The Crawling Ear column: Talkin’ ’bout Shaft

Without Isaac Hayes, there would have been no Shaft, as far as James is concerned...

He's the man

Ladies and gentlemen, the Hot Buttered Soul Man is dead. Isaac Hayes, the soul music pioneer whose hot writing and funky rhythms defined a generation, died this past weekend of an apparent stroke in his Memphis home. He was 65.

Our buddy John Moore already penned a great tribute to Hayes a few days ago. If you want the extensive highlight reel, check that article out. Me, well, I just wanna talk about Shaft.

Late one night last week, I found myself getting off the accursed G train here in Brooklyn at the Bedford/Lafayette stop. It’s not the most dangerous part of the city, but it ain’t exactly Candyland either. I immediately noticed a loud funk band laying down some classic jams in a nearby bar. The second my foot hit the smooth pavement of Bedford Avenue, the guitarist in said band went into one of those awesome wah pedal breakdowns. You know what I’m talking about:

WAKKA WAKKA WAKKA WAKKA WAKKA WAKKA WAKKA WAKKA WAKKA WAKKA WAKKA WAKKA WAKKA WAKKA WAKKA WAKKA WAKKA WAKKA …

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Fuck yeah!” I exclaimed out loud. Finally, after a year in the Big Apple, someone was providing the correct soundtrack to the John Shaft fantasy that runs through my head every time I burst out of the subway. I puffed out my chest and pretended I had some crooked cops or drug dealers to go shake down. Where was Willie? Where was Bumpy? Ah, they were nowhere to be found. This was no gritty blaxploitation drama. In reality, I was on my way to my girlfriend’s house for ice cream and a few episodes of Reaper.

Shaft was a huge part of my youth, which is a little weird considering the fact I’m a suburban white kid who grew up in 1980s rural Connecticut. It’s kind of hard to explain. All I can tell you is I discovered Shaft at one point and it made such an impression on me that I think about the opening scene every time I emerge from the underground here in Noo Yuck. It goes without saying that film wouldn’t be half of what it is without the note-perfect work of Hayes. Take Isaac Hayes out of Shaft and whaddya got? Not Shaft. That movie would just be Cool Black Guy Pissin’ People Off For Two Hours. Still a great flick, but not a stone cold classic.

I mean, shit, what can you say about the film’s most famous track, “Theme from Shaft?” That song won a goddamn Oscar, probably the only song in Oscar history that contains the phrase “black private dick.” That’s gotta mean something. The anonymous funk band that scored my brief walk the other night sure as hell wouldn’t exist without it. Hell, I might not even exist without it. It’s pure sexual liquid bad-assery in musical form. As far as I’m concerned, Isaac is an American hero for penning the “Theme from Shaft,” and his seminal cinematic soul achievement should replace “The Star Spangled Banner” as our national anthem.

In honor of Isaac and the legacy he left behind, here are a few of my favourite versions of the “Theme from Shaft.” I hope you can dig ‘em.

First up, I’ve got the ten minute instrumental disco version of “Theme from Shaft.” Bust out your funky gold medallions for this one.

Here’s the NYPD Jazz Band busting out a little “Shaft.” I’m sure John Shaft would be none too happy to hear a bunch of cops playing his immortal aural cue. He’s probably too busy having sex with your girlfriend to really care, though.

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Get ready for another questionable tribute: some guy called Rockin’ Johnny playing “Shaft” on a ukulele. Yikes!

You thought one uke was bad? Try an entire orchestra! Yes, Virginia, there is a Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, and yes, they do a cleaned up version of our beloved hit. Clever.

Hey “X Files” fans: remember when Mulder sang the “Theme from Shaft?”

Finally, the ultimate “Shaft” parody, recorded by the ultimate Muppet. I’m talkin’ ‘bout Cookie Monster [sadly now removed from YouTube – Ed].

James Greene Jr writes The Crawling Ear every Wednesday at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.