Isaac Hayes: I Can Dig It

by Jeff Siegel

I never saw Isaac Hayes do South Park. It would have depressed me too much — Black Moses reduced to a cartoon, playing a caricature of himself. Because Hayes deserved better than Canadian snottiness. In one movie soundtrack, and on one song on that soundtrack, Hayes changed black music, soul, and pop. And, in the process, he played his part in opening Hollywood up to African-American actors, writers and directors and establishing a staple of modern Hollywood, the black action hero.

Hayes, who died Sunday, Aug. 10 at 65, was already a leading soul musician when director Gordon Parks approached him about writing the soundtrack for a movie called Shaft. Hayes was an integral part of Memphis' Stax, the studio that gave the world Sam and Dave, Booker T., and the Memphis Horns. Hayes wrote or produced a host of Stax hits in the 1960s, including "Soul Man," "Hold On, I’m Comin’," and "I Got to Love Somebody's Baby."

Parks, already an accomplished photographer, director and writer, had a vision for Shaft. "Shaft has nothing to do with exploitation," Parks told me at the beginning of this decade, when I interviewed him for a magazine article on the film's 30th anniversary.

"I don't know where they got that," Parks said, still angry at how his movie had been treated by the critics and the movie establishment. "What Shaft was about was providing work for black people that they never had before, letting them get into films. That's not exploitation. Shaft was the type of film that Hollywood made with white actors. Cagney could have been in Shaft. But I didn't notice that they called those kind of movies white exploitation. Now, I'm not responsible for what the studios did after Shaft was a success, how they rushed in to take advantage of that success. What we wanted to was to get the movies integrated."

Shaft was affirmative action before anyone coined the term. Behind-the-camera hiring emphasized minorities, with black and white working on each phase of production. Ernest Tidyman's script was polished by John D.F. Black (a Star Trek veteran, oddly enough), and his job was to heighten the excitement; in Parks' words, "make the movie more black."

"What you have to remember is that Hollywood had never done a black picture for black audiences," film scholar Elizabeth Hadley Freydberg told me at the time. "All of the images, even in films like Cabin in the Sky, were developed for white audiences, and reinforced what white people thought about black people."

And one key to that was Hayes and the film's soundtrack. Film audiences had never heard anything quite like it. Consider that Rio Lobo, Raid on Rommel, Plaza Suite, and Love Story, with its treacle-like theme, were released in the first six months of 1971, the same year as Shaft.

Parks said he thought Hayes' sound — what one critic has described as "slow, somber and as slinky as great sex" — matched what he was trying to do visually. And he's right. In the opening scene, when detective John Shaft (played by Richard Roundtree in an amazing debut) walks from the subway to his barbershop, near Broadway and 42nd street in Manhattan, Hayes' music follows the character every step of the way, adding an urban sensibility and a sense of cool to the scene, establishing Shaft as an integral part of the city.

Hayes' double-record soundtrack, which he wrote and produced, won an Academy Award and a Grammy, going platinum in the process. "The Theme from Shaft," with its strutting, insistent rhythm section (featuring the Bar-Kays) and its wah-wah guitars (and especially its wah-wah guitars!) hit No. 1 on the pop charts. This was an especially impressive achievement given its intoned monologue, its 4 1/2-minute length (a very long song for radio 35 years ago), and that it was black music that wasn't Motown.

Talk to the critics, and they'll tell you those wah-wah guitars paved the way for disco, post-Memphis soul, funk, and rap. Which is how I'll remember Isaac Hayes.

(The promotional photo of Isaac Hayes is from Stax Records. To see the PG-13 rated opening sequence to Shaft featuring the iconic music of Isaac Hayes, please check below.)

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Billy said...

Two random deaths in row, it just wasn't a very good weekend. First Morgan Freeman gave us a scare, then Bernie Mac dies when people expected he was doing better. Now Isaac Hayes and the cause was unknown! I hope next weekend is better...

Read my post on Isaac Hayes

Read my post on Bernie Mac

Old School Fanatic said...


I'm sorry you never got the chance to see South Park while Moses was alive. You should consider looking into something first before making judgment. Isaac Hayes' character on South Park not only boosted his popularity amongst non-blacks, but gave many people who don't know anything about Black people, or racism in general for that matter, a bit of understanding. His character was even more significant because he played the person the kids in South Park turned to for advice when they couldn't go to their parents; which is something that happens too often in modern day society now. I understand your reasoning for not watching and I am in total agreement with some of their content, but don't make a comment on a show you never bothered to look at. That's almost like me saying Seinfeld sucks and I have not watched it because of what Kramer (can't remember his real name) said about N-Words. Have you even bothered to notice that Eddie Murphy is doing multiple cartoon characters, Ice Cube is doing children movies, and every black actor (except Dave Chapelle) has dressed up like a woman? Do you believe that they have lowered their standards as well?


Old School Fanatic

Jeff Siegel said...

I have seen South Park. I never, ever judge anything without seeing it.

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