In was the early 1970s, and pioneering filmmaker Gordon Parks was blazing new trails in cinema. Case in point: when Parks tapped soul star Isaac Hayes to compose the music for his new movie, Shaft. Even after the artist met with the movie's producers and convinced that he was indeed the man for the job, Hayes started to wonder himself.
“I started thinking about big movie scores—[Doctor] Zhivago and things like that—and I thought, ‘Wow, can do that?’," Hayes would say later (via AV Club). Proving Hayes with moral support: technical advisor, Tom McIntosh, who came through with just the words the artist needed to hear: “You don’t have to go through a whole lot of changes. Just do your thing; be yourself. Your experience is a black experience, and that’s how you should relate to it.”
With that, Hayes, The Bar-Kays and the Movement flew from Memphis to California, where they shocked the studio engineers by recording without the aid of sheet music: “We walked in, and the engineer says, ‘Okay, where is your sheet music?’ ‘We ain’t got no sheet music. We don’t use music. We don’t write anything. We’re just going to do it headwise.’ ‘Say what? You ain’t got no music?’”
When it came to the movie's legendary theme song, Hayes saved it for last: “I wanted it to be a kind of abstract of the other melodies in the picture. I put them in there in such a way that they can’t be easily detected, but they’re in there, all right.”
Coming up with the basic groove, Hayes felt like the song needed something extra. He pulled out a wah-wah pedal and hooked it up to guitarist Charles “Skip” Pitts guitar rig, and showed him what to play: “When Skip played, I got down on my knees and worked the wah-wah pedal with my hands, then he got the feel and took over from there.”
Shaft hit big screens across the country in the summer of 1971. Released as a single on September 30, 1971, "Theme from Shaft" rocketed up the charts, slamming into #1 on the Hot 100 for the week of November 20, 1971. It held the top spot for two weeks before it was dethroned by Sly & the Family Stone's "Family Affair" on December 3, 1971.
The song became the theme for an entire movement, as Shaft became a new black hero in the hood.
“People come up and ask me if we really need this image of Shaft the black superman. Hell, yes, there's a place for John Shaft," Parks told Roger Ebert in 1972 about the lead character, played by actor Richard Roundtree. "I was overwhelmed by our world premiere on Broadway. Suddenly, I was the perpetrator of a hero. Ghetto kids were coming downtown to see their hero, Shaft, and here was a black man on the screen they didn't have to be ashamed of. Here they had a chance to spend their $3 on something they wanted to see. We need movies about the history of our people, yes, but we need heroic fantasies about our people, too. We all need a little James Bond now and then.”
Hayes won the Golden Globe for Best Original Score at the Golden Globes. "Theme from Shaft" took the Academy award for Best Original Song.
With the win, Hayes became the first African-American to win an Academy Award in a composer category, not to mention the first to any Academy Award in a non-acting category. He was also the first recipient of the award to both write and perform the winning song.