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The Isley Brothers

Emerging just as rock’n’roll was making inroads into the hearts and minds of the day’s youth, this enduring R&B/soul combo kicked off their campaign in 1954. Over half a century on, incorporating a gamut of generational urban funk styles, the perennial dynasty of The ISLEY BROTHERS still resonates as much today as it did back in their heyday when `Shout’ (and `Twist And Shout’) screeched out from the airwaves. Through 1973 to 1983, the group sealed nine consecutive gold or platinum albums; their sound switching back and forth between Ronald’s soulfully smooth ballads and the hard and funky stuff supplied by his back-up/musician brethren – they were still going strong post-millennium.
Cincinnati, Ohio was the stamping ground for The ISLEY BROTHERS; then consisting of teenage siblings Ronald, Rudolph, O’Kelly and Vernon, all experienced gospel singers. The subsequent death of the latter brother in 1955 (in a neighbourhood bicycling accident) led to the remaining trio taking stock. Spurred on by their parents (their father O’Kelly, Sr. was a vaudevillian singer), they moved from their home city to New York in ‘57, where they began their recording career under the watchful eye of George Goldner. Influenced by doo-wop R&B in the shape of BILLY WARD & THE DOMINOES, the Isleys cut five 45s in a relatively short space of time: from the upbeat `The Cow Jumped Over The Moon’ and `Everybody’s Gonna Rock’n’Roll’, to the downbeat “Don’t Be Jealous’, `This Is The End’ and `My Love’ – all regional hits but hardly contenders to make the necessary upgrade.
A live rendition of JACKIE WILSON’s `Lonely Teardrops’ – with added lyrical impetus through the addendum line “You know you make me wanna shout” – encouraged an RCA executive, who almost immediately passed their nom de plume to the label. Although the sentimental `Turn To Me’ (b/w `I’m Gonna Knock On Your Door’) faltered from the starting blocks, The ISLEY BROTHERS finally achieved recognition when `Shout’ (Parts 1 & 2) pierced its way into the Hot 100 at the tail end of the decade. The wee LULU would of course give the track a reinvigorated spin five years later.
SHOUT! (1959) {*6} – the album – contained all the elements of the day: a bit of this, a bit of that, but basically danceable grooves on work-outs of nostalgic nuggets `When The Saints Go Marching In’, `He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands’ and er… `Rock Around The Clock’. Ronnie on lead and his siblings shoo-be-doo-wop-ing in the OTT production of session instrumentalists, the fast and frantic, but derivative `Respectable’ and `How Deep Is The Ocean’ were effectively “Shout” parts 3 and 4.
Softening the tempo more than a tad on subsequent single, `Gypsy Love Song (Slumber On, My Little Gypsy Sweetheart)’ and the hootin’-tootin’ `Tell Me Who’, the talented trio had driven themselves into a corner. The need for change to compete with other R&B brothers and soul sisters was apparent, although time spent produced by Leiber & Stoller at Atlantic Records was one step forward, two steps back in time for weepy re-arrangements of `Jeepers Creepers’, `Shine On Harvest Moon’, `Your Old Lady’ and a cover of RAY CHARLES’ `A Fool For You’.
Going nowhere fast as Wand Records took their turn, the slow grooves of `Right Now’ didn’t exactly endear the brothers three to an audience already fascinated by the emotive stars JACKIE WILSON and JAMES BROWN. The idea to cover a Top Notes tune penned by Bert Berns & Phil Medley, `Twist And Shout’, was indeed an inspirational one as it climbed steadily up the charts, reaching #17 by the summer of ’62; a year later in the UK, the song hit the Top 50 having being covered by The BEATLES.
The new dance craze was again in full swing with modest hit, `Twistin’ With Linda’, a song unavailable from the brooding frat-rock LP, TWIST & SHOUT (1962) {*6}. As much a product of Berns & Medley, who contributed around a half of the cues, it was hardly going to match the strength of hipsters CHUBBY CHECKER, The MIRACLES and others of that ilk. A subsequent switch to United Artists added little but grief to their gospel/R&B CV and, in third LP, TWISTING AND SHOUTING (1963) {*4} – as The Fabulous Isley Brothers – it only underlined the fact that `Tango’, `Surf And Shout’ and `You’ll Never Leave Him’, misfired.
The production under-values on the first version of `Who’s That Lady’ and the failure of `Shake It With Me Baby’, probably convinced the siblings that it was again time to move on up. Eager for more creative control, The ISLEY BROTHERS took the unprecedented step of setting up their own label, T-Neck; named after their new location of Teaneck in New Jersey. Their first home-grown recording, `Testify’, was largely ignored, although a certain lead guitarist would go on to influence generations – the axe-man in question: JIMI HENDRIX.
In an effort to achieve a higher profile, the trio abandoned another spell with Atlantic Records in 1965 to sign for Tamla Motown. Unfortunately, the label insisted on moulding the band to their formulaic “hit-factory” approach, stifling their creative input and producing only one major transatlantic hit: 1966’s `This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You)’. Showing signs of consistency and branding, the Holland-Dozier-Holland implementation worked a treat on the pulsating THIS OLD HEART OF MINE (1966) {*8}. One of the long-lost soul gems of its generation, minor hits like `Take Some Time Out For Love’ and `I Guess I’ll Always Love You’ shared room and board with re-treads of Motown classics `Nowhere To Run’, `Stop! In The Name Of Love’, `Baby Don’t You Do It’, `I Hear A Symphony’ and one of many belated Brit hits, `Put Yourself In My Place’.
Minus the Midas Touch effect of HDH, 1967’s SOUL ON THE ROCKS {*5} lacked the power of its predecessor. In-house songsmiths a-plenty (SMOKEY ROBINSON, Ivy Jo Hunter, JOHNNY BRISTOL, Strong-Whitfield, among them), its only lasting memory – apart from opening cut `Got To Have You Back’ – was the glorious, Northern soul classic, `Behind A Painted Smile’ (a UK Top 5 hit a few years on!).
The brothers’ finest achievements came after they indeed split with boss Berry Gordy Jr. and Co in 1968; re-launching T-Neck Records that same year. With creative control firmly back in the hands of the siblings, they let rip with funky grooves and even funkier outfits; their evolution complete with the addition of two further members of the ISLEY clan: talented teenage brothers Ernie (lead guitar, drums, etc.) and Marvin (bass).
The self-penned (O’Kelly/Ronald/Rudolph) classic, `It’s Your Thing’, was a platter that became an instant Top 3 hit and earned the band a Grammy. From the equally impressive IT’S OUR THING (1969) {*8} – their biggest chart album to date (#22) – The ISLEY BROTHERS had finally come of age. Grits ‘n’ soul in high demand, the siblings were calling the shots on the funky and orchestral, `Give The Women What They Want’, `I Must Be Losing My Touch’ and the driving `Somebody Been Messin’.
Whooping out more “sock it to me”s than a Rowan & Martin’s Laughter skit, `I Turned You On’ raced into the Top 30; the opening salvo from the funk-driven gospel set, THE BROTHERS: ISLEY (1969) {*6}. The rhythm and bluesy arrangements on examples, `The Blacker The Berrie’ (aka minor hit `Black Berries Pt.1’ & Pt.2) and `Was It Good To You’, squared up to a high-pitched, man-of-the-moment Ronald on his quest to succeed peers CURTIS MAYFIELD, AL GREEN and EDDIE KENDRICKS.
The test of the band’s high esteem was when they delivered a not-so star-studded concert set, LIVE AT YANKEE STADIUM (1969) {*5}, a double featuring themselves as “side one” top of the bill and other gospel/soul acts such as The EDWIN HAWKINS SINGERS, Brooklyn Bridge, The Five Stairsteps, The Sweet Cherries and Judy White (daughter of JOSH WHITE), stretched over the remaining three sides.
As The TEMPTATIONS pushed the psychedelic-soul envelope to its limits, The ISLEY BROTHERS kept it “real” and funky on Hot 100 hits `Keep On Doin’’, `Girls Will Be Girls, Boys Will Be Boys’ and the party-poppin’ title track, edited from 1970’s GET INTO SOMETHING {*6}; they’d also added Rudolph’s brother-in-law Chris Jasper (keyboards/synths). Closer to the FOUR TOPS, The O’JAYS and The (Detroit) SPINNERS, than their psych-soul brethren, `Freedom’ was their fourth single spawned from the album.
