Without a doubt, Ronald Isley possesses one of the most exquisite voices to ever grace American pop music. But much of Isley’s recent work as R. Kelly’s sidekick “Mr. Biggs” has had little to do with garnering the critical acclaim that has largely been beyond his reach thus far, and more to do with his need to pay the bills. Now in his early sixties, after nearly 50 years in the business of making pop music, Isley has embarked upon a project that should finally earn him status as one of the great song stylists of the last three decades.
No doubt Ronald Isley Meets Burt Bacharach: Here I Am represents one of the most bizarre couplings seen in pop music in some time (Bacharach paired with Elvis Costello on Painted from Memory back in 1998), particularly for a generation of folks who only know Isley as “Mr. Biggs” or possibly as one of the classic purveyors of the “pre-coital” soul ballad. And of course they have even less knowledge of singer-songwriter Burt Bacharach, who with partner Hal David, dominated the pop charts in the 1960s writing and producing songs like “Walk on By”, “I Say a Little Prayer”, “The Look of Love”, and “Baby It’s You”. At this point, most folks who really dig Isley’s evil twin “Mr. Biggs” only know Bacharach’s primary interpreter Dionne Warwick because of her infomercials for the Psychic Network. But Isley told Rolling Stone writer Andrew Dansbey back in July that Bacharach’s songs are the “type of songs I walk around the house singing I think I’m more familiar with his work than he is”. For his part, Bacharach admits that the project allowed him to revisit and thus rethink some of his classic material, adding that Isley’s vocals are “impeccable He’s a brilliant, brilliant singer”. Guess game recognize game. To add to the classic feel of the project, the recording was done at Capitol Studio A & B in Los Angeles, the same studio where Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole laid down their legendary tracks for the Capitol label.
With the exception of two new songs (“Count on Me” and “Love’s (Still) the Answer”), Isley and Bacharach mostly delve into the most recognizable of the Bacharach/David oeuvre. Bacharach and Isley laid down five tracks in their first session, including striking string-laden versions of “Alfie” and “Make It Easy on Yourself”, which was a breakthrough commercial hit for the “Iceman” Jerry Butler in 1962. Isley’s upper register has never been as unfettered as it is on his brilliant rendition of “In Between the Heartaches”, but it’s the stirring version of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” that gives the best testament to Isley’s singular talent. A fine song when first recorded by BJ Thomas in 1969, the song has long been rendered a pop music cliché (the kind of song that kids first sing in grade school), but Isley infuses the song with a soulfulness that allows him to live up to the claim that he could “sing the phonebook” and still elicit sanctified shouts.
Though Dionne Warwick is most associated with Bacharach and David compositions, in recent years Luther Vandross has presented (in no small part due to his love for Warwick’s artistry) some of the most sophisticated readings of those compositions. In this regard, Isley clearly worked in Vandross’s shadow on tracks that are largely associated with the recovering balladeer, particularly among R&B audiences. Isley’s read of “Anyone Who Had a Heart” is closer to the Warwick original, than the spiraling, soul singed version that Vandross presented on Give Me the Reason (1986) and thus can stand on its own as an Isley interpretation. More difficult to judge is Isley’s rendition of “A House is Not a Home”, which has been Vandross’s signature tune since his solo debut in 1981. Ironically, like Vandross, the Isleys have been celebrated for their distinct rearrangements of pop tunes (their versions of Seals and Croft’s “Summer Breeze” and Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me” immediately come to mind). It would have been interesting to hear how Isley would have interpreted “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and “A House is Not a Home” if it would have been a straight Isley Brothers project with Ernie Isley’s stirring guitar riffs in tow. The versions that appear on Here I Am represent Isley’s profound respect for Vandross, but with a touch of competitiveness that has long defined the Soul Man tradition.
Other standouts on Here I Am include the title track, a swing-happy version of “This Guy’s in Love with You” (first recorded by Herb Alpert in 1968), and a plaintively beautiful version of “Close to You” (long associated with the Carpenters, but given a definitive “Soul” read by Isaac Hayes on Black Moses).
As witnessed by the commercial success of Rod Steward’s recent As Time Goes By: The Great American Song Book (Volume 2), the pop standard remains one of the ways that aging stars remain relevant to their older audiences and offer the chance to reinvent themselves, as Tony Bennett did a few years ago and Marvin Gaye clearly would have had he lived to oversee the release of his collection of pop standards, Vulnerable. Courtesy of “Mr. Biggs”, Ronald Isley has already re-invented himself; Here I Am is just a reminder as to why such a re-invention should have been unnecessary in the first place, as Isley remains one of the great pop vocalists of the last three decades. Somewhere, Whitney Houston should be taking note.