Interviews

Heavy Hitters: An Interview With the Isley Brothers

Kendrick sampled them, UK dance groups cover them, and that's just a smattering of the Isley Brother's current legacy, summed up in a new history-packed box set.


The Isley Brothers

The RCA Victor and T-Neck Album Masters (1959-1983)

Label: Sony/Legacy
US Release Date: 2015-08-21
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In her liner note introduction to the new 22-album collection of the music of the Isley Brothers, journalist Lynell George precisely sums up what sets the band apart as hit-making juggernauts: "'Are you Beatles or are you Stones?' That pop world, test-the-waters question to ascertain your inner life never applied to soul music. In soul, you reached for artists for moods: who was on the 8-track in your car vs. who was on your living room turntable and who was on the bedroom boom box was strategic, an emotional equation calculating desire and intention. The Isley Brothers could be, or serve up, any and all."

The Isleys, more than maybe any band you want to name, really could do it all. They've released over 30 records since their breakthrough "Shout!" from 1959, with hit albums coming as recently as 2006's Baby Makin' Music. "We have stretched any kind of pre-conceived notion about musical genre, and where something fits in or doesn't fit," says the band's guitarist and songwriter, Ernie Isley. The band has never stopped evolving and the 22 albums (18 studio albums, 3 live discs, and one compilation of early recordings) and bonus tracks collected as the expansive RCA Victor and T-Neck Album Masters contain almost all of the important recordings done by the Isleys prior to their initial break-up in the early '80s.

It's a phenomenal collection that memorializes the band at their commercial peak, a period when ten of their albums went gold or better and 22 of their songs broke into the Top 10 of the American R&B Chart, with six going to #1. This era of the band also produced the songs that have served as the foundation for a staggering number of hip-hop hits. "It's kind of like an encyclopedia, musically, on us," says Isley, "and it will illuminate folks who take the time to get into it and see, record by record, through the years, how we just went with it and stayed true to our own identity."

The Isleys will never loom as large in the canon as James, Otis, Jimi, Sly, and Stevie. In their songs, if they weren't directly responding to these giants, they were often working within the boundaries that the giants were busily expanding and re-defining. Which isn't to say you can't love the Isleys just as much, or more. "We listened to everybody," says Isley Brothers keyboardist and songwriter Chris Jasper. "We tried to be aware of what was coming out, who was coming out. During that time, it was like, every week someone was dropping a bomb. You just had to be aware of what was going on. Everybody was putting out really good music. We wanted our material to be comparable, something that would be able to withstand what was happening. Because there was a lot of good music coming out all the time. It was just incredible."

The band, initially a vocal trio consisting of brothers Ronald, O'Kelly, and Rudy, debuted for RCA Records with Shout!, the first album included in the set. It's built around the brothers' now-legendary title track, an amped-up gospel work-out that has taken on a life of its own through countless cover versions, as well as its inclusion in the film Animal House, where it's performed by a fictional Otis Day & The Knights. "You can wave the American flag at half-time at the Super Bowl, and put togas on everybody," says Ernie Isley. "Everyone would understand it. It's the ultimate party, rock and roll, anthem. Everybody has done it."

The band charted again in 1962 with their version of "Twist and Shout", which served as the template for the version recorded by the Beatles (Ernie recounts being told recently by Paul McCartney that, "If it wasn't for the Isley Brothers the Beatles would still be in Liverpool"). The brothers signed with Motown in 1965, hitting again with "This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)", a Holland-Dozier-Holland composition sung with a powerful but sweet lead vocal by Ron Isley, and fleshed out with a sweeping string arrangement and the backing of Motown house band. The brothers ultimately chafed under the Motown system, leaving the label in 1968 (the 62-68 era of the band isn't included in the box set).

After the break with Motown, the band began perfecting the work process they would stick with through 1983; writing and producing their own material and releasing it on their own label, T-Neck Records. With "It's Your Thing" in 1969, from the It's Our Thing album, the band broke through in a massive way. The single remains their highest charting song on the US Pop Charts and it garnered the band its only Grammy award, aside from a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014. The song, with its signature, grit-filled, guitar riff anchored by a waist deep, clear as day, drum groove, and its embrace of a libertarian approach to libido ("Give your love to whoever you choose / How can you lose with the stuff you use / It's your thing, do what you want to do / I can't tell you who to sock it to") laid the foundation for the massive string of hits that would follow.

With 1973's 3 + 3, the band officially expanded from the original three-brother vocal unit to encompass brothers Marvin and Ernie Isley and keyboardist Chris Jasper, all three of whom had recorded with the brothers in various combinations beginning in 1969. "The younger guys, me, and Ernie, and Marvin, we had formed a trio of our own in high school," explains Jasper. "I think I was around 14 or 15 when we first started it. And we used to play in local high schools, and churches, and just about anywhere we could play. And the older guys used to watch us play, they used to watch us rehearse, they would come to some of our local gigs, and see us performing. As we played more, as we got better and better, they wanted us to play with them." While it was a logical progression for the band personally, the expansion proved to be the reinvention that that would launch their phenomenal run of commercial success, with nine consecutive studio albums achieving at least Gold status, and six of those, counting 1983's Between The Sheets, going platinum or double platinum.

3 + 3 opens with "That Lady", a re-working of a song originally arranged as a bossa-nova when it was written by the band in the mid-'60s. The update featured Ernie Isley with an extended guitar solo, run thorough a fuzz box and a phase shifter, that would help to further define the band's sound. "When I hit the first note on 'That Lady'," says Isley, "the song went from, like, black and white to 3-D technology. None of us expected that to happen. It changed everything. I lost it, the engineers lost it; everyone else was kind of mummified."

With "That Lady", Isley established a reputation for long but focused guitar solos that never strayed far from a melodic center-point. Put as simply as possible, Ernie Isley could rip on guitar. "Sweeter funk," wrote Dave Marsh of "That Lady", "hath no men wrought." Isley had been deeply influenced by the playing of Jimi Hendrix, who had been a member of the Isley Brothers backing band in 1964 (Elton John had also been a backing band member in the mid-'60s). Isley can recount watching the Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show while seated next to a 21-year old Hendrix at the Isley family home in New Jersey. The Isleys' song "Testify" is one of Hendrix's earliest recordings, and is included in the box set as part of the In the Beginning album.

Like 1971's Givin' It Back and 1972's Brother, Brother, Brother, 3 + 3 is noted also for its inclusion of covers of FM radio staples written by white songwriters. In 1971, the Isleys turned Stephen Stills' "Love The One You're With" into a hit on the R&B charts, doing the same with Seals & Croft's "Summer Breeze" in 1974. They turned Carole King's "It's Too Late" from a song of bittersweet acceptance into something much more mournful; singing lead, Ronald Isley seems like he can barely get out of bed, let alone imagine any good times down the road.

On their version of Neil Young's "Ohio", from Givin' It Back, they expand Young's signature statement of finger-pointing rage into something richer, finding a well of anguish in all of the loss. "Don't you shoot me," cries Ronald Isley, over the song's extended instrumental section. "Somebody take the time to explain," he sings, "why the machine gun bullets fly like rain." It's their version, with a spoken prayer for forgiveness for the shooters laid over the vocals, which remains truly relevant. That they could follow it on the album with a milquetoast reading of James Taylor's "Fire and Rain" speaks to the occasional unevenness in the band's work that would eventually frustrate critics.

"First of all, the songs were very popular," says Jasper. "They were very popular songs and I guess when you hear a song a lot, and I know it was true with us, you hum it, you sing it, and you think, 'Maybe we could do a different treatment of it.' Back then, when you had a popular record, it was played constantly, all day long on the radio. I think the more we heard those songs, sometimes you just naturally feel you can do something with it."

The band had their first #1 album with 1975's The Heat is On. The album pointedly contrasted a side of some of the band's best dance floor funk ("Fight The Power", "The Heat Is On", "Hope You Feel Better Love") with some of its finest slow-jam come-ons ("For The Love of You", "Sensuality", "Make Me Say It Again Girl"). "[The Heat is On] kind of put our group into another category back then," says Jasper. "Live It Up was kind of a setup for that. Live It Up kind of raised the bar again, and put us in the clubs. But The Heat is On kind of put us over the top. That kind of changed things for the group for the better. "

Public Enemy's Chuck D has openly cited the Isleys' "Fight the Power" (with its recurring lyric of, "We gotta fight the powers that be") as the inspiration for his own band's song of the same name. "I could feel when ["Fight the Power"] came out," says Isley, "that we became this entity, this thing. 'Fight The Power' did not say the word 'love' once in it, and folks were looking at us, like, 'Uh oh, the Isley Brothers are all of a sudden somebody you have to reckon with.'" Writing in The New York Times about a 1976 Isley Brothers concert at Madison Square Garden, critic Robert Palmer described the band as making "a raw, energetic sound that is something like a cross between a sanctified church service and a superamplified rock show." He called them, "perhaps the rawest, most spontaneous group capable of pulling off a show in an arena as large as the Garden."

With 1976's Harvest for the World and 1977's Go For Your Guns, the band largely coalesced around Ronald in the traditional lead singer role, moving away from their former set-up as a vocal trio. The dance-floor anthems ("The Pride", "Who Loves You Better") unapologetically stretched past the five-minute mark, while the ballads (the gorgeous "Voyage to Atlantis") grew more ornate. At the same time, critics had begun abandoning the band, seeming to agree that they had become overly repetitive; "If you suspect you've heard it all before," wrote Robert Christgau of Harvest for the World, "trust your instincts." Writing in NME in 1977, reviewer Cliff White took exception to the growing critical refrain:

"The Isley Brothers are currently on the critical chopping block; out of favour with a lot of white writers (not so with black American record buyers) for failing to match their 'That Lady' single and 3+3 album on the one hand and for repeating themselves on the other. It seems to me that critics' confusion only really became acute when albums usurped singles in the industry's affection...

Since their recording debut in 1957 they've shed at least five outdated skins; with 'Shout' in 1959, with 'Twist And Shout' in 1962, when they joined Motown in 1966, with 'It's Your Thing' in 1969 and with 'That Lady' in 1973. But that last stage of evolution took place in the album era. When they cut a string of moderately similar 45s for Motown in the late '60s it was cool as long as the songs were good. Now that they've cut a string of moderately similar albums for T-Neck / Epic in the mid-70s it's decidedly unhip, even though the standