Isaac Hayes - Shaft (Soundtrack)
It's rare that a soundtrack album can eclipse the film for which it was recorded but that's pretty much what happened with Isaac Hayes' soundtrack for Shaft. Sure, there's no doubting that there are still one or two who labour under some idea that it's a great film but their memory flatters to deceive. Whilst Richard Roundtree does a fine job of s playing private detective John Shaft, it's Isaac Hayes' outstanding theme song that remains the defining moment in Shaft. Even Roundtree's most iconic moment - walking the streets in a long leather coat - remains memorable so long as it plays in the background to Hayes' Theme From Shaft.
And Theme From Shaft is so obviously the highlight of the album. Opening with a cymbal, two wah-wah'd guitars - later ripped and sampled by hip-hop crews scanning soul's back catalogue - and a few chunky piano chords, Theme From Shaft takes 2m30s in which to build up the instruments one on top of the other. Over the guitar enters bass, drums, strings and brass before Hayes saunters in with, "Who's the man..."
Of course, even great songs have standout moments and Shaft's occurs at 3m23s. In the lead up to it, Hayes asks of the backing singers about this black private dick he's hearing so much about. Say, word on the street is that he's a sex machine to all the chicks? Damn right. Risk his neck for his brother man? Can you dig it? Then check this, sounds like this Shaft won't cop out when there's danger all about? Right on...
Sure you know all that but when Hayes half-laughs and attempts to confide in them, "They say this Shaft is a bad motherfu..." he's shouted down with a, "Shut your mouth!" before defending himself with, "I ain't talkin' 'bout Shaft!" Cheer for the moment when the backing singers let Hayes off and, yep, we can dig it.
It's one of the great singer/backing singer exchanges in music and despite Hayes' natural cool over Hot Buttered Soul and Black Moses, that minute or so of set-up and payoff is hilariously funny. Don't think Hayes could be so? Check out Truck Turner and see the great man as lover, fighter and, when the mood takes him, wickedly smart - tell me that's not deliberate.
Now, there's few albums that make it on one song, particularly if that song happens to be the one that opens the album but Shaft builds on that entry with a run of great songs, each of which are one-, two-minute trips through blaxploitation that were never bettered and matched only by Superfly. Bumpy's Lament and Ellie's Love Theme are big sweeping ballads, Early Sunday Morning and A Friend's Place are sweet little soul numbers, Shaft's Cab Ride and Be Yourself are thumping soul floor-fillers and Cafe Regio's is a light coffee-bar cut of easy-listening.
The second vocal song, though the tenth on the album, Soulsville, is a soul-blues in which tender guitar playing underpins Hayes' painting of lives lived in the ghetto. Rather than broad strokes and cliches about wasted lives in the inner city, Hayes glimpses as many individuals as is possible within four minutes with each character being given no more than a few words but, when placed together, Soulsville, is downbeat but amongst the best that Hayes ever offered.
After that, the funky No Name Bar and Bumpy's Blues serve to introduce Do Your Thing, the third and last vocal track on the album, which comes in just short of 20minutes. If Hayes lets the Bar-Keys stretch out, he still keeps them in check with each instrument coming in and leaving the mix neither outstaying its welcome or coming up short. In a song lasting as long as this, it would be all too easy for Hayes to let things get too loose but by 1971, the Bar-Keys were one of the tightest backing bands around and they make sure that Do Your Thing is loose and funky but with each note nailed down hard.
With a 2minute reprise of the Theme From Shaft (The End Theme) this single CD/double LP wraps up and its hard not to be impressed. Good as Richard Roundtree was, Isaac Hayes stole the Shaft show with this album and like Curtis Maysfield's Superfly, is a better record than the movie that birthed it. Sure, there's a moment or two when it falters - it's possible to get lost during a few of the instrumentals - but when it comes to the sound of early-seventies cinema, nothing just gets it like Shaft. Now if only Isaac Hayes had been given the starring role in the movie, as he was in the later Truck Turner, then Shaft the film might have been just as great as this record...