering a profound score highlight where song and lyrics achieve a perfect confluence with the film’s narrative. Hayes’ non-song tracks were textural, offering an amazing degree of sophistication, instrument combinative complexity, instrument shifting, and rhythm variance, consistently propelling the film’s narrative flow and sowing tension. This was an affirmation that a film could be effectively supported non-orchestrally using soul, blues, and funky guitar. I believe Isaac Hayes crafted a masterpiece, a score brilliantly conceived, expertly executed, and masterfully attenuated to its film. I highly recommend you purchase this quality album for your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to the iconic Main Title Song:

Buy the Shaft soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Theme from Shaft (04:34)
  • Shaft’s First Fight (01:46)
  • Reel 2 Part 2/Cat Oughta Be Here (01:43)
  • Bumpy’s Lament (01:44)
  • Soulsville (03:32)
  • Ellie’s Love Theme (03:23)
  • Shaft’s Cab Ride/Shaft Enters Building (01:38)
  • I Can’t Get Over Losin’ You (02:06)
  • Reel 4 Part 6 (01:37)
  • Reel 5 Part 1 (01:35)
  • A Friend’s Place (01:44)
  • Bumpy’s Blues (03:05)
  • Bumpy’s Lament (Reprise) (01:32)
  • Early Sunday Morning (03:05)
  • Do Your Thing (03:21)
  • Be Yourself (01:54)
  • No Name Bar (02:28)
  • Shaft Strikes Again/Return of Shaft (01:36)
  • Café Regio’s (04:23)
  • Walk from Regio’s (02:27)
  • Shaft’s Pain (03:03)
  • Rescue/The End Theme (10:44)

Running Time: 61 minutes 58 seconds

Enterprise/Craft Recordings CR00215 (1971/2019)

Music composed by Isaac Hayes. Orchestrations by Isaac Hayes, J. J. Johnson, and Johnny Allen. Recorded and mixed by Billy Brown, Henry Bush, Bobby Manuel, and Dave Purple. Edited by Daryl Williams. Score produced by Isaac Hayes. Album produced by Cary Mansfield and Mason Williams.

  1. December 13, 2020 at 2:22 pm

    Great review of the music, but you have made a mistake by saying Shaft was white in Tidyman’s novel. That is not true. Tidyman was hired by Macmillan publishers in 1968 to write a novel featuring a black detective hero. Shaft was the result. The book was published in April 1970 and picked up by MGM in the same month.

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