Isaac Hayes would have been a significant figure in the history of music even without his solo career. His production and songwriting work at Stax with David Porter resulted in some records for the ages, most famously performed by Sam and Dave: “Soul Man,” “Hold On, I’m Comin,” “I Thank You,” and “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby.” He played on and produced dozens of sessions for other artists at Stax. When he began making his own albums in the late 60s, however, he left the world of the three-minute radio record behind for languorous romantic balladry: 18 minutes’ worth on “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and 12 for “Walk on By.”
Hayes agreed to score the movie Shaft in exchange for an audition for the lead role, even though he’d never acted before. The audition never happened (although Hayes made a cameo appearance), but the movie score did. The film came out in July 1971, but the theme didn’t hit the radio until September—upon which time it detonated. Soul stations WKND in Hartford and WWRL in New York City got on it first, but before the end of September, influential Top 40 stations including KHJ (Los Angeles), KFRC (San Francisco), CKLW and WKNR (Detroit) and WPGC (Washington) added it. The first to show “Theme From Shaft” at #1 was WAPE in Jacksonville on September 30, 1971, labeled “L.P. cut.” That is, according to Wikipedia, the same day the song was officially released as a single.
“Theme From Shaft” hit the Hot 100 on October 16, 1971, at #50. The next week, it made an astounding leap to #9. It went to #5 the week after that and #2 for the week of November 6. It was stuck behind “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves” for two weeks before taking the #1 position from Cher on November 20, 1971. It spent two weeks at the top, then two more weeks at #2 before going 6-16-23-31 and out, gone from the chart after January 8, 1972. Oddly, it never made #1 on the Billboard soul chart, peaking at #2 behind Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” although it did make #6 on Easy Listening.
The version of “Theme From Shaft” you hear on the radio today (when you hear it at all) is not the one I bought, or the one you heard most often back then. Stations today tend to play the album version. Hayes says, “Who’s the black private dick who is a sex machine to all the chicks?” The singers (one of whom, Telma Hopkins, was at the same time a member of Tony Orlando and Dawn) reply “Shaft!” and you hear Hayes say, “Damn right!” On the album, that is. On the single, the “damn right” is blanked out. On the album, Hayes says, “They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother” and is cut off by the singers—“shut your mouth!”—but “mother” is blanked on the 45: “They say this cat Shaft is a bad [pause] / Shut your mouth,” which was a little perplexing to 11-year-old me. The single runs 3:15, more compact than the 4:39 album version, a slightly different mix as best I can tell, and better.
As 1971 drew to a close, “Theme From Shaft” was the coolest thing on the radio. That opening high-hat cymbal, played by future Blues Brothers drummer Willie Hall, got your attention, and that wakka-wakka guitar, played by longtime Hayes collaborator Charles Pitts, was the cutting edge of 1971. And that moment, nearly two minutes in, when Hall kicks it and Hayes delivers that “who’s the black private dick” line, remains genuinely exciting after all this time.
(There is not a particularly good version of the expurgated 45 at YouTube. Here’s one, which is pretty scratchy but will let you hear the edits.)
Hayes would perform the song at the Academy Awards in April 1972, wearing a suit of chain mail that left the whole country abuzz, and would win Best Original Song. He would score two more movies, Three Tough Guys and Truck Turner (in which he finally got starring roles) and continue to lay down his signature lengthy jams into the 80s.
“Theme From Shaft” did four weeks at #1 at WLS in Chicago, from November 8 through December 5, and I must have bought my copy of the 45 somewhere in that span. I was a kid from the whitest of rural places, still playing my records on the old 45 player that had belonged to Dad, on which he had played mostly polka records. But now that same needle and that same speaker asked the most un-polka, un-rural-white-kid of questions: “Who’s the black private dick who is a sex machine to all the chicks?”