In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The blaxploitation movies of the ’70s are great, but they’re not, for the most part, good. These were cheap movies, made quickly. The editing was slapdash. The dialogue was hokey. A lot of the lead performances — the ones from Pam Grier, Jim Brown, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson — are absolutely magnetic. But a lot of the supporting performances are strictly amateur-hour. The “exploitation” part of the term “blaxploitation” is no joke; this was a case of film executives pandering to a specific market as cheaply as they could. For any number of reasons, they are amazing viewing experiences. But most of them are not pure cinematic wonders, except on one aspect. That aspect is music.
Looking back, it’s staggering. These cheap, formulaic movies had soundtracks from straight-up black-pop geniuses, all working at or near their peaks, all pushing themselves and competing against each other to come up with these sweeping, orchestral, breathtaking soul-music masterworks. Curtis Mayfield, an all-time great, was never better than he was on the Super Fly soundtrack. And the list of classic blaxploitation soundtracks is long: Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street, Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man, James Brown’s Black Caesar, Roy Ayres’ Coffy, Willie Hutch’s The Mack and Foxy Brown.
Gordon Parks’ Shaft wasn’t the first blaxploitation movie; it came after Ossie Davis’ antic and satirical Cotton Comes To Harlem and Melvin Van Peebles’ art-damaged vision Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. But Shaft was probably the first case of a major studio figuring out how to make an action movie for a black audience. As a tough and terse detective movie with a charismatic performance from the then-unknown Richard Roundtree (making his film debut, unbelievably), it’s a pretty good movie, one iconic enough that it’s getting its second big-budget reboot this summer. But most of us know Shaft for one thing, and that’s the Isaac Hayes theme song, a stunning and ambitious and deeply funky piece of beautiful silliness.
Hayes’ Shaft score isn’t one of the best blaxploitation soundtrack albums, mostly because it’s an actual film score, slow and moody and mostly instrumental. But Hayes, a self-taught visionary who was right in the midst of remaking soul music in his own image, was still the best possible candidate to score the first major blaxploitation movie. And in Shaft‘s theme song, Hayes figured out how to communicate everything you needed to know about Shaft — about the movie, about the character, and about the entire nascent genre of films.
Hayes grew up dirt-poor in Tennessee. His father left, and his mother died young, so his sharecropper grandparents raised him. When Hayes won the Best Original Song Oscar for “Theme From Shaft” — the first black non-actor ever to win any Oscar — he brought his grandmother to the ceremony and dedicated the award to her. Hayes was working on farms as a kid, and he dropped out of high school at 16, though he went back to finish his diploma a few years later. He started out singing in church, and that’s where he taught himself to play piano, organ, flute, and saxophone. As a teenager in the late ’50s, Hayes worked in Memphis meatpacking plants and spent his nights playing in local clubs.
Eventually, Hayes went to work for Stax Records, the local Southern-soul label that proved to be a sweaty, grimy alternative to what Motown was doing at the time. Hayes started out as a session musician, and he soon became a producer and a songwriter, cranking out a ton of hard-squelching hits with his regular collaborator Dave Porter. (Hayes and Porter wrote Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man,” which spent three weeks stuck at #2 behind Lulu’s “To Sir With Love.” It’s a 9.)
After the 1967 death of Otis Redding, Stax’s biggest star, the label had to reinvent itself, and Hayes became a solo artist. He found his voice with his 1969 sophomore album Hot Buttered Soul, a massively sprawling and ambitious double album. Hayes would take well-known songs, like Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s Dionne Warwick hit “Walk On By,” and he would turn them into existential deep-funk symphonies, spending entire record-sides intoning deeply over chicken-scratch guitars and swirling strings. His “Walk On By” cover is 12 minutes long, and it sounds absolutely nothing like the original, but Hayes still got it as high as #30. Ideas like that tend to change things, and soul music got a whole lot spacier and more ambitious once people started to play catch-up to Isaac Hayes.
Hayes didn’t have any grand designs on film scoring, but his style fit the form perfectly. Shaft producer Joel Freeman got Hayes to write the score by promising him the chance to audition for the movie’s lead role, even though he’d never acted before. Hayes never got that audition, but he did the music anyway. He ended up making a cameo as a bartender in the movie. Later on, in movies like Three The Hard Way and Truck Turner, Hayes became a straight-up blaxploitation star, and he bounced from that into a full-on acting career. I will always think of him as the A-number-one Duke Of New York in John Carpenter’s 1981 classic Escape From New York, and that is a great thing to be.
There is so much going on musically on “Theme From Shaft.” The opening is a tense strut, those wah-wah guitars and shivery hi-hats implying both danger and coolness in the face of it. Hayes keeps piling on new elements: The heavy piano notes, the contemplative flute-tootles, the languid funk horns, the melodramatic strings. It’s a groove that keeps expanding and expanding, pushing in different directions before Hayes’ voice even comes in.
And when Hayes comes in, he’s just talking about Detective John Shaft in a way that you would want someone to talk about you. Hayes only says five things about Shaft, but all of them are iconic. Shaft is the black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks. Shaft is the man who would risk his neck for his brotherman. Shaft is the cat who won’t cop out when there’s danger all about. This cat Shaft is a bad mother. Shaft is a complicated man, but no one understands him but his woman. And that’s it. That’s all you need to know. The last of those claims is demonstrably false; the movie, if I’m remembering it right, offers no evidence that Shaft’s woman understands him, or even that he only has one woman. Doesn’t matter. Hayes says it just right.
You can almost hear the glint in Hayes’ eye as he’s saying all this. He knows that he’s being mythic, and ridiculous, and funny. He knows that everything he’s saying is both massively cool and deeply goofy. There’s a humor in his interplay with the backing singers, the ones who crow “shut your mouth” when he starts to cuss. (One of those backing singers was Thelma Hopkins, a member of Dawn and thus a participant in some of worst hit songs of the ’70s, but she still has this one on her resume.) “Theme From Shaft” must’ve been instant kitsch, but it’s knowing instant kitsch. Hayes is in on the joke, and at the same time, he’s deadly serious. You can’t create a piece of music like this unless you’re serious.
Blaxploitation funk is one of the all-time great pop-music phenomena, and yet “Theme From Shaft” is the only #1 single that the genre ever yielded. That’s too bad. But at least America picked the right one.
BONUS BEATS: There are, as you can probably imagine, so many rap songs that sample “Theme From Shaft.” So let’s just go with the best one. Here’s Jay-Z, the Lox, Beanie Sigel, and Sauce Money rapping absurdly hard over a “Theme From Shaft” sample on Jay’s 1998 posse-cut classic “Reservoir Dogs”:
(Jay-Z will eventually show up in this column. So will the Lox, at least in a guest-rapper capacity. None of the non-Jay rappers have never had a top-10 single as lead artists, but Jadakiss and Styles P did guest on Jennifer Lopez’s 2002 single “Jenny From The Block,” which peaked at #3. It’s a 6.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: There are also so many parodies of “Theme From Shaft.” So again, let’s go with the best one. Here’s “Cookie Disco,” the 1977 Sesame Street bit where Cookie Monster becomes an extremely hungry Isaac Hayes:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from the Japanese-restaurant episode of The Simpsons — the same episode that showed up in the Bonus Beats of yesterday’s column — where Bart and Lisa do a karaoke version of “Theme From Shaft“: