Isaac Hayes won the Academy Award for Best Original Song and was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song for “Theme from Shaft,” Gordon Parks’ 1971 blaxplotation masterpiece. Released as a double album by Stax Records’ Enterprise label, the mostly instrumental soundtrack became the best-selling LP ever released on a Stax label.
“The song begins with a sixteenth-note hi-hat ride pattern, played by Willie Hall, which was drawn from a break on Otis Redding’s ‘Try A Little Tenderness,’ a Stax record on which Hayes had played. Also featuring heavily in the intro is Charles Pitts’ guitar, which uses a wah-wah effect common in 1970s funk; the riff had originally been written for an unfinished Stax song. The synthesized keyboard is played by Hayes. Even on the edited single version, the intro lasts for more than two and a half minutes before any vocals are heard.
“The lyrics describe John Shaft’s coolness, courage, and sex appeal, and Hayes’ lead vocals are punctuated by a trio of female backup singers. At one famous moment, Hayes calls Shaft ‘a bad mother—’ before the backup singers (one of whom is Tony Orlando & Dawn’s Telma Hopkins) interrupt the implied profanity with the line ‘Shut yo’ mouth!’ Hayes immediately defends himself by replying that he’s ‘only talking about Shaft,’ with the back-up vocalists replying, ‘We can dig it.’ Other well-known passages include ‘You’re damn right!’ also uttered by Hayes, and ‘He’s a complicated man/but no one understands him/but his woman/John Shaft.’”
Last night, the primal sounds of fife and drum music were echoing at the Turner Family Picnic, an annual North Mississippi Hill Country tradition, and Bo-Keys leader Scott Bomar, Ponderosa Stomp graphics designer Kerri Mahoney and I were there to listen.
Since the death of Rising Star Fife and Drum Band founder — and Turner family patriarch — Otha Turner, his granddaughter Sharde Thomas (pictured above and below) has led the group. Last night was no different, as, under a hazy half-moon, Thomas blew her cane fife and, followed by a trio of drummers, traversed the packed dirt ground that was once home to her granddaddy’s farm. Her mother and aunts fried catfish and sold cold beer and hot sandwiches. Curious city slickers took photos, drank too much, and kicked up dust. When Thomas tired, friends like Kenny Brown, Junior Burnside and R.L. Boyce were quick to pick up the slack, performing Hill Country anthems like “Jumper On the Line” from a plywood stage.
Like most traditions, the picnic has changed over the last 50-or so years, even as it has stayed the same. Otha and his daughter, Bernice Turner, who helped with the band, died on the same day in 2003. The grandkids are growing up — a few weeks ago, Thomas started her sophomore year in college. The goat meat sandwiches had sold out by the time we arrived, and this year, for the first time, the family charged a $2 admission to the picnic.
Yet once we were ensconced with cold beers in one hand and catfish and Wonder bread sandwiches in the other, the swirling, Africa-meets-the-blues music pulling us into the mass of dancers, it was as if we were on board a time machine and traveling backwards to that first time Library of Congress musicologist Alan Lomax stumbled into the Turner’s end of summer celebration and documented it for all posterity.
Adding particular poignance to this year’s event was the fact that earlier in the day, the Mississippi Development Authority’s Division of Tourism dedicated a marker to Turner’s brand of fife and drum music on the Mississippi Blues Trail. It’s located in downtown Como, Miss., directly across the street from a marker commemorating the lifework of Mississippi Fred McDowell. Next time you make the drive between Memphis and New Orleans, be sure to check it out.
“The third night of the inaugural Lincoln Center edition of the Ponderosa Stomp — the annual spring resurrection of forgotten roots-rock and R&B heroes and heroines, founded and held in New Orleans — was an oddly formal affair, compared to the outdoor soul and rockabilly shows presented earlier in the week. ‘Everybody get on your feet/You make me nervous when you’re in your seat,’ Robert Parker sang on Sunday night in a well-preserved voice at the start of his 1966 hit ‘Barefootin’,’ one of the many Crescent City R&B classics associated with the evening’s honoree, producer-arranger-songwriter Wardell Quezergue. But sitting down is where the otherwise delighted audience at Alice Tully Hall stayed during most of the two-hour revue. In New Orleans, when a song like that is in the air, anything short of a shimmy is against the law.
But Quezergue, who turns 80 this year, deserves the lofty setting. In the Sixties and Seventies, he earned the nickname ‘The Creole Beethoven’ for his masterful blend of New Orleans rhythms and commercial wisdom in bedrock soul recordings such as Earl King’s ‘Trick Bag’ (1962), Professor Longhair”s ‘Big Chief’ (1964) and King Floyd’s ‘Groove Me’ (1970), then on mainstream collaborations with Paul Simon and Willie Nelson. At Lincoln Center, Quezergue conducted a ten-piece band from a chair as more than half a dozen of his original charges, including Dr. John, the Dixie Cups, Jean Knight and Tammy Lynn, recreated their biggest hits with him.”
And Jon Pareles covered the event for the New York Times, writing in part that, “the Dixie Cups, the New Orleans girl group, had distributed napkins before the concert, to be waved over the New Orleans second-line parade beat, and they got the audience up and dancing for ‘Iko Iko,’ which they turned into a medley of Mardi Gras songs and ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’ After their segment, Rosa Hawkins of the Dixie Cups turned to Mr. Quezergue and said, ‘Thanks for the hits.’”