Concord Record Group, the relatively new owners of Stax Records, continue to rebuild and revitalize the classic Memphis soul label by not only uncovering and (even better) sharing rare sessions which have never seen the light of day but also re-releasing the best of the label’s voluminous catalog of classic soul albums. One of their most recent re-releases resurrects what many feel is the pinnacle of soul albums, Isaac Hayes’ gloriously funky soundtrack to the movie Shaft.
While a big hit in the early ’70’s and Hayes’ breakthrough disc after first hitting it big with his sophomore release Hot Buttered Soul, a mere decade or so later it was relegated to a mere musical milestone of the brief but influential blaxplotation film era. Subsequent generations, no doubt encouraged by the late Hayes’ comeback as Chef on the hilarious Comedy Central South Park television series, thankfully have recognized Hayes’ soundtrack as one of the biggest developments in black popular music.
Not only could a well-known black artist be accepted to write a soundtrack for a movie (and win an Academy Award for best score to boot), but Hayes himself was starting a trend of longer, yet still danceable songs that together with the innovations of James Brown, would form the backbone of disco (And even rap! I can’t be the only one who’s noticed Hayes’ honeyed soliloquies bear a distinct resemblance to what became rap music, can I?). Yes, let’s be truthful here – no less than the Godfather of Soul watched Hayes’ success with Shaft and quickly turned out two blaxplotation soundtracks of his own which, while being much less successful, only served to emphasized the influence Shaft had on soul music. And while Hayes success seemed to almost come from nowhere, Hayes was a seasoned, successful songwriter for the venerable Memphis soul label and, with one-time partner David Porter, wrote many hits for the likes of Sam and Dave, Carla Thomas and many other artists on Stax.
Besides writing the songs that made the whole world funk, the recordings would often feature Hayes own dynamic keyboard work which would be his claim to fame when he went solo. That, and the man’s buttery croon, which up to that point, had been kept hid as he kept his vocal work confined to his demos, recording scratch vocals so other artists would know how to sing his songs, often singing both of Sam and Dave’s parts so the artists would know when to get gruff and when to sing it sweet.
Hayes’ cushy behind the scenes career changed when Stax lost its’ distribution deal with Atlantic Records. Under a warped business deal that could only be made by a record company, when Atlantic terminated the deal, theywere able to walk away with every master recorded during Atlantic’s tenure as distributor. Thus, after close to ten years in business and many hits, Stax had to start over as they had absolutely no back catalog.
Eventually, someone at Stax got the bright idea to have every one of their acts record an album in quick fashion. That way, Stax would have an immediate catalog and could rebuild itself in the marketplace. Close to thirty albums were recorded for this project, many of which were throwaways by artists who didn’t really have enough material or may not have been ready to record an album but were told to get an album done quickly anyway.
Hayes was one of these hopefuls, stepping out from behind his anonimity as a staff writer and producer to record his first album, to take his chance at becoming a star. And, while not as succesful as some of his later discs, that eponymous album set the stage for his greatest triumph, the disc we’re talking about right now, the amazing soundtrack to the movie Shaft.
To listen to this album today is to be immediately transported back in time to a world where there are no cookie-cutter R&B acts who have to try their hardest to squeeze the smallest amount of soul into their sound. Something tells me Hayes just went in and did his thing, real easy-like. The clue is in his voice. Hayes was not only smooth sounding, he made the whole deal seem easy, as if soul music oozed out of his pores straight onto the vinyl. Just listening to his voice, you felt the machismo and the sex dripping from it. The old saying ‘men wanted to be him and women wanted to be with him, says it all. I can’t see Hayes having to try too hard at anything, y’know? Just like you shouldn’t have to try too hard to love this album. It will come naturally. I don’t know one guy who has listened to this set of songs who hasn’t walked away without thinking Hayes was the coolest motherfucker around. Whether you’ve seen the movie or not, it makes no difference as Shaft is one of the few soundtracks able to stand on it’s own as a solid album without anyone needing to see the movie. In fact, even though the movie is cool, seeing it and then hearing the soundtrack (though Hayes’ music works perfectly with the movie) kind of takes away from the experience of hearing the album and coming up with your own scenarios. People often say videos ruined the music business by creating a vision of a song you wouldn’t be able to get out of your head once you saw the video. Listening to this album by itself, allows you to put yourself in as “Shaft”, the mythical private detective and sexual dynamo, and perhaps that’s how it should be.
The only thing negative about this set is apart from a remix, there are no additional songs or unreleased tracks. I understand preserving the integrity of an album, but there’s no reason an extra disc of outtakes couldn’t be including seeing as the label is trying to hype up the re-release. Ah well, Shaft is still one of the most fantastic, influential soul albums ever and probably the soundtrack music not only to Shaft, but to hundreds of thousands of couples getting it on. Maybe you out there were actually yourself conceived to Hayes’ buttery voice! Glorious indeed.