The aptly-titled covers album, GIVIN’ IT BACK (1971) {*7}, pictured the main trio with acoustic guitars in hand, although once again the spirited musicianship of their younger bros stole a bit of the limelight. Cherry-picking songs with issues of environment, the Vietnam War and ethnic civil rights that blighted their racially divided nation, the Isleys raised their fists in the air to join with their political kinship against the recent killings of their black “brothers” by the authorities in Kent State and Jackson State University in Mississippi.
In song, the Top 20 `Love The One You’re With’ (from the pen of STEPHEN STILLS) and JAMES TAYLOR’s `Fire And Rain’, brought peace and harmony to the opening angst-addled meld of NEIL YOUNG’s `Ohio’ and HENDRIX’s `Machine Gun’. When both `Spill The Wine’ (ERIC BURDON & WAR) and `Lay Lady Lay’ (BOB DYLAN) positioned themselves within the cranium of the charts, college campus kids bought into the album of transitional soul pieces a la `Cold Bologna’ (BILL WITHERS) and `Nothing To Do But Today’ (STEPHEN STILLS).
As contenders to the permissive society soul crown, MARVIN GAYE and AL GREEN, were asking “what’s happening brother?” to a nation who’d reached a political cul de sac of tolerance to its masters, The ISLEYS team cooked up some fine medicinal mellow music on the Top 30 BROTHER, BROTHER, BROTHER (1972) {*7}. Split into home-grown R&B rockers highlighted by `Lay-Away’ and `Work To Do’ (both minor hits), or covers spearheaded by a funky (#24) `Pop That Thang’ (composed by Clyde Otis & Herman Kelly) – not forgetting JACKIE DeSHANNON’s `Put A Little In Your Heart’ and a 10-minute reading of CAROLE KING’s `It’s Too Late’ (plus her `Brother, Brother’) – any rough edges had been polished to perfection.
Touring frequently as an extended unit from the late 60s to early 70s, THE ISLEYS LIVE (1973) {*8} showcased just how far the group had come in their near 20-year soul campaign. A double-LP of epic proportions recorded at The Bitter End (with no aspiring various artists to promote), the length and breadth of their most recent of cuts and covers, proved beyond doubt, that the underrated Ernie was more than a match to the wailing Ronnie; note that `Work To Do’ would be re-fried by musical descendants AVERAGE WHITE BAND.
A subsequent distribution deal with Epic-CBS led to the release of The ISLEY BROTHERS’ 3 + 3 (1973) {*9}, an album that now officially showcased the roots of the “Isley sound” in brothers Ernie and Marvin, plus aforesaid brother-in-law Chris Jasper; Ernie’s HENDRIX-influenced fret work was a vital component in the trademark blend of their dance rhythms and funk-laden grooves, best served up on the sexy `That Lady’ (a transatlantic Top 20 re-vamp of `Who’s That Lady’). Unsure if soft-rock purveyors SEALS AND CROFT had quite imagined how soulful their picture-postcard-esque `Summer Breeze’ could be in the hands of the Isleys, this track and the heavenly `The Highways Of My Life’ were the most tear-jerkingly stunning records they’d recorded up to now; pity then that Brits were the only ones to furnish the singles with chart appeal. Overshadowed by Stevie’s “Innervisions” and Marvin’s “Let’s Get It On” (delivered almost simultaneously August/September), the Isleys’ knack of capturing the right mood, suggested interpretations by The DOOBIE BROTHERS’ `Listen To The Music’ and JAMES TAYLOR’s `Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight’ were truly out of this world.
1974’s Top 20 follow-up LIVE IT UP {*7} took the formula a step further; albeit with only one intimate cover version: `Hello It’s Me’ from the tortured trooper TODD RUNDGREN (incidentally, `Brown-Eyed Girl’ was not Van the Man’s but their own contribution). Bolstered by “Part 1” breaker hits from the title track and `Midnight Sky’, the album touched the hearts and souls of a mindful, middle-American audience.
The quiet storm/funk style combined especially well on their 1975 chart-topping offering, THE HEAT IS ON {*8}, a record alternating the furious vocals of Top 5 group composition, `Fight The Power’, with candlelight, after-dinner rug-wrestlers, `Sensuality’, `Make Me Say It Again’ and (#22 hit) `For The Love Of You’; other two-parters comprised the joyous and organic `Hope You Feel Better Love’ and the title track.
