How Isaac Hayes’ ‘Shaft’ Reinvented the Game for Film Music

Fifty years ago this month, Isaac Hayes changed the course of movie music with his score for “Shaft.” Not only did Hayes, 29 at the time, become the first Black man to win a music Oscar for his title song, but the success of his two-LP soundtrack album assured that every Black action-adventure film for the next several years would be scored by a major artist of color.

“It was the achievement of his life,” says his son, Isaac Hayes III, “coming from poverty the way that he did, and the struggles that he had. ‘Shaft’ was something otherworldly for a kid from Memphis, Tennessee, that picked cotton, worked in a hog factory and got all the way to the Academy Awards. As a Black man, in 1971, it was incredible.”

More from Variety

“Shaft” came during changing times for movie music — it followed successful pop and rock soundtrack albums for “The Graduate” and “Easy Rider” in the late 1960s but preceded the bar-raising “Saturday Night Fever” in 1977 — and was a rare instance of a major recording artist without film experience not only composing the songs but all the instrumentals too.

Richard Roundtree as John Shaft in the 1971 film - Credit: Courtesy Everett Collection
Richard Roundtree as John Shaft in the 1971 film - Credit: Courtesy Everett Collection

Courtesy Everett Collection

Hayes himself acknowledged, in an unpublished 2005 interview with this writer: “It put me in another league. I was an R&B artist, doing my thing, and then I started scoring movies. It was a blessing in disguise.”

The film starred Richard Roundtree as a Harlem detective who gets mixed up with both Black and white mobsters. Gordon Parks, the former Life magazine photographer who turned his semi-autobiographical novel “The Learning Tree” into the first major-studio film directed by an African American, helmed “Shaft” for struggling MGM.

According to Hayes, who died in 2008, MGM approached Stax about music for the film, partly because the label had just released the album for “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” a low-budget indie with music by the then-unknown Earth, Wind & Fire. “I was Stax’s No. 1 artist at the time, so I said, ‘OK, I’ll give it a shot. I was excited just to do a movie score.”

He recalled Park’s advice: “You’ve got to capture the essence of the character of Shaft. He’s always on the move, roving, prowling.” With key members of his Memphis band, augmented by a small ensemble of Hollywood veterans, Hayes came up with the signature sound for that memorable opening scene: high-hat cymbals and wah-wah guitar.

As English composer David Arnold, who scored John Singleton’s 2000 sequel, also titled “Shaft,” puts it: “The vibe and the funk of it, with Roundtree marching around Harlem in his leather coat, cool as anything, you go, ‘Right, we’re in business.’ It tells the story of the character.”

Hayes’ son, a musician-producer and tech entrepreneur based in Atlanta who oversees his father’s estate, also views the “Shaft” soundtrack as validation of Hayes’ ideas about soul music. “He always wanted to incorporate flutes and strings, like Motown, and mixing the two was frowned upon by a lot of people on the Memphis music scene,” he recalls. “And if you fast-forward to modern-day R&B, you can’t imagine it without lush orchestrations, not just heavy bottom and bass. I would call my dad the inventor of modern R&B.”

The “Shaft” score worked spectacularly well, both in the film and as an album (which Hayes rerecorded in Memphis, extending many of the tunes). The driving force of the main theme, the sexy vibraphone of “Ellie’s Love Theme,” the evocative vocals of “Soulsville” and lively jazz-inflected source numbers like “Cafe Regio’s” and “No Name Bar” drove record sales. The “Shaft” single went to No. 1 in November 1971, as did the album. Hayes went on to win Grammys for the soundtrack and his arrangement of the theme; the album and single were nominated for album and record of the year.

The Oscars, however, were a different matter. No composer from the rock or soul worlds — particularly an artist who was accustomed to playing his music, not formally notating it — had ever been nominated for original score. Artists such as Duke Ellington, Burt Bacharach and Randy Newman had composed for film, but all were able to write out their compositions.

Hayes’ accomplishment flew in the face of Hollywood tradition and, not surprisingly, invited controversy over whether the “Shaft” song qualified under Academy rules. Ultimately he was ruled eligible and received nominations for both song and score.

“Hollywood tried to shut me out,” Hayes said in 2005. “It took some guys to allow me to be nominated. Quincy Jones, J.J. Johnson, Henry Mancini and Dominic Frontiere fought for me to get that nomination.” As Jones, then Hollywood’s top Black composer, told DownBeat magazine prior to the awards: “He scores his records dramatically. He thinks theatrically.”

Composer Arnold saw the achievement as groundbreaking. “It was the first time that a contemporary artist was handed the keys to a movie and told, make the world of this film with your music,” he says. “That idiosyncratic approach, singular voice and understanding of the character and the world he occupied — Isaac Hayes was intimate with that world, culturally, ethnically, societally. He was a part of the Black experience in America at that time, so of course he was going to translate that into amazing music.”

The impact was immediate. “Shaft” was among the 20 top-grossing movies of 1971 and launched the blaxploitation genre. “It opened the door for a lot of Black composers,” notes Hayes III, citing Curtis Mayfield (“Super Fly”), Willie Hutch (“The Mack,” “Foxy Brown”) and Marvin Gaye (“Trouble Man”) as among the successors. “People often remember the music more than they remember the films.”

The music, adds Hayes’ son, is “something that producers of hip-hop consistently go to for inspiration or just to find that really good sample.” Acts that have sampled cuts from “Shaft” include Public Enemy (the theme), 2Pac (“No Name Bar”), Dr. Dre (“Bumpy’s Lament”), Beastie Boys (“Walk From Regio’s”) and Big Daddy Kane (“Do Your Thing”).

Hayes went on to act in and score the 1974 blaxploitation films “Three Tough Guys” and “Truck Turner,” cuts from both of which turned up in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” films. Hayes said he skipped scoring Roundtree’s “Shaft” sequels (“Shaft’s Big Score!” in 1972 and “Shaft in Africa” in 1973) because “I don’t like repeating myself, and I didn’t think I’d do them justice.” And, of course, he was introduced to an entirely new generation as Chef on the animated series “South Park.”

Hayes was revered as “Black Moses” (the title of his first post-”Shaft” album) in the music community; Hayes III has hours of unreleased “Shaft”-style 1970s music by his father in his vaults, and he hints at the possibility of releasing some of it soon. He also confirms the story that his dad tried out for the part of John Shaft. “That was one of the conditions of him doing the score. He was like, ‘You’ve got to let me audition too.’ He didn’t get the part, but that’s OK. I think he’ll take the Oscar.”

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.