This is the theme song to the 1971 movie Shaft, starring Richard Roundtree as a Harlem detective hired by a mob boss to find his kidnapped daughter. Written, produced and arranged by Hayes, the song establishes Shaft as one bad mother who thrives on danger and doesn't give up. He's also "a sex machine to all the chicks," making him sort of a black James Bond. Thanks in large part to the song, it became an iconic character.
This won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement and an Oscar for Best Original Score. The Oscar win made Hayes the first African-American to win an Academy Award in a composer category.
Hayes was a songwriter for Stax records before he became a successful recording artist. He wrote some hits for Sam & Dave, including "Soul Man" and "Hold On I'm Coming." Hayes explained in an interview with National Public Radio: "The character Shaft was explained to me: a relentless character always on the prowl, always on the move. I had to create something to denote that. Otis Redding's 'Try A Little Tenderness
,' I had a hand in arranging that. At the end, Al Jackson was doing some stuff on a hi-hat, and I thought if I sustained that kind of thing on a hi-hat, it would give a relentless, dramatic effect, and it worked."
Future actress (she was on the TV shows Bosom Buddies and Family Matters) Telma Hopkins was one of the backup singers. That's her saying "Shut Your Mouth!", which became a bit of a catchphrase for Hopkins, whose character would often say it on her shows. Joyce Wilson was the other backup singer; she and Hopkins performed as Tony Orlando's backup group Dawn.
Hayes played keyboards on this track. The rhythm section was drummer Willie Hall and bass player James Alexander, who were members of the Memphis funk group The Bar-Kays, who often backed Hayes, Otis Redding and other Stax artists. The Memphis Strings and The Memphis Horns also appear on the track, as do guitarists Charles Pitts and Michael Toles. Gary Jones played the congas, and Lester Snell was on electric piano.
The distinctive funk guitar and hi-hat cymbals make this a very recognizable song. It is often used in commercials and TV promos, sometimes with the product name put in place of the word "Shaft."
According to Q magazine, Hayes agreed to write the Shaft theme after being promised the lead role in the film, but the promise wasn't kept - he didn't even get an audition.
The song went to #1 in America on November 6, 1971 and stayed for two weeks. The Shaft soundtrack, a double album with mostly instrumentals, also hit #1 in America, topping the chart on November 20. In 2014, the soundtrack was entered into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress as a "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" work.
The hit version of this song is not the one used in the film. Hayes recorded the one used in the movie, along with other music for the film, at MGM Studios in Culver City, California between tour dates - he was near the peak of his fame and was a big concert draw. He recorded new versions of this music, including "Theme From Shaft," at his homebase: Stax Studios in Memphis. These recordings were used on the film's soundtrack.
The music used in the movie wasn't released until 2008, when it appeared on a boxed set. In 2019, Stax issued both the film music and soundtrack on a 2-disc set.
The movie was remade in 2000, with Samuel L. Jackson starring as Shaft (Hayes made an uncredited appearance). Hayes recorded a new version of the theme for the film using entirely different musicians. Various mixes of this song were released, and it was also used at the lead track on a new soundtrack album the relied more on traditional songs than instrumentals. Some big names contributed to this soundtrack: R. Kelly (with a prescient song called "Bad Man"), Alicia Keys, OutKast, T.I.
Hayes was the voice of the character Chef on the TV show South Park. Despite being a cartoon, Chef usually found an opportunity to sing on each show.
A TV version of Shaft lasted one season on CBS in 1973. Richard Roundtree again played the lead character, and Hayes contributed music.
When Hayes was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, he opened the ceremonies with this song.
It's rare for movies to use theme songs from other movies in their soundtracks, but "Theme From Shaft" has appeared in a number of films because it evokes a specific era and feeling. Some of the films to use it include:
Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011)
Are We There Yet? (2005)
Love Stinks (1999)
Home for the Holidays (1995)
Tank Girl (1995)
Above the Rim (1994)
I'm Gonna Git You Sucka (1988)
Soul Man (1986)
Black Heat (1973)
The Lumberjack (1973)
It has also been used in a number of TV series, including the 1991 The Simpsons episode "One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish," where Bart and Lisa sing it. Other small-screen uses include:
Two and a Half Men ("The Two Finger Rule" - 2009)
The Wire ("Time After Time" - 2004)
Friends ("The One Where the Monkey Gets Away" - 1995)
In Living Color ("Miss Black Person USA" - 1990)