Mellowing out in songs addressing the need for social awareness and global peace, the lead hit song from the FM-friendly HARVEST FOR THE WORLD (1976) {*8}, was Ronald and Co at their most smooth and sophisticated. Again, not so much a hit on home soil, Britain came to the classic soul song’s rescue, although the album reached the US Top 10, boosted by the racey Top 50 blend of disco and R&B nugget, `Who Loves You Better’ (Part 1, of course).
1977’s GO FOR YOUR GUNS {*7} – featuring Top 40 squeeze `Livin’ In The Life’ – sold slightly better in its capacity to reach out to the consumer, while the equally-groove-chasing SHOWDOWN (1978) {*7}, railed against the new wave bandwagon. Still a passionate “3+3” combination with a plethora of fresh cues to close out any rival factions of funk and disco, WINNER TAKES ALL (1979) {*6} drifted nearer to a good-time happy medium with R&B hits, `It’s A Disco Night (Rock Don’t Stop)’ – their final UK Top 20 entry.
Despite running into a new decade head on, 1980’s GO ALL THE WAY {*6} was predictable and formulaic in its half-uptempo/half-ballad approach. Still, it pleased their multitude of fans acquired from their Grammy-winning sets; this time hooked into the Top 40 STYLISTICS-styled chills of `Don’t Say Goodnight (It’s Time For Love)’. Further long-players, GRAND SLAM (1981) {*5}, INSIDE YOU (1981) {*5} and THE REAL DEAL (1982) {*4}, were as inconsequential and stagnant as The ISLEY BROTHERS had been for some time – the latter deal just scraping into the Top 100.
In a series of songs that reflected a highly romantic/erotic content, a sure-fire winner in terms of Top 20 sales, was the heavy-breathing, sexual-healing of BETWEEN THE SHEETS (1983) {*6}, which restored the faith among their pocket-tightening fanbase. Bouncing bedroom basslines and crystalline crescendos under a mirror-ball of light reflecting from a last-dance discotheque, the gorgeous and groovy `Choosey Lover’, `Let’s Make Love Tonight’ and the title track were sprinkled with the thin air from Cupid’s arrow.
Two years down the line, The ISLEY BROTHERS had shed the three stones that had held them together through the previous decade and a half. There was always a certain amount of compromise to their output, however, they’d split into two factions: the longest surviving members signing to Warner Bros., while the “musicians” went on to form the short-lived ISLEY/JASPER/ISLEY unit; the latter outfit duly penned the hymnal `Caravan Of Love’ (later a UK No.1 for The HOUSEMARTINS).
Meanwhile, The ISLEY BROTHERS’ poorly-received (#140) MASTERPIECE (1985) {*5} was no Van Gogh painting, instead, it was a ballad-friendly ease into MOR, despite the grandiose `My Best Is Good Enough’, `You Never Know When You’re Gonna Fall In Love’ and the STEVIE WONDER/Carmine Appice-penned `Stay Gold’.
The death of brother O’Kelly from a heart attack on March 31, 1986, curtailed any further product from the remaining duo until 1987’s SMOOTH SAILIN’ {*5} reached the Top 75. Augmented by Ronnie’s future wife and manager ANGELA WINBUSH (an R&B artist in her own right), the collaboration aspect of the set was in full swing on numbers from `Everything Is Alright’ to `Somebody I Used To Know’ (underlining long-standing backing musician Everett Collins).
Billed fully as The ISLEY BROTHERS featuring RONALD ISLEY (and once again incorporating the talented Angela), SPEND THE NIGHT (1989) {*5} topped the R&B charts, while only reaching No.89 in the main lists. The harvest of The ISLEY BROTHERS withering perennially, the Winbush factor was displayed best on the soaring `Come Together’, `One Of A Kind’ and `Spend The Night (Ce Soir)’.
In March 1990, Ronald backed ROD STEWART on a Top 10 version of `This Old Heart Of Mine’; Rod, of course, had earlier cracked the UK Top 5 with the song. Meanwhile, Ernie released his solo album, `High Wire’, around the same time, just prior to him and his brother Marvin re-joining The ISLEY BROTHERS featuring RONALD ISLEY, to fill the berth of Rudy, who’d become a lay preacher/minister.
Influencing legions of recording artists throughout their four decades so far, The ISLEY BROTHERS were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1992, the same year that TRACKS OF LIFE {*4} hit the shops. The re-coupling of Ronald and Angela in the songwriting department, the added subtle subterfuge of guitar-god Ernie and the kinky double entendre cuts `Get My Licks In’ and `No Axe To Grind’, mainly fell on deaf ears.
