June 11, 2000
Hayes plays to a new generation
By STEVE TILLEY
HOLLYWOOD -- John Shaft may be the black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks, but it's Isaac Hayes who sings that line in his gravelly baritone and makes the audience believe it, baby.

Hayes's theme song for the 1971 film not only won him an Oscar and a Grammy, it's so closely tied to the image of Shaft himself that director John Singleton insisted Hayes do the theme song for the new version of Shaft.

Hayes, who settles in for an interview dressed in an African-style tunic, a ballcap and dark shades, says he had his own request for Singleton.

"I said, 'Will you promise me that I can do the theme exactly like I did it before? I don't want to change a thing. You can't reinvent the wheel, man. It would be a terrible travesty to the public if we changed anything.' "

And so the new Shaft, opening in theatres Friday, begins with that familiar hiss of the high-hats and electric guitar line that signals one of moviedom's most famous themes - virtually unchanged, other than it's been recorded on the latest high-tech equipment.

Hayes first found fame in the late '60s and early '70s with his albums Presenting Isaac Hayes, Hot Buttered Soul and The Isaac Hayes Movement. He also co-wrote mainstays like Soul Man and Hold On, I'm Comin'.

His reputation was such that he seemed the obvious choice to score the original Shaft. They said "let's do a film, featuring a black leading man, black director and black composer," recalls Hayes. "They wanted (legendary soul label) Stax's biggest gun at the time, which was Isaac Hayes, to be the composer. And that's how I got involved."

Today Hayes is a musical institution unto himself, and as such he's allowed to be wary of the waves of hip-hop artists who come and go like mayflies.

"In the world of hip-hop, if you know how to rhyme, you don't have to carry a tune, you don't have to have studied at Juilliard, you can just make it," says Hayes, who himself can't write sheet music.

"Now, the lifespan is very short, and the remake value is not that great. Because who's going to remember a hip-hop song? And I'm not putting it down, that's just the way of the world. I think some of the kids now are looking more towards live music and instruments and learning, because it's better to express themselves with."

Hayes' own lifespan has been anything but short. He was featured during this year's Oscar telecast doing the Shaft theme, in a performance highlighted by a malfunctioning fog machine that almost made him disappear from sight.

It was "the best thing that ever happened to me," Hayes says, "because (Oscars host) Billy Crystal turned an almost near disaster into a big plus for me."

And aside from his close to 20 albums and dozens of acting roles, he's familiar to a whole new generation of fans as the voice of Chef from the animated TV show South Park.

"It's great. It's wonderful ... in fact, some people of the earlier generations would say, 'These kids don't know who you are! They think you're a chef!'

"And I said, 'That's OK. I'll take it. Because eventually, they will come. They will learn.' "

"MUSIC MAKES MOVIES MEMORABLE

From the hiss of the high-hats and the wocka-wocka guitar to throaty lines like, "Who's the black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks?" the theme song from Shaft is one of the most memorable in movie history.

The song for the 1971 flick (faithfully re-recorded for the new movie) won soul man Isaac Hayes an Oscar and a Grammy, while the film's score netted him a Golden Globe and another Grammy. Almost as importantly, the tune wormed its way into the public consciousness as the musical representation of groovy coolness.

Of course, the Shaft theme has to share space with handful of other musical movie moments that can evoke images of their respective films upon hearing just a few notes. Not surprisingly, much of this music was showered with awards.

JAWS (1975) -- That "da-dum, da-dum, da-dum" theme is enough to send anyone fleeing the water. The score for Jaws won John Williams an Oscar, Golden Globe and Grammy.

STAR WARS (1977) -- Star Wars probably has more memorable pieces of music than any other film, from the triumphant opening theme to the sinister bit that accompanies Darth Vader and his minions. John Williams (again) took home the Oscar, Golden Globe and Grammy for the film's score.

THE JAMES BOND THEME (1962 - present) -- Even a few notes of Monty Norman's theme music (arranged by John Barry) elicits images of the suave spy, whether you know him best as Connery or Brosnan. Bond movie songs or scores have been nominated for four Oscars.

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966) -- Ennio Morricone gained fame scoring music for Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns, but the music from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (with its whistles, wah-wahs, grunts and trumpets) is undoubtedly the most famous.

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) -- Indiana Jones found his signature music with the ubiquitous John Williams, who won a Grammy for the score but lost the Oscar to ...

CHARIOTS OF FIRE (1981) -- Vangelis's piano-heavy score for the British film has become a mainstay on mellow music CD compilations. Personally, we prefer his music for the following year's Blade Runner, which was nominated for Golden Globe.

THE FIGHT THEME FROM THE STAR TREK EPISODE AMOK TIME -- OK, this doesn't rank among the greats, but Gerald Fried's grating tune (memorably spoofed in Jim Carrey's The Cable Guy) became the standard "fight music" for the classic Trek series, and is sung during sibling scraps everywhere.