Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Farewell, Black Moses: Isaac Hayes (1942-2008)

A few months ago, in my town of New York City, I wandered into the Caffe Reggio. I love that place. It's a beautiful little coffee grotto on well-traveled MacDougal Street, near Washington Square Park. It's always supremely relaxing for me to sit there in its low light and contemplate the taste of a black espresso while basking in the outside street scenes, the rich-toned woods, the antique pictures, the deep red walls, and the unmistakable whiff of history that surrounds us all there. But I must admit, one thing about it has always irked me.

The twentysomething waitress brought me my second coffee. I asked her: "Have you ever seen the movie Shaft? The '70s movie, not the Samuel Jackson one..."

"No," she said. "I've always been meaning to..."

"Did you know that a good part of it was filmed here?" I pointed my index finger downwards--RIGHT here...

"Wow, I didn't know that."

"Yeah, there's even a few tracks on the soundtrack named after this place."

"I'll remember to check it out. Thanks." She tried to get away. But I said:

"You know, you should at least have a copy of the album up on the walls. It's one of the greatest albums of all time. You should be proud you guys're tagged in it, y'know?" I mean, I know they like old stuff in there, but the record is approaching its 40th birthday soon.

She said she'd pass it along, but I don't think she did, and it sort of always gets to me. The cafe plays a big part in the movie--it's Shaft's favorite watering hole--and the song "Cafe Regio" (as it's spelled on the album) happens to be the score's best cut. That is, next to the Oscar-winning song that started it all. Take a look at this invaluable footage from the Turner vaults that has Isaac Hayes and his band running through rough versions of both compositions. That's director Gordon Parks giving Hayes direction, and John Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree, is seen in the Village's Caffe Reggio, boldly bashing a bottle over a white gangster's head.

Isaac Hayes, who sadly died at his Memphis home on August 10th, pioneered the art of the rock soundtrack with his work on Shaft. The theme to this MGM film was a masterfully engineered blend of proto-disco beats and bass, shredded by an insistent wakkeda-wakkeda guitar riff and seasoned with sly strings and confident Memphis brass. Once the long, unforgettable intro is truly done kickin' in, in comes the silky, almost rap-like vocals from Hayes himself. The lyrics were sexy, tough and smugly humorous, even including a call-back part for a trio of female singers (written here in caps):

Who's the black private dick
That's a sex machine to all the chicks?
Damn right!
Who is the man that would risk his neck
For his brother man?
Can you dig it?
Who's the cat that won't cop out
When there's danger all about?
Right On!
They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother-
Well I'm talkin' 'bout Shaft.
He's a complicated man
But no one understands but his woman

For the song and album Shaft, Isaac Hayes netted Grammy nominations for Best Album, Record, R&B Performance (Duo or Group), and Instrumental. He ended up taking three awards home: for Best Original Score, Instrumental Arrangement, and Engineered Recording (Non-Classical). Even more amazingly, Shaft was nominated for the Best Original Score Academy Award and Golden Globe and ended up taking home both organizations' award for Best Original Song. There had never been an award winner like it--we weren't in "Chim Chim Cher-ee" mode here--and there wouldn't be another one again for almost 25 years when Three-Six Mafia took home the Best Song award for "It's Hard Out Here For A Pimp," the centerpiece to 2005's fantastic Hustle and Flow...which co-starred Isaac Hayes as a benevolent bar owner!

The moment Isaac was carted out on stage at the 1971 Oscars to perform his most famous song--surrounded by keyboards and dancers, fog and lights, and bedecked in his trademarked ensemble of torso-wrapping gold chains--was a unprecedented one. Surely old Hollywood knew a new day was upon them. And I have to wonder if some of those people in the audience were scared shitless. As gentle as Hayes was in real life, he could look real imposing.

It was this look--the coolest fucking look in the world, in my opinion--that would have made him perfect for the role of John Shaft, and he really wanted the part, badly. But director Gordon Parks tagged Richard Roundtree, and Hayes happily took over the scoring duties instead. Which is just as well, because Roundtree's cat-like on-screen moves and Hayes' ripping sounds are perfection in tandem. In large part because of Isaac Hayes' musical contributions, Shaft resides at the apex of the 1970's black film movement, along with Jack Hill's Coffy, Barry Shear's Across 110th Street, and Michael Schultz's Cooley High. AND one more movie...