A switch to Island Records, 1996’s commercially viable MISSION TO PLEASE {*7} stalled just outside the Top 30, helped in no short measure by the feature billing of Ronald Isley and Angela Winbush on board their biggest hit for years, `Floatin’ On Your Love’. From the bedroom to the dance-floor, R. KELLY and, in turn, BABYFACE, gave respective tracks such as `Let’s Lay Together’ and `Tears’, a leg up in every which way but loose. Unfortunately, a re-tread of SIMPLY RED’s `Holding Back The Years’ added nothing to the original.
It would be the swansong for Marvin, who had both his legs amputated after battling with diabetes for many years; he was die of complications on June 6, 2010.
The remaining ISLEY BROTHERS became one of the few old school soul acts to roll with the punches on the new R&B block come the new millennium. Deservedly, the acclaimed ETERNAL (2001) {*6} reached the Top 3; helped along the way by the Top 20 hit, `Contagious’. While the record featured a roll call of R&B scenesters such as R KELLY, JILL SCOTT, JIMMY JAM & TERRY LEWIS, the real star of the show was Ronald’s falsetto vocal (co-credited as alter ego Mr. Biggs), still as fresh as that 70s summer breeze after all these years.
KELLY was to play a much bigger role in 2003’s huge BODY KISS {*7}, producing and writing the bulk of the album. A No.1 in the States, the record fulfilled the potential hinted at in its predecessor, freeing up the full, stratospheric power of Ronald’s vocals with a collection of contemporary urban R&B love songs. At 64, Ron Isley was at his shimmering and sensual best on the likes of `What Would You Do?’, `Superstar’ (derivative of `That Lady’ and/or CURTIS MAYFIELD’s `Superfly’) and the mellow `Lucky Charm’.
The ISLEYs were truly hip(-hop) once more with the release of a full-blown remix set, TAKEN TO THE NEXT PHASE (2004) {*4}, a record featuring MOS DEF amongst others. Back to bread-and-butter soul, the sibling duo carried on their platinum resurgence with the deftly-titled, Tim Kelley and Bob Robinson-produced BABY MAKIN’ MUSIC (2006) {*6}. Remarkably half a century in the music biz and still going strong in the Top 5, the soft moods on `You’re My Star’, `Just Came Here To Chill’ and `Pretty Woman’, won over fresh fans probably unaware of the subtle beauty of their prime 60s and 70s cuts.
Convicted of tax evasion by the I.R.S., Ronald was sent to prison, and then a halfway house to serve the remaining years of sentence, until his release on April 13, 2010. Whether the 2007-released I’LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS {*4} will be the siblings’ final offering is anyone’s guess, but the man himself has been active in the Top 50 with a couple of solo sets, `Mr. I’ (2010) and `This Song Is For You’ (2013), having issued `Here I Am’ (with BURT BACHARACH) in November 2003.
No longer a chart-topping commodity in these predominantly rap/hip-hop times, funky soul/R&B exponents The ISLEY BROTHERS’ decision to team up with SANTANA (i.e. Carlos and drummer wife Cindy Blackman Santana) was of fantasy-league proportions. Summer 2017’s POWER OF PEACE {*7} was on paper, at least, something that could’ve suited the psychedelic-soul 60s (possibly even the 70s), rather than the 10s; testament to this assumption were the re-treads of STEVIE WONDER’s `Higher Ground’ (one of many featuring Ernie’s HENDRIX-style guitar licks) and CHAMBERS BROTHERS twin-pack, `Are You Ready?’ and `Love, Peace, Happiness’. If The ISLEYs needed a reason to rock’n’roll, then `Total Destruction To Your Mind’ was it in spades; Carlos and Cindy happy to oblige. Of course, there were moments to shake off those ol’ dirty rocker rags, and chill out a la cosy fireside versions of BILLIE HOLIDAY’s `God Bless The Child’ and BACHARACH-DAVID’s `What The World Needs Now Is Love Sweet Love’. Ditto soul-wise CURTIS MAYFIELD’s `Gypsy Woman’ and MARVIN GAYE’s `Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)’, whilst the nocturnal disco element came by way of `Body Talk’; the emboldened blues arrived through the supergroup’s ear-pounding take of WILLIE DIXON’s `I Just Want To Make Love To You’.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-LCS // rev-up MCS Dec2015-Sep2018

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