Who was the man who managed to finally break the white Academy music ceiling in 1972? Let’s revisit that moment as Joel Grey makes the announcement: “And the winner is Isaac Hayes.”
Lots of Black history was made that night. Gregg Kilday explored it in a flashback for The Hollywood Reporter last year:
“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. […]
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.
This historic clip compiled by Warren Williams shows Hayes entering the music center in Los Angeles with his grandmother; the “Shaft” performance; Sammy Davis Jr.’s remarks; and Hayes getting the win.
On April 10, 1972, singer-songwriter Issac Hayes made history becoming the first African-American to win an Academy Award (Oscar) in a non-acting category for “Best Music – Original Song” for the theme from the movie ‘SHAFT.’ Hayes joined Hattie McDaniel, who won a “Best Supporting Actress” Oscar in 1939 for “Gone with the Wind” and Sidney Poiter who was honored as “Best Actor” in 1963 for the movie “Lilies of the field” as the only black Oscar winners. Black History was also made the night Hayes won his statuette with Sammy Davis Jr. becoming the first black person to be a host of the Oscar awards show.This video will be part of a non-commercial series of journalistic reports on great moments in American TV history.
His bio in Musician Guide illustrates that he had come a very long way from his early beginnings.
Hayes was born August 20, 1942, in Covington, Tennessee, on a sharecropper’s farm; orphaned during his infancy, he was raised by his grandparents. He first sang publicly in church at the age of five. “When I graduated from high school I wanted to be a performer,” Hayes told Down Beat. “But at that time, in Memphis, there was no market for the kind of music I wanted to do.” His preferred style was pop–as exemplified by the velvety singing of Nat King Cole–but Memphis was a blues/R&B town. Hayes married early and thus chose a steady job over higher education or music; though he recorded a single in 1962, nothing came of it. He worked in a meat packing plant and then eased himself back into music, playing gigs in local clubs with his group, Sir Isaac and the Doo-Dads. He claimed to be a pianist despite limited training on the instrument: “I learned a little about the piano and as time went on more and more chords and so forth,” he told Rolling Stone.
His first break came when Floyd Newman, a Stax-Volt house player with whom Hayes had been playing, invited the fledgling keyboardist in to cut an instrumental. The Stax sound was largely created by a core unit called the MGs, featuring keyboardist Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. Hayes recalled to Down Beat that Jones left to attend school and Hayes was invited to replace him; his first session was for an album by legendary vocalist Otis Redding. Staying on at Stax, Hayes played piano alongside Jones and put in session work on virtually all of Redding’s recordings.
Somewhat later Hayes hooked up with lyricist David Porter, and the two wrote for a number of Stax artists, most notably Sam & Dave. With “Soul Man” and “Hold On, I’m Coming,” among others, Hayes and Porter helped to define the funky, exuberant style of mid-sixties soul, a style that would challenge the dominance of Stax’s northern competitor, Detroit’s Motown. The Stax sound would profoundly influence not only ensuing generations of R&B, soul, and funk artists, but also rock and roll groups like the Rolling Stones. As influential as these songs were, they were not written in an exacting manner. Hayes, unable to read or write music, would hum his tunes into a tape recorder and find arrangers to chart them out.
More than a decade would pass before a Black woman would get songwriting props. The year 1983 saw an Afro-Puerto Rican-Cuban from the Bronx, Irene Cara, become the first Black woman to win a non-acting Academy Award for co-writing “Fame.” Over the years, I’ve seen people question her “blackness.” Um. Hello:
Cara has had a career in television, film, and recording, as well as songwriting.
Here’s her performance of both songs that were nominated from Fame, which was a first.
In 1984, Prince would be awarded an Oscar for a category that no longer exists.
On March 25, 1985 Prince added a big piece to his trophy case when he won the first and only Academy Award of his career.
The musician earned his nomination in the now-defunct ‘Best Original Song Score’ category. “To qualify as an original song score, a score must contain five original songs,” actor Michael Douglas matter-of-factly explained during the ceremony. The category had gone through many changes over the years, at various times being called ‘Scoring of a Musical Picture’ or being split into original and adapted subcategories
He didn’t perform, he just accepted his Oscar. He did perform it at the American Music Awards, where he won the same year.
Finally, in 1986 we would get the first Black winner of Best Original Score. The award went to Herbie Hancock for scoring Round Midnight, a film starring tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon playing an expat jazz musician in Paris, which I wrote about here.
Bette Midler presenting Herbie Hancock the Oscar® for Music (Original Score) for “Round Midnight” at the 59th Academy Awards® in 1987. Hosted by Chevy Chase.
