In a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career dating back to the early 1950s, the Isley Brothers stayed on the move — transforming themselves from gospel shouters to doo-woppers to early rock ‘n’ rollers to nasty funksters to lover-man balladeers. Of course, nowadays, you’re more likely to hear their 1973 Top 10 hit “The Lady Pt. 1,” with its Santana-ish Latin feel, as part of a commercial for the Swiffer sweeper. They’re worth listening to when the housework is done, too.
All told, the Isleys — originally Ronald, Rudolph, O’Kelly, and Vernon Isley; Vernon died in a 1955 cycling accident — have had 22 Top 40 singles on the Billboard pop and R&B charts, the bulk of them (12) in the 1970s. Along the way, they recruited a young Jimi Hendrix to play guitar in their 1964 touring band, later recorded for, then enjoyed a late-career resurgence working with R. Kelly. Songs associated with the genre-busting, bridge-building Isleys have been covered by everybody from the Beatles (“Twist and Shout”) to Rod Stewart (“This Old Heart of Mine”) to the Power Station (“Harvest for the World”). They’ve kept it real along the way, too: The group’s 2006 release was simply titled Baby Makin’ Music.
Right on. Here’s a handful of other recommended Isleys favorites …
“SHOUT” (SHOUT, 1959): The Isleys were inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, and this song — a first-take, stop-start wonder — is one of the main reasons why.
“Shout” only rose to No. 47 on the Billboard Hot 100, yet nevertheless went on to become the original trio’s first gold single — primarily on the strength of generation after generation of young people’s willingness to dance lower and lower and lower as the song gets softer, and then to leap up when it surges back to life. Or worse. In the heady days after the 1978 film “Animal House” revived the tune once more, “Shout” sparked the first, ever-so-tiny flowerings of rebellion amongst my regimentally striped tie-wearing private-school classmates. There were some (not saying it was me, or anything) who could be found adding a nasty little move called The Gator (don’t ask) when this song came on at the gym dances. They’d throw you out for that. On the spot.
I knew even then, decades later, that the Isleys were rock ‘n’ roll in the purest, most important sense of the word: There was an unkempt danger to their music, something uncontrollable, sexy and new. It really did make you want to shout. — Nick DeRiso
“SUMMER BREEZE” (3+3, 1973): I guess everyone has a different interpretation on what constitutes “summer music.” For me, it’s got to be laid back and upbeat. Having some “summer” reference in the lyrics doesn’t hurt, either. Using that criteria, it doesn’t take long before Seals and Crofts’ 1972 hit “Summer Breeze” starts playing in my head. Culled from the album of the same name, “Summer Breeze” was a perfect blend of pop craftsmanship, jazzy arrangements and seamlessly blended harmonies. But anyone who was around during that time or listens to classic soft-rock even casually today knows all that; no need to be redundant.
Instead, I’m thinking more about another version of this song. True, it’s been covered so thoroughly throughout the years from Percy Faith to Ramsey Lewis to Type O Negative … and by who knows how many hotel lobby bars. Perhaps the best came not long after Seals and Crofts’ hit single started sliding back down the charts. And by no less an act than the Isley Brothers.
During their early-1970s era, the Isley Brothers covered a lot of popular songs of the day from a variety of artists from rock, folk and R&B; even the early 1970s blockbuster “That Lady” is a remake of their own original from 1965. A bit of irony coming from the same musical act who originally made “Twist And Shout” a hit back in 1962 and then watched it become a staple among the Beatles’ early hits and live setlist. So true to their form of that time, the Brothers’ landmark 3 + 3 from 1973 contains many contemporary covers like the Doobie Brothers’ “Listen To The Music” or Jonathan Edwards’ “Sunshine (Go Away Today),” but it’s also the album where the younger brothers Ernie (guitar, drums), Marvin (bass) and brother-in-law Chris Jasper on keyboards joined with vocalists Ronald, Rudolph and O’Kelly full-time, making the Isleys a complete band for the first time. The result was a album that was as consistently well played as it was well sung. It was also a sort of coming-out party for the 21-year-old Ernie, whose fretted flights of fancy helped to make “That Lady” such a huge hit in 1973, and 3 + 3 their first platinum seller.
“Summer Breeze” also charted (Top 10 R&B) and it’s not hard to imagine why. The Isleys started with a great tune that was still fresh in people’s minds and put their own unique stamp on it. The harmonies by the Isleys don’t quite come up to the level of Seals and Crofts’, but who needs stinkin’ harmony when Ronald Isley’s lead croon is as smooth as a freshly-zambonied ice rink? And then there’s lil’ bro Ernie and his Strat. He can display the Hendrix-style pyrotechnics, but is just as capable of letting it simmer with a great deal of control. After the last chorus, though, Ernie opens it up with some Carlos Santana-ish sweet blues lines as he did for “That Lady,” but appropriately keeping the tempo a tad restrained. Meanwhile, Jasper sticks with the piano and Ernie adds an acoustic rhythm guitar to retain a folk element, while Marvin’s bass and Ernie’s drums speak in a funkier language. This demonstrates well why the Isleys were so good at reaching across color barriers in music.
Even today, 3+3 makes for great listening no matter the season. But for on any summer mix collection, “Summer Breeze” belongs on it. Even better, make it the Isley Brothers’ version. — S. Victor Aaron
“IF YOU BELIEVE IN LOVE” (Isley-Jasper-Isley’s CARAVAN OF LOVE,” 1985): James Jamerson, George Porter Jr. and Larry Graham, all Hall of Rame R&B bass players. I’d like to add the late Marvin Isley to that group. Though Marvin never enjoyed the memorable solo turns that his brother Ernie had on lead guitar when both were in the classic 3+3 lineup, his funky, precise lines gave many an Isley Brothers hit that perfect bottom end.
When he, Ernie and keyboardist Chris Jasper split off to form the short-lived Isley-Jasper-Isley act in the mid-1980s, each finally got to showcase his stuff out of the shadow of eminent crooner Ronald Isley. Here we find out what great singers Ernie Isley and Jasper have been all along, and Ernie takes the lead vocal for his mid-tempo quiet-storm nugget “If You Believe In Love.” It’s a nice tune, one of the best tracks on Caravan Of Love, but not just because of Ernie. Marvin lays down a funk line with mechanical precision, lifting the song from “quiet storm” to “moderate, steady-rolling storm.” This being the mid-’80s, anyone else would have just programmed that bass line in on a synth (and I-J-I did just that for the drum track) but that would have wasted a lot of talent on board. Marvin was a friggin’ machine with that popping, percolating pulse.
Ten months ago, Marvin Isley died quietly due to complications from diabetes, still only 56 years old at the time. But a long legacy of Isley-related recordings — going back to 1969 when he was still in high school — begs for the same post-mortem recognition Jamerson eventually got.
Edit: I have it on very good authority that Jasper is responsible for that bass line on this song, not Marvin Isley. Nevertheless, Isley had by this time had long established his legacy as one of the finest bassist in R&B. RIP Marvin.
— S. Victor Aaron
IT’S YOUR THING (IT’S YOUR THING, 1969): The Isleys didn’t just endure into the 1960s, they very nearly topped the charts with this No. 2 hit — a slinky, horn-driven funk clusterbomb that became their most successful record.
Sparked by the popular music going on around them, the newly expanded group began displaying a nervy flexibility. They covered Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” and Seals and Croft’s “Summer Breeze”; they had their own takes on Eric Burdon and War’s “Spill the Wine” and Bob Dylan‘s “Lay Lady Lay.” Yet for all of that crossover experimentation, for all of the bridges they built between whites and blacks, the Isleys never relinquished their steely grip on the groove. Drop a needle on this old record and see if you can keep your ass from shaking.
Appropriately, the Grammy-winning “It’s Your Thing,” powered by these lithe blasts of brassy wit from horn players Curtis Pope and George “Paco” Patterson, went on to become the first hit that the Isleys both wrote and produced themselves. Recorded in just two blazing takes, this proto-feminist anthem also marks the initial appearance by a then-16-year-old Ernie (playing bass). That’s guitarist Charles “Skip” Pitts on the shaggy wah-wah. — Nick DeRiso
“MOVE YOUR BODY” (ETERNAL, 2001): The Isley Brothers moved in their sixth decade with only two brothers remaining: the underrated heir-to-Hendrix Ernie, and that cane-wieldin’, tax-evadin’ gangsta of sweet soul, the honey-throated Ronald aka Mr. Biggs. Eternal was the first album of the new millennium, and chock full of R&B’s biggest stars of the time: R. Kelly, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and Raphael Saadiq.
The album’s opener “Move Your Body” wouldn’t pass for anything more your basic contemporary soul — except for two things, and both of those things have “Isley” at the end of their names. Ernie adds his trademark Who’s-That-Lady style wail on the axe, and his palatable rhythm guitar work sets the trademark Isleys rock-soul tone for the whole song. With no keyboards getting in the way, Ernie has the sonic space to do his thing, and he does it like no one else.
But no song is truly an Isley Brothers song without Ronald on lead vocals. There has never been a more sexually charged singer in soul, save for Marvin Gaye. His pleading, expressive and cocksure falsetto goes into full lust mode as he proposes to his lady to “go half on a baby.” If it were anyone else shouting out “Your hips! Your thighs! Your lips! Your eyes!” it would sound cheesy, but Biggs makes it believable. The unnecessary “dance with me” chorus lifted from Gaye’s “After The Dance” notwithstanding, “Move Your Body” continued the long Isley legend into the 21st century. — S. Victor Aaron
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