Farewell to Black Moses

Remembering the late, great Isaac Hayes' ghetto libretto.

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At my second wedding, I had the piano player play the theme song from Shaft as I walked down the aisle. For my MFA, I wrote my critical thesis on the '70s film classic.

Ernest Tidyman, the white author/screenwriter who created John Shaft (and many more iconic characters), was a cops reporter for Cleveland's Plain Dealer, and I own three of the seven novels in his Shaft series: Shaft, Shaft's Big Score and the impossible to find Shaft Among the Jews. I own the soundtrack on vinyl. Three times. The Shaft mythology has been a big part of my life.

So I was more than a little sad to hear of the death of Isaac Hayes, aka Black Moses. His interpretation of Burt Bacharach's "Walk On By" makes me teary. But it's the entire soundtrack, and specifically his theme for Shaft that means so much to me. I can't imagine a song, or a soundtrack in aggregate, that so accurately captures the cool of black maleness. It's like the perfect music met the perfect film.

Richard Roundtree's portrayal of the protagonist owed a lot of its swagger to the music of Isaac Hayes. The music brought the script, the visuals and the attitude together in a way few others could have.

You, reader, will almost certainly point to Curtis Mayfield's Superfly soundtrack and mistakenly draw some comparison, but you are wrong. Mayfield's creation was blaxploitation boogie, by the numbers. Hayes constructed a piece of music that could tell the story of man apart, navigating a world of contradictions.

For me, Mayfield's theme for Superfly was contrived and derivative. (A PSA as powerful as "Freddie's Dead," however, has yet to be written.)

In 1968, I don't think we'd ever heard a tune embody the motions and emotions of the quintessential unreconstructed black man: Even when you hear Hayes' opening guitar riff today, you just know there's a bad motor-scooter in the vicinity, and the bass thumps with such authority as to make lesser men's balls shrink up. They can't handle the truth, the audacity of Hayes to orchestrate this ghetto libretto, with strings singing and horns bleating out a warning, a greeting, a flirtation. This is more than music. "The Theme from Shaft" is the sound of the street. In its time, it was threatening, frightening. Militant and revolutionary.

Not everyone dug it. Tidyman hated, hated, hated the film (model-turned-actor Richard Roundtree was too pretty, and there was too much "black jive" in the D.F. Black rewrite for his taste) and he especially hated the soundtrack. His son, Nathaniel Rayle, recalled for me how his father would make fun of the horns, of Hayes' call and response with the ladies.

Even after it won him a NAACP Image Award, Tidyman had a complicated relationship with his creation. He resented the film, resented the actors, resented the rewrite, and was confused and politely put-off by what Shaft had become to a generation of blacks. He hadn't written the novel to be politicized and most definitely despised the music. He was content to move on to write "The French Connection" and "High Plains Drifter" and move past it. For him and many others, the film and its hero became a caricature of a black man they crammed to understand, and the music created its own lampoon along with it. Maybe Hayes got caught in that spin, too.

Still, "The Theme from Shaft" endures as the definitive no-nonsense black man's theme, more-so than Earth Wind and Fire's raw "You Got My Mama" from Melvin Van Peebles own tribute to black manhood, Sweet Sweetback's Badasss Song.

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