- Grammy award for Best Instrumental Composition Written Specifically For A Motion Picture or for Television – Can you dig it?
- The first African American to win an Oscar for a non-acting category – Damn right!
- The best selling LP ever released on Stax Records – Shut your mouth!
- The first double LP of original studio material released by an R&B artist – Right on!
Shaft delivered all these for Isaac Hayes and more. Truly God hath no higher peak of creation than a completely bald man.
Ike was slightly suckered into his involvement with Shaft, fondly hoping he would be cast as John Shaft not knowing that Richard Roundtree had already snagged the role*. Now I would have thrown all my toys out of the pram at this time, luckily Mr Hayes was a far better man than I and stayed on board to write the soundtrack.
Released in August 1971** Shaft consisted of three vocal tracks and a smattering of instrumental pieces. Whilst the instrumental tracks grab the attention less they helped define a whole hip-hop aesthetic in the 90’s, the Beasties sampling ‘Walk From Regio’s’ for ‘Sounds Of Science’.
But we’re here for the big hitters and they don’t come much bigger than ‘Theme From Shaft’ and I’ll fight anyone who doesn’t admit that Charles ‘Skip’ Pitts’ wah-wah guitar is one of the best, most evocative lines ever committed to wax. The track was cooked up by Hayes having been given early rushes of Shaft leaving a subway and walking along the street and it just grabs that cool right out of the air. It struts and preens and is damn silly into the bargain. ‘Theme From Shaft’ fits the 1537 definition of perfection, you could not either add or take any single thing to/from it to make it any better at all.
(This may genuinely be the coolest clip of anything ever – this is what the inside of my head looks like most days on my way to work. The sheer WTF-ery of the ‘pushing Ike down a corridor’ sequence remains the pinnacle of all human culture thus far. True story.)
Where ‘Theme …’ struts, ‘Soulsville’ slinks. It is smooth as silk and twice as sweet to uncover; gentle backing vox, carefully deployed orchestration and some non-penetrative sax. Baby. Even after owning this LP for 23 years I still double take at the clever social realism in the lyrics. Right on.
Best track on Shaft for me is the ludicrously epic ‘Do Your Thing’, a quite frankly awesomely proportioned shagfest weighing in at a regal 19:38. Hayes’ incredible band just fill the space perfectly, no stretching, no dragging ‘Do Your Thing’ knows exactly where its at and where its going. There is a 3 minute single version out there, which is simply not the point – this is a whole wet weekend’s worth, not a Saturday morning special. Guitarists Pitts and Michael Toles raise the roof but the real star for me is drummer Willie Hall. There’s no more to say.
My copy is a ’71 original that I picked up cheap, way back when such things were possible. It has the added advantage that the sides are ordered for a vinyl autochanger – side 1 and 4 together on the same LP, it does get a lot more play than the, mostly instrumental, 2 and 3 disc.
One of my very favourite things about Shaft are the beyond parody sleevenotes^ giving a précis of the film’s plot, which never fail to bring me pleasure. Read on, right on! Worth the price of the LP by themselves, I love their descriptions of John Shaft ‘black, muscular, fine looking’ and his woman^^ ‘a doll, also black’. Priceless. I just wish that whenever I put my name to something at work I was allowed to insert the description ‘pale, muscular, fine looking’ after it.
My love of Ike Hayes and Shaft bubbled to the surface in hospital about a decade ago, I was in the X-ray waiting room whilst the orderly waited to come in and call us one by one. In he came and called out ‘John Graft’ and before I could help myself I blurted out ‘Can you dig it?’ and chuckled manically at my own joke. What can I say? I’m a complicated man and no one understands me but my woman.
966 Down (muscular and fine looking).
PS: Play the next track carefully, I cannot be help responsible for its powerful effects on the suggestible:
*and very rightly so.
**5 months before me.
^sleevenotes! Sleevenotes!! Sleevenotes!!!
^^of ‘only one who understands him’ fame.