Soul Man, RIP

If you’re of a certain age and were watching the Academy Awards show in 1972, you remember Isaac Hayes’ performance of the “Theme from Shaft.” The song, although great, wasn’t what hooked you because you’d been hooked by the song months before. What hooked you was the look: a giant black man with a bald head and a gold chain vest. It was one of those shared TV moments that are much rarer in today’s cable and satellite age. Mention Isaac Hayes to someone over the age of 45 and the image that comes to mind will almost certainly have a gold chain vest.

The strength of “Shaft” doesn’t rely on that image, though. As I said, the sound was in our heads long before image, and that was due to Hayes’ talent as a songwriter and arranger. The funky guitar opening with the orchestral swirls; the horns that come in over the guitar; the incredible opening line: “Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?”; and, of course, “They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother—Shut your mouth!”.

The natural thing would be for me to end this with a YouTube clip of the Acadamy Award appearance, but there isn’t one. I’ve looked for it in the past, and I looked again this morning—nothing. So instead I’ve included a video of “Soul Man,” considered by many, including Isaac Hayes, to be the quintessential Stax track. Written by Hayes and David Porter, vocals by Sam and Dave, backed by Booker T. & the MGs. The video quality is poor and the lip syncing is odd (there’s no Steve Cropper to “play it”), but the song comes through.

People used to say a true intellectual was someone who could listen to the “William Tell Overture” without thinking of the Lone Ranger. I say a true music lover listens to “Soul Man” without thinking of the Blues Brothers.