We would have to wait three years, until 1974, to see Hayes in front of the camera. But when we got him, we really got a treat. Another of the very best blaxploitation actioners of the 70s was the bold, exciting Truck Turner, another baaaadasssss detective movie with Hayes as the man John Shaft might've found a little intimidating. After creaming some of the hitmen that have been put on his trail, Hayes brandishes his gun and exclaims "Anybody ask you what happened, tell 'em you been hit by a truck: Mac 'Truck' Turner!" With two great actors as his nemeses--the regal Yaphet Kotto and Star Trek's Uhura, Nichelle Nichols, in a rare down-n-dirty turn ("I haven't had to sell my pussy since I was fifteen and found out I could sell other bitches instead!"), plus roles for Paul Harris (Do The Right Thing), Scatman Crothers (The Shining), Stan Shaw (The Great Santini) and Dick Miller (every other movie ever made)--PLUS another fine director (Jonathan Kaplan of Over the Edge and E.R. fame) and a snappier, less plot-heavy script than Shaft had...AND an Isaac Hayes score as well? Shit, nee-gro, you couldn't ask for more. Truck Turner puts a foot in your ass and leaves the boot inside!

Of course, we all know about South Park, the wise Chef and his famous "Chocolate Salty Balls." This would be arguably Isaac's most famous post-1970s song. Here's a damn funny fan vid from the creative Blabor Boy:

After that tasty break, we should also recall John Carpenter's Escape From New York, where Hayes played the sadistic, kingly Duke of New York, the man who pulled all the strings to a future city long left for dead. Here's Isaac giving what for to Kurt Russell's Snake Pliskin

We should additionally note his sweet role as reporter Angel Dupree in the pretty wonderful Nicholas Cage/Bridget Fonda romantic comedy It Could Happen to You (Andrew Bergman, 94). And I have a special affinity for his recurring character Gandolf Fitch on TV's James Garner vehicle The Rockford Files, as well as his membership in the Wayan Brothers' all-star blaxploitation spoof I'm Gonna Git You, Sucka!

The progenitors of Memphis' Stax Records sound, from left: Sam Moore, Isaac Hayes, Andrew Love, Wayne Jackson, Dave Prater, Jim Stewart and Steve Cropper, 1970.

But, musically, we need to be reminded of all the ubiquitous Sam and Dave songs he co-wrote with David Porter like "Soul Man," "Hold On I'm Comin'," "I Thank You," "Wrap It Up," and the devastating "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby." And we need to stand in awe of his heavily-narrated, epic-length cover versions of 3-minute-pop songs like "Misty," "By The Time I Get to Phoenix," "Walk On By," and "Ain't No Sunshine." How about taking a real good listen to his "Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic" from the album Black Moses and realizing its distinctive piano chords form the basis for Public Enemy's "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" off the landmark It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Or listening to his score for Tough Guys and realizing you've heard these tunes before...in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill series. We should remember albums like Hot Buttered Soul and Presenting Isaac Hayes, and songs like his "Never Can Say Goodbye" and "Soulsville" or Dionne Warwick's "Deja Vu," or Carla Thomas' "B-A-B-Y." And we should remember Wattstax, the 1972 concert event (released as a film in 1973) that he headlined and helped organize, with his Stax Records buddies, to benefit the then-decimated-by-riots L.A. neighborhood of Watts.

Here he is at that famous concert, introduced rather irritatingly by Jesse Jackson (who only WISHES he could be as cool as Isaac):

With all this you think he deserved to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Well, he was, in 2002.

I'm think I'm gonna go downtown real soon, buy a vinyl copy of Shaft, place it softly in the hands of the Caffe Reggio guys and say "Here. I love you. This is a gift. Frame it and hang it. 'Cuz Isaac goddamn deserves it, man."


Eddie Pittman said...

Great post. A huge talent! Now I'll have "Chocolate Salty Balls" stuck in my head all week. Thanks :P

MovieMan0283 said...

Discovered you through Lamb Chops - great tribute, and that Truck Turner trailer is a gem - especially when he offers a six-pack in lieu of flowers. A true romantic.

You should check out my site (I got Lamb Chop'd too this week) - I've got a new list thing ("meme" I guess) going - 12 films you'd like to see on a big screen that aren't available on Netflix. Though per the "30,000 films" in your banner, that might be a bit of a stretch for you, but then again maybe you'll point us in some new directions...


Charles said...

Thanks for sharing, I will bookmark and be back again

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