As he speaks, the camera pans to Dexter Gordon in the audience:
I even get to hold this [his Oscar]. They asked me to have a speech prepared. And this is the first time I’ve actually prepared a speech. I never did this before. Maybe I have to prepare speeches in the future. [Laughs.]
In accepting this award I salute the same unsung heroes that you so boldly have chosen to applaud. Some are with us today and some are not. Many have suffered and even died for this music, this greatest of all expression of the creative spirit of humankind—jazz. From their suffering and pain we can learn that life is the subject, the story that music so eloquently speaks of, and it is not the other way around. We as individuals must develop our lives to the fullest, to strengthen and deepen the story that others can be inspired by life’s song.
I thank Bertrand Tavernier, Irwin Winkler, Francis Paudras, Dexter Gordon, Bruce Lundvall, William Flageollet and the cast and crew for their sincere efforts through love and respect for this American-born art form called jazz. Praise has been long overdue for Bud Powell, Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and many, many others. Along with you, I thank them. Along with them, I thank you.
I appreciated the message delivered by Hancock in these words: “Many have suffered and even died for this music, this greatest of all expression of the creative spirit of humankind—jazz.” Here’s the haunting title song from the film soundtrack, which was written by Thelonious Monk:
I am thinking back to the time of the first scoring nomination for a Black American, which went in 1961 to Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, for scoring Paris Blues. He didn’t win.
Paris Blues is a 1961 American drama film made on location in Paris, starring Sidney Poitier as expatriate jazz saxophonist Eddie Cook, and Paul Newman as trombone-playing Ram Bowen.The two men romance two vacationing American tourists, Connie Lampson (Diahann Carroll) and Lillian Corning (Joanne Woodward) respectively. The film also deals with American racism of the time contrasted with Paris’s open acceptance of black people. The film was based on the 1957 novel of the same name by Harold Flender.
Music critic and writer John Caps explored the history of Black composing and scoring for film in this mfiles post, which is well worth a read:
Like so many other arts and industries, the side-craft of film music has been slow to acknowledge and to hire Black composers, believing them to be a specialty act, valuable when, for instance, the setting of a film was ethnically colored or historically specific – but perhaps not right for everyday, mainstream film subjects. What about the Black composer per se, though – the broadly trained musician writing broadly descriptive and widely varied music for films, who just happens to be Black? Should he or she really be limited to providing only scores based in jazz or rap or funk?
Certainly, the use of jazz as a dramatic language in films pre-dates the first Black composers on the payroll. A couple of firebrand producer/directors of the early 1950s – Elia Kazan and Otto Preminger – were the first to bring jazz onto the soundtracks, employing jazz-savvy Jewish composers like Alex North and Elmer Bernstein to mix jazz gestures, harmonies, instruments and improvisation with conventional narrative orchestral music in a few groundbreaking scores that had special ethnically-tinged settings and plots. That was White jazz, though.
I could do an entire story on the music that was nominated but didn’t win, and another on the music that didn’t even get a nomination. I have a list of past nominees and also of more recent winners, which I’ll be posting to the comments section. Suffice it to say I can’t cover it all today. Whether or not you tune in to watch the Oscar ceremonies or follow film or music in film, and in spite of a recent drastic falloff in viewership, my feeling is that the award ceremonies can also be a place where powerful messaging can take place.
While spending the past week watching racist Republicans attempt to derail Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination to the Supreme Court as well as cross-country attacks on our voting rights, I’m sitting here thinking of the award garnered by John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn, who you know as John Legend and Common, in 2015 for their Best Original Song, “Glory.” The performance moved many attendees in the audience to tears. I went back and found a clip of their acceptance speech.
Common started off the moving speech:
First off, I’d like to thank God that lives in us all. Recently, John and I got to go to Selma and perform “Glory” on the same bridge that Dr. King and the people of the civil rights movement marched on 50 years ago. This bridge was once a landmark of a divided nation, but now is a symbol for change. The spirit of this bridge transcends race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and social status. The spirit of this bridge connects the kid from the South side of Chicago, dreaming of a better life to those in France standing up for their freedom of expression to the people in Hong Kong protesting for democracy. This bridge was built on hope. Welded with compassion. And elevated by love for all human beings.
Then Legend took to the microphone, building off those sentiments:
Thank you. Nina Simone said it’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live. We wrote this song for a film that was based on events that were 50 years ago, but we say Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now. We know that the voting rights, the act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now in this country today. We know that right now the struggle for freedom and justice is real. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850. When people are marching with our song, we want to tell you that we are with you, we see you, we love you, and march on.
I couldn’t find a clip of their performance on YouTube. After searching, it turned up in a Facebook comment from Common: