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“Heavy!” Sammy Davis Jr. exclaimed, applauding as he took the stage at the 44th Academy Awards following Isaac Hayes’ performance of his Oscar-nominated song “Theme From Shaft.” Davis was making history that night as the ceremony’s first Black host (alongside co-hosts Helen Hayes, Alan King and Jack Lemmon). But before the night was over, Isaac Hayes too would make history as the first Black winner of best original song — as well as the first Black winner in any Oscar category outside of acting.
Hayes was a songwriter, producer and recording artist at Memphis-based Stax Records when he was approached about writing the score for Gordon Parks’ Shaft, a blaxploitation film about private detective John Shaft. Upon seeing some early footage of Shaft coming out of a subway, Hayes was immediately inspired, as he told Britain’s Mojo magazine: “I remembered a guitar line I had in a tune I’d never used, got it off the shelf and had our guitarist play it exactly the same, but with a wah-wah. Then I got our drummer to play 16-note sequences on the hi-hat, and we had it. The core rhythm for the tune, the springboard for the whole soundtrack, we’d cut in under two hours.”
When his song was submitted for Oscar consideration, some in the Academy’s music branch balked, complaining that Hayes had never actually written down the notes. Quincy Jones intervened, arguing Hayes’ case as a composer, and both the song and Shaft score were nominated. Hayes also was the first composer to perform his own work at the Oscars: Emerging from a smoke-filled stage, wearing a gold chain mail vest and surrounded by dancers, he electrified the audience.
Shortly after, Joel Grey announced Hayes as the best song winner. The showman, who’d changed into a fur-trimmed tuxedo and ruffled shirt, dedicated his win to “the lady who’s here with me tonight because years ago, her prayers kept my feet on the path of righteousness, and that’s my grandmother.” Cradling his Oscar in both hands, he added, “This is a thrill for me and also in a few days, it’s her 80th birthday, and this is her present.”
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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