[20 August 2001]
Eternal, the most recent release by the famed Isley Brothers, is easily one of their strongest since their classic “3+3” era. Almost four decades before “Mr. Biggs” got “Contagious”, The Isley Brothers were largely a vocal trio led by the silky Ronald Isley, with brothers Rudolph and O’Kelly providing backing harmonies on tracks like “Shout”, “This Old Heart of Mine” and their 1969 pop breakthrough “It’s Your Thing”. Responding to changing musical styles including the evolution of funk, the trio began to incorporate the musical sensibilities of younger brothers Marvin and Ernie and Rudolph’s brother-in-law Chris Jasper into the Isley Brother mix. Though they were paid employers of the Isleys since 1969, 3+3 would be the first recording that significantly included the artistic input of Isley, Jasper, and Isley, as they were named when the trio broke from the older members in the mid-1980s. With the breakout success of the single “That Lady”, the younger trio was handed the reigns of the Isley musical legacy, in the process ushering in an era of sustained critical and commercial acclaim. The Heat is On (1975) and Harvest for the World (1976), both just reissued on the Sony/Legacy imprint, were the initial fruits of the full-fledged “3+3” era.
Though the Isley’s were steeped in the kind of “do for self” philosophy that ground much of the black nationalist rhetoric of the late ‘60s and ‘70s—having recorded for the family owned T-Neck (New Jersey) label—they were not overtly political performers. Though a modicum of resistance can be read in their pop hit “It’s You Thing”, “Fight the Power”, the lead single from The Heat is On, was their most overtly political tune to date. Nearly 15 years after the song’s release Public Enemy would record a song using the same title. Whereas Chuck D was focused to the larger political realities of black life, the Isley Brothers’ original was fixated on the everyday annoyances that can turn to rage and anger. It is hard not to feel such anger in the song’s chorus as O’Kelly sings “I try to play my music / They say my music is too loud / I tried talkin’ about it, I got the big run around / And when I roll with the punches / I got knocked to the ground / By all this bullshit goin’ down”. Conceived by brother Ernie, “Fight the Power” reflected the wide influences on the younger Isley siblings. Ernie for one was heavily impacted by the late Jimi Hendrix, who was a backing musician for the original Isleys in the early ‘60s. A track like “Hope You Feel Better Love”, for instance, owes some debt to The Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Runnin’” which was included on their Captain and Me (1973) recording.
Whereas the up-tempo workouts helped the Isley’s reach new audiences, it was their balladry, courtesy of lead vocalist Ronald, that distinguished them among other foul/R&B/funk bands of the era. “For the Love of You” is one of the most recognizable Isley ballads and can still be heard in daily rotation on urban and lite-jazz stations. The seven-plus minute “Make Me Say It Again”, which closes out The Heat is On, is as gorgeous as any classic soul ballad and is a thrilling testament to Ronnie Isley’s interpretive skills.
From the vantage point of 25 years, many of the funk tracks on Harvest for the World seem dated. The title track is a bouncy vibrant ditty that seems tailor made for Top-40 radio in the mid-1970s. The song which celebrates global unity—not so ironically released in the year that the US celebrated its Bicentennial, celebrating among other things 200 year of American imperialism—anticipates the track “Caravan of Love”, which became a major pop hit for Isley, Jasper, Isley in 1985. The strength of the recording again lies in its ballads. While tracks like the aforementioned “For the Love of You” and raunchy “Between the Sheets” (1983) were well known to hip-hop generation listeners, “(At Your Best) You Are Love” remained an obscure Isley classic until Aaliyah, with production by R. Kelly, recorded the track on her debut Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number. “Let Me Down Easy”, is drawn from the same formula that produced “Make Me Say it Again, Girl” where Ronald’s lilting falsetto gently surrounded by Chris Jasper’s keyboards and Ernie Isley’s softly sweeping guitar rhythms.
Both of the reissues feature previously unreleased “bonus” tracks, recorded live (with a canned audience) in 1980, including a recording of the Isley’s reading of Seal and Crofts’ “Summer Breeze”. With the release of Eternal, the reissues of The Heat is On and Harvest for the World serve as ideal introductions to the classic Isley sound decades before “Mr. Biggs” comes on the scene.