One bit of positive fallout from the seemingly endless glut of remastered CD reissues that fill the record store bins each Tuesday is that they sometimes offer an occasion to throw all critical objectivity to the wind. When a recording is an acknowledged classic, a writer generally has but two options—go against the grain to poke holes in its legacy, or celebrate its already known brilliance and hope there’s some piece of previously unavailable insight to be had. Well, The Isley Brothers’ 1973 soul masterpiece 3 + 3, recently cleaned up and put back into circulation by Epic/Legacy, leaves this critic no choice but to follow the path of least resistance and offer three reasons as to why it’s one of the most indisputably amazing R&B records of all time.
Number one: The Production. 3 + 3 is quite possibly the most stripped-down commercial soul record of its era. Considering the dominant production styles of early 1970s R&B—most notably, the slick perfectionism coming out of Motown and the Gamble/Huff Philly soul machine—the raw sound of this album makes it stand out like a thrash band at the Apollo. No syrupy string arrangements, no layers-upon-layers of overdubbed vocal harmonies, just the sound of a damn good R&B band capturing its music as it was meant to be heard. And that’s another crucial factor—that the Isleys were a band (and a relatively new one at that, since guitarist Ernie and keyboardist brother-in-law Chris Jasper joined just a few albums prior to this), not a mere singer or vocal group backed by some endless procession of studio musicians. The level of interaction achieved by a group of players who rehearsed regularly and arranged the songs to fit their strengths is readily apparent, making for a truly unique production aesthetic.
Number two: Ernie Isley is the Missing Link between Eddie Hazel and Prince. In tracing the lineage of Black guitar virtuosi, Ernie Isley’s work on 3 + 3 establishes him as a direct connection between Eddie Hazel’s acid-tinged Funkadelic shredding and Prince’s pop-tempered extended jams. Whether he’s indulging in fuzzed-out ecstasy over the codas of “That Lady” and “Summer Breeze” or adding near-highlife acoustic fills to “Listen to the Music”, Ernie’s guitar is the transcendental force that propels this record beyond its peers. Although it definitely wasn’t the norm for a pop-oriented R&B band to have such a flamboyant guitarist back then, keep in mind that these are the same Isley Brothers who employed the services of a young Jimi Hendrix as early as 1964 (back when he was just a budding genius calling himself Jimmy James)—testimony to the fact that the elder Brothers know a good guitar player when they hear one.
Number three: The Covers. Almost half of 3 + 3 consists of cover tunes, and from some of the unlikeliest of sources for an R&B band at this time. James Taylor? The Doobie Brothers? Seals & Crofts?!? Not only were they stylistically at odds with the Isleys’ modus operandi, but, at the time of their recording, the songs weren’t even full-fledged hits yet. Even more astonishing, though, is the way the band doesn’t just cover these songs, they own them outright—in other words, the feeling and consistency the Isleys inject into them (a trend they began to explore in earnest on 1971’s militant Givin’ It Back) cause almost anyone who doesn’t know better to think that the Brothers’ versions are the originals. Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” is reimagined as an aching soul ballad, showcasing Ronald’s heartfelt vocals; while the Doobies’ “Listen to the Music” and Jonathan Edwards’ “Sunshine (Go Away Today)” are a hundred times funkier than their predecessors, with Ernie’s joyful guitar carrying the torch through both tunes. The most stunning blow, however, is what the Isleys do with “Summer Breeze”, giving Seals & Crofts more credibility than they ever deserved as Ernie once again shreds the AM dial to little more than sawdust.
And that’s just the surface, the most easily distilled traits, if you will. The originals are as strong as any of their past hits—“It’s Your Thing” notwithstanding—with “That Lady” very successfully updating their ‘60s hit “Who’s That Lady” and “If You Were There” and “You Walk Your Way” providing midtempo contrast between the funk and ballads. And speaking of ballads, the Isleys even manage that most rare of feats with the closing “The Highways of My Life”—a mellow R&B cut that’s not the least bit corny. This reissue even adds a live 1980 recording of “That Lady”, though its value as a selling point is negligible; the sound is so vastly improved from the first CD issue that there’s no reason not to upgrade. And for those unfortunate souls who haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing 3 + 3 at all, hopefully the foregoing rave will encourage you to do so with minimal hesitation.