[6 August 2001]
If Ronald Isley never sang another note, his position among the pantheon of male R&B/soul vocalists would remain intact. As the lead singer of one of the music industry’s longest running family acts—The Isley Brothers have existed for more than 40 years—Ronald Isley’s slippery tenor and aching falsetto are distinct voices in the music industry. Isley is a member of what could legitimately be called the generation of “Last soul Men”. Isley, Bobby Womack and (the good reverend) Al Green, represent the last contemporary links to soul’s beginnings with all of their singing styles owing a huge debt to the “father” of male soul singing, Sam Cooke. In no large part due to the proliferation of Quiet Storm radio, the music of the Isley Brothers and Ronald Isley’s sweet insistent vocals have remained in popular demand as witnessed by the number of contemporary acts that have sampled and recorded versions of their music including “Footsteps in the Dark” (Ice Cube’s “It was a Nice Day”), “Between the Sheets” (Biggie’s “Big Poppa” and Keith Murray’s “The Most Beautifullest”) and “(At Your Best) You Are Love” which was included on Aaliyah’s R. Kelly produced debut Age Ain’t Nuthin’ But a Number (1994). It was Kelly who was largely responsible for the resurgence of Ronald Isley’s commercial stock, initially aping the legendary vocalist on the remix of “Bump ‘N’ Grind” (“I don’t see nothing wrong.”) and later on the track “Down Low” (R. Kelly, 1995) which also featured Isley’s vocals. It was in the context of the song’s video that younger audiences were introduced to Isley via the character of “Frank Biggs”, a Mafioso don-like character that would beat the hell out of “Kelly” for having an affair with his “woman”. “Mr. Biggs” would reappear in a remixed version of “Down Low”, the video for the Isley Brother 1996 single “Floating on Your Love”, and as the uncle of Kelly Price (“Friend of Mine”). In the process, “Mr. Biggs” has become more synonymous with Ronald Isley even to the extent of eclipsing the original identity of the alter-ego. Not surprisingly, “Mr. Biggs” returns on Eternal, the first release by the Isley Brothers since Mission to Please (1996).
Eternal is the by-product of the divided souls of Ronald Isley and “Frank Biggs”. The latter is a reference to Biggie Smalls (the late Notorious B.I.G.) and his own alter ego, “the black Frank White”, itself a reference to the Christopher Walken character in the film The King of New York. If black popular culture has been influenced by the “gangsterization” of its core audiences, then the Isley Brothers, with the help of R. Kelly, have clearly studied the trends. It is clear that “Mr. Biggs” is present throughout the project because he move units. Thus it is “Biggs” who is prominently displayed on the project’s lead single reminding audiences not of the formidable legacy of The Isley Brothers and their classic recordings like “It’s Your Thing” (1969), “That Lady” (1973), and “Fight the Power” (1974), but their lead singer’s alter-ego. Produced by R. Kelly, “Contagious” serves as a kind of sequel to his “Down Low”. In the sequel “Biggs” returns from an aborted business trip only to find his lover (Chante Moore in a cameo performance) in bed with another man (R. Kelly.) At one point Isley sings “who would have thought she was creeping with another man, the ‘down-low’ happening to me all over again.” While the song breaks no new aesthetic ground, the song is notable for the dramatic confrontation “scene” between “Kelly” and “Biggs.” Isley begins the segment sighing out loud “I can’t believe this sh*t / What the hell is going on between the sheets in my home.” As Isley admonishes Moore (“You low down dirty woman, back to where you come from / Hit the streets your ass is grass”), “Kelly” interjects “now Mr. Biggs before your done.” It is only when “Kelly” refers to him by name, that “Biggs” begins to make a connection (“how you know my name son?”) finally remarking “ooh this cat looks real familiar.”
The confrontation between “Biggs” and “Kelly” is significant because it follows an already established trajectory in Kelly’s music and production, that showcases his anxieties about his role within the larger tradition of soul and R&B music. As I argue more thoroughly in the forthcoming Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic, the dramatic exchanges between “Biggs” and “Kelly” seem to represent R Kelly’s ambivalence about his legacy within that tradition, specifically his role in bringing “R&B” into the “gutter” of explicit sexuality. Whereas “Biggs” served to admonish Kelly in “Down Low”, his role in “Contagious” is that of the aging veteran grudgingly admitting his recognition of his young protégé‘s addition to the pantheon of male soul and R&B vocalists. My read of the most recent exchange between the two is largely drawn from Isley’s lyric “Now don’t I know you from somewhere a long time ago? Yeah, yeah, I feel I know you brother very well.” On the narrative level the lyric suggest a familiarity with “Kelly” that can also be read as a familiarity and even comfort with R. Kelly’s artistry, because of the ways the latter has patterned his vocal stylings in the tradition of established “Soul Men”, most notably Isley himself and recently Sam Cooke as witnessed on Kelly’s track “I Wish” (“somebody braid my hair.”). “Biggs’” line “I feel I know you brother very well” is sung lovingly really, and in a lilt reminiscent of Cooke’s definitive “Soul Man” phrasing. Listened to closely, the musical exchange between R. Kelly and Ronald Isley is a touching acknowledgement between one artist who has clearly seen the other as an artistic role model and another who is thankful that the other has maintained the tradition that connects the two across two “soul” generations.
Like the omnipresent “Jigga”, who successfully appropriates from No Limit and Nelly on his “Not Guilty” remix, the Isley Brothers and their producers are very cognizant of the current flights of fancy in black pop and throughout the project they accordingly make gestures toward those sensibilities. Some of the attempts, like Ronald Isley singing “come here shorty back it up right here,” on the opening track “Move Your Body” seem downright camp. Loosely based on the classic “That’s Lady”, including distinct references to Kelly’s “Half on a Baby” and Marvin Gaye’s “After the Dance”, the Rapahel Saadiq produced track seems little more than a caricature of the classic Isley sound. Though produced by Steve “Stone” Huff, who has worked Joe, and with music and lyrics co-written with Ernie and Ronald Isley, both “You Deserve Better”, and “Just Like This”, owe strong debts to the most recent work of Kelly and Joe. The Isley’s continue to desire validation of their contemporary “ghetto pass”, on their “chunky” remake of Chic’s “Warm Summer Night”, with nods to Jodeci (“Feenin’”) and Kelly’s “Your Body’s Calling”. New lyrics to the song, which was originally recorded as an instrumental with backing vocals by Chic, come courtesy of Angela Winbush, who also penned the “Power of Love” for Stephanie Mills in the early 1980s and was a solid songwriter and artist as one half of the duo Rene and Angela. Winbush, who is married to Ronald Isley, contributed lyrics on two of the project’s songs and produced the aforementioned “Warm Summer Night”.
It is only when the legendary Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are behind the boards that Eternal gets beyond “Mr. Biggs”. Many of the Jam and Lewis produced tracks, in particular “You’re All I Need”, “Settle Down” and the title track “Eternal” all evoke “vintage” Isley ballads like “Voyage to Atlantis”, “Make Me Say It Again”, and “(At Your Best) You Are Love”. While the tracks are logically derivative, they do allow The Isley’s to do what they do best within the formidable comfort zone that Jam and Lewis provide. This is particularly apparent on the eight-minute plus title track which gives Ernie Isley the most space to revisit his “Hendrix like” guitar solos. Hendrix was at one time a backing musician for the brothers and Ernie Isley was clearly influenced by him as witnessed on many of The Isley Brother recordings during their peak years in the mid-1970s on recordings like 3+3 (1973), The Heat is On (1975), and Harvest for the World (1976). With Jam and Lewis in the mix, and “Mr. Biggs” taking a momentary back-seat to Ernie Isley, the track “Eternal” becomes a metaphor for the longevity of The Isley Brothers.
Jam and Lewis are also behind boards for The Isley’s enchanting remake of Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now”. Though the track falls short of notable Isley “remakes” such as their rendition of Seal and Croft’s “Summer Breeze” and Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me”, “If You Leave Me Now” is every the bit the equal of their fine version of Mick “Red” Hucknall’s (Simply Red) “Holding Back the Year’s” from Mission to Please. Though they are not generally noted for getting “gospel blues” loose in their production—their work with Mary J. Blige on “The Love I Never Had” comes to mind—the Jam and Lewis are also present on the track “Think”. The song was written by and originally recorded as an instrumental by Curtis Mayfield and included on his ground-breaking Superfly soundtrack. According to The Isley’s, the late Mayfield urged them to write lyrics for the song.” The track is one of the few that connect the brothers to their early days as shouters, most notably on the classic house party song, “Shout”. The real gem of Eternal is “Said Enough” which features Jill Scott. Written by Scott with Touch of Jazz’s Vidal Davis, the song evokes the artistry of Minnie Riperton as Scott sings in the upper register that makes its only appearances on Who is Jill Scott? on the teasing “I Think It’s Better” and “Show Me”.
Eternal is the first original Isley Brother release since their well publicized travails with the IRS. In December of 1999, the courts ordered the liquidation of the Isley estate, including the rights and royalties to over 200 Isley Brother recordings, to pay off debts, including a reported $5 million plus in back taxes. In a unique and frankly devious turn of events, Michael Bolton emerged as one of leading suitors for the Isley estate offering a bid for $5.3 million. At the time, Bolton, in fact, owed the Isley’s $5.4 million after a Los Angeles court found Bolton guilty of plagiarizing portions of his song “Love is a Wonderful”. The Isleys recording a similar song with the same title in 1966. Ultimately, The Isley’s were saved by the Wall Street financier David Pullman, who is responsible for the Bowie Bonds. The Bowie Bonds, named after David Bowie, have helped various artists including, Ashford and Simpson, and the Marvin Gaye Estate raise capital based on the projected future royalties off their recordings and compositions. Given the desires of advertisers to mine classic Rock and soul samples to use in commercials and movie trailers, the bonds have been helpful to artists who have a formidable body of work, but are unlikely to find strong commercial interest in their future musical endeavors. For the record, the initial Bowie Bonds raised $55 million for its namesake. Given these dynamics, it is understandable that Eternal often lapses into contemporary black pop drivel. Perhaps it is a tribute to Ronald Isley/“Mr. Biggs” that he can do so when others of his generation have long moved on the senior (Chitlin’) Circuit. Despite some shortcomings, Eternal is a fitting testament to the longevity of a group that has survived death (brother O’Kelly died in 1986), disease (brother Marvin had his legs amputated in 1996), a substantial IRS debt, and a law suit against that noted “Culture Bandit” Michael “Percy who?” Bolton.