Behind every great music critic is an indulgent parent. You know, that long suffering parental unit who didn’t scream when you temporarily changed your forename to Vicious or Elton (as I did in the fifth grade), didn’t curse you out when you blasted reruns of The Partridge Family and treated them as though they were real relatives — nor did they have a heart attack when you wore your grandma’s wig while pretending to be The Beatles.
In any case, it was my codependent mom who kept me supplied with enough pop life-stimulants to get hooked on spinning black vinyl forever. From bingeing on glossy fan magazines (Tiger Beat, Right On! ) to overdosing on a prized 7” of Queen’s painfully beautiful “Somebody to Love” and blaring the latest orchestrated Gamble & Huff production, Mom made sure her baby boy had his fix.
Still, no matter how many blunts have been passed over the years, I’ll never forget that fall day in 1971 when I was eight years old and my black wax supplier brought me my first album: Isaac Hayes’s majestic soundtrack for Shaft.
Even though I had not seen the movie, the lyrical storyteller in Hayes brilliant single brought the character to live for me. At the time, I had no idea Isaac was a bad mother who had helped build the sonic brick house of Stax Records in the Sixties. Along with his then-writing partner David Porter, the duo composed some 200 songs under the name the Soul Children. Reeling off a string of hits for Stax luminaries like Sam & Dave (”Soul Man” and “Hold On, I’m Comin’”), Carla Thomas (”B-A-B-Y”) and Johnnie Taylor (”I Got to Love Somebody’s Baby,” “I Had a Dream”), these boys had the Midas touch for gutbucket soul.
Indeed, my introduction to the musical magic of Isaac Hayes was the hypnotic hi-hat intro and the watery wah-wah guitar of the title track “Theme from Shaft.” A funky overture that baptized the nation with the nectar of muddy waters of Memphis, the song was played on a zillion radio stations, hitting #1 on both the pop and R&B charts. Still, no matter how many times the track was pumped over the airwaves, I wasn’t content until it was spinning on my own clunky stereo.
Though it might be hard to believe today, in the post-civil rights era of 1971, there were no black super heroes seen on screen. But once that badass black private dick swung through the tenement windows of urban American pop culture, we too had a champion to call our own. Before the blaxploitation days of swaggering sisters and mumbling macks, the boys in the ’hood had to be content with pretending to be either Bond or Batman (I don’t even want to think about the amount of times I was forced to KA-POW! my little brother for refusing to play Robin).
Shaft was directed by former Life magazine photographer Gordon Parks, whose gritty pictorials of rowdy Harlem street gangs and roguish Chicago detectives proved he had the right eye to convey the hard rock dynamics of the titular character. As the Negro link between John Cassavetes and Martin Scorsese, the masterful Parks used the romantic decay of Seventies New York City as the perfect character, and not merely a backdrop.
Hearing Haye’s ultra-cool “Theme from Shaft” as actor Richard Roundtree strutted past the B-movie marquees in Times Square or the tense “Walk From Regio’s” as he strolled through Greenwich Village, was enough to make this Manhattan-centric uptown boy drool with Big Apple delight.
After Quincy Jones, who had constructed jazzy scores for a handful of Sidney Lumet films (his exciting music from The Anderson Tapes was a favorite), Isaac was only the second black man to compose a major Hollywood soundtrack. “Having never written a score before, I was a little nervous that I would mess up,” he admitted to me in a 1995 interview as we drove around Memphis in a white Caddie.
Yet, in a record-breaking four days, holed-up in a MGM recording studio with studio rats the Bar-Kays and the Memphis Strings & Horns, brother Hayes created a funky template that later inspired the soulful musings of Curtis Mayfield (Super Fly), Marvin Gaye (Trouble Man), James Brown (Black Caesar) and Willie Hutch (The Mack). After Shaft, black film soundtracks would never be the same.
Still, not everyone was as thrilled by symphonic soul and bawdy lyrics as I was — least of all my third grade teacher, Miss Wilson. Attending a proper Negro private academy called The Modern School, we were expected to be perfect ladies and gentleman at all times. Needless to say, this was easier for some than others.
Though The Modern School was in the heart of the ’hood, it was the kind of classy joint where the teachers played Mozart during lunch. I had once been forced to prance on stage at the Audubon Ballroom (the same spot where Malcolm X was slain) in black ballet slippers and colorful balloons tied to my wrists while the Fifth Dimensions wailed “Up, Up and Away.” Forget about Martin Luther King’s dream — this was his acid trip.
Every Friday afternoon our class was encouraged to bring their own music to school to play for the other students. Of course, I couldn’t wait to share the wicked Shaft soundtrack with the class. Regally sitting at a paper cluttered desk, Miss Wilson instructed me to walk over to the antiquated stereo — I think the needle was made of wood — and put on the disc.
Yet, once Isaac sang the songs raunchy (by ’71 standards) first line, “Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks? (SHAFT!) Ya damn right!” the fun was over. Clad in a quaint print dress and an ill-fitting wig, light-skinned Miss Wilson leapt from her paper-cluttered desk and sprinted across the carpeted floor like Wilma Rudolph. “What kind of music is this supposed to be?” she screamed, accidentally scratching the needle across the wax. Cringing as Miss Wilson ruined my record, I was stunned by her blushing reaction.
Carelessly shoving the damaged record back into its sleeve, Miss Wilson curtly dropped the album cover on my desk. Having regained her buppie composure, she hovered for a moment before screeching through clinched teeth. “Please, don’t bring anything like this to class ever again.”
The following year, at the 1972 Academy Awards, Isaac Hayes’ revolutionary soundtrack won an Oscar for Best Score.
Originally published at Riffs & Revolutions by Michael A. Gonzales.