The Isley Brothers are an anomaly in the world of pop music. The history of black recording artists in the U.S. has been an almost never-ending story of compromise and eventual betrayal. Artists from Little Richard, to James Brown, to Stevie Wonder, to Prince have compromised and homogenized their sound (often at the insistence of their record companies) to appeal to the larger, more lucrative young, white audience. But white audiences have proven notoriously fickle when it comes to black artists and they generally abandon them—leaving the performer’s reputation and career irretrievably damaged. (For example, James Brown’s transition from the most talented soul singer on the planet into the cartoon-like “Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” It’s an image that white audiences can simultaneously embrace and mock with comfort.) Many artistss have been unable to resist the temptation of compromising their musical principles to make a stab at attracting that crossover pop audience. However, as “It’s Your Thing: The Story of The Isley Brothers” demonstrates, The Isley Brothers have rarely compromised their musical vision.
The most striking thing about the music on this new three CD career retrospective is the breadth of musical styles pulled off so successfully by the Isley Brothers. Like many black artists of their generation, the Isleys’ introduction to music was the gospel choir and that influence is heard throughout their career. The brothers began their professional singing career as a doo-wop group in the tradition of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, but they didn’t experience a commercial breakthrough until they recorded the penultimate party song of the last 30 years, “Shout.”
This compilation features three different takes on the Isleys’ signature song “Shout,” starting with “Building Up to Shout,” which is basically a gospel-like vocal warm-up to the actual song taken from a 1969 concert in Yankee Stadium. The cut is interesting in that it showcases the gospel origins of the more commonly recognized version. A ragged live version taken from the Shindig television show of the early sixties is merely an interesting curio. But the 1959 studio recording retains a primal power that to this day seems almost frightening. It is little wonder that the song was a huge hit with black audiences, but flopped with the white youth of the period.
The Isleys floundered a bit after this initial success until 1962 when they hit both the R&B and pop charts with their remake of “Twist & Shout.” The Beatles subsequently elevated the song into an entirely different level of popularity and buried the Isley’s version in the consciousness of white America, but the Isley’s version is still better.
Frustrated with the constraints of their record companies, the Isleys formed their own label, T-Neck, in the early sixties. They also hired a young guitarist by the name of Jimi Hendrix. “Testify” and “Move Over and Let Me Dance,” the two tracks on the CD featuring Hendrix, are a phenomenal leap from the gospel/doo-wop sound of their recordings of only five years earlier. The influence of Hendrix’s guitar is obvious as the band pursues a sound that is a prototype for the Hendrix solo recordings of the late sixties.
T-Neck provided the brothers with creative freedom, but it didn’t produce the commercial success that they sought. Enter Motown. The Isleys signed with the ultimate formula hitmakers of the 1960s in hopes of finding commercial crossover success. The formula worked and the Isleys enjoyed their biggest pop singles during their brief tenure with the company. “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You)” and “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me A Little While)” are typical examples of the late ‘60s Motown sound. Smooth, slick, seamless and hopelessly catchy, the tunes retain their funky charm to this day. But they weren’t indicative of the musical strengths or interests of the Isleys. Late in the decade the Isleys did the unthinkable. They left Motown to pursue their own musical vision.
Again recording on their T-Neck label the brothers underwent a radical image change in 1969, moving from suits and ties to a combination of furs, silks and period costumes. During this period they released their ultimate anthem to personal freedom, “It’s Your Thing.” The song demonstrates all the strengths of the Isley sound, if there is such a thing. Soaring vocals play over insistent horn and guitar riffs to create a style that is part gospel, part Motown, part James Brown, and part a premonition of Rick James.
“Get Into Something,” a track released in 1970, also seems a direct progenitor of the funky 70’s sound of early Ohio Players and Kool and the Gang. This tune and the follow-up single “Freedom” show the brothers moving farther and farther away from the slick Motown sound. They are also moving farther and farther away from the crossover audience that they had courted during the sixties. “Freedom” pushed to #16 on the R&B charts. It stalled at #72 on the pop charts.
The majority of disc two of this collection is dedicated to a series of covers of popular songs by white artists such as Todd Rundren’s “Hello It’s Me,” Carole King’s “Brother, Brother,” and Seals and Croft’s “Summer Breeze.” While these recordings enjoyed some commercial success at the time, they sound strained today and you can hear the brothers attempting to break past the musical boundaries of the material. Only when they move back to their own songs and their own style, such as in the #1 R&B hit “Fight the Power,” do the brothers sound committed to the material.
The third disc in the collection is easily the weakest. It documents the Isleys’ slow descent into R&B mediocrity. The music isn’t bad but it isn’t terribly distinctive either, with only the sweetly melodic “Harvest for the World” breaking out of the malaise. By the time most of these cuts were recorded the group was beginning to splinter and the creative focus that was so much a part of their earlier recordings is gone.
In the end the Isleys Brothers’ legacy will be that they were a group that wouldn’t make the compromises necessary to achieve true crossover commercial success. They remained true to their sound and in the process laid the groundwork for sixties rock, seventies funk, and eighties rap. It’s Your Thing: The Story of the Isley Brothers is an excellent archive of the best of the Isley’s but, perhaps more importantly, it is a testimony to the power of integrity and originality.
// Notes from the Road
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