In 1971, when "Shaft" was all the rage, Isaac Hayes' funky title tune won best song at the Oscars, shaking up the movie industry. Isaac Hayes' theme song to the hit detective flick was the "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" ("Hustle & Flow") of its day — in short, that kind of 'tude-heavy, soul-powered, hip urban tune you don't expect to win the top golden prize bestowed by the hoity-toity Hollywood crowd.
Hayes was only the third African American to take home an Academy Award — after Hattie McDaniel won the supporting actress race for "Gone With the Wind" in 1939 and Sidney Poitier prevailed in the best actor category for "Lilies of the Field" in 1963.
In 1971, America was still smarting from the racial flare-ups that left many cities in ashes a few years earlier. The film character Shaft might've seemed threatening because he sometimes talked like a thug. As a lyric to the song boasted: "They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother!" But, instead of shrinking from him, Oscar voters joined the chorus, shouting, "Then we can dig it!"
Among those Hayes beat for the best-song award was four-time Oscar-winning lyricist Johnny Mercer, who picked up his 19th and final nod for the words to "Life Is What You Make It" from "Kotch" while Marvin Hamlisch was a first-time nominee for the music. Mercer's former musical partner, Henry Mancini, picked up the ninth of his 12 song nods (he won twice with Mercer) for "All His Children" from "Sometimes a Great Notion." His lyricists were Alan and Marilyn Bergman, who had won three years before for "The Windmills of Your Mind" from "The Thomas Crown Affair" and would prevail again two years later with Hamlisch for "The Way We Were." Robert and Richard Sherman, who had won a pair of Oscars for "Mary Poppins" in 1964, were back in the race with "The Age of Not Believing" from the Disney pic "Bedknobs and Broomsticks." The final nominees were Barry De Vorzon and Perry Botkin Jr. for the title track from "Bless the Beasts & Children," a Stanley Kramer film about the cruelty of hunting.
On the awardscast, Johnny Mathis crooned the ditty from "Kotch" while Charley Pride sang "All His Children" with a boys choir. Sweet Debbie Reynolds performed the song from "Bedknobs" while that wholesome duo The Carpenters sang the ode to children and animals. And then there was Hayes, who took center stage to blast out "Shaft" in an elaborate production number. Dressed in a shirt made of gold chains, he played an illuminated organ while surrounded by a bevy of dancers trying to be "with it." By the time Joel Grey announced him as the winner, Hayes had changed into a black velvet tuxedo with blue lapels. In his heartfelt acceptance speech, he thanked his date, his soon-to-be-80-year-old grandmother.
That night Isaac Hayes was also nominated for best original dramatic music score, but lost to Michel Legrand for "Summer of '42," which had one of the most memorable, emotionally soaring scores of its era. The other nominees: "Mary, Queen of Scots," "Nicholas and Alexandra" and "Straw Dogs." At the Golden Globes, "Shaft" had the reverse experience, winning for score, losing for song to Mercer and Hamlisch for "Kotch."
At the Grammys in 1971, Isaac Hayes had a split reception. "Shaft" was nominated for best album, but not for best record or song. Grammy voters were notoriously fuddy-duddy in those days and proved it by picking Carole King's "Tapestry" and "You've Got a Friend" as the winners in those races. The theme from "Shaft" was up for best R&B performance by a duo or group, but lost to Ike and Tina Turner's "Proud Mary." Elsewhere in the R&B categories, Hayes was also nominated for best male performance for "Never Can Say Goodbye," but lost to Lou Rawls ("A Natural Man").
But let's give the Grammys some credit. In the race for best music score, "Shaft" beat the widely beloved score to "Love Story," and it trounced the popular score to "Summer of '42" in the race for best instrumental arrangement of 1971. One year later, Isaac Hayes won his third and last Grammy for "Black Moses": best pop instrumental performance with vocal coloring.
Photo: L.A. Times / Lawrence K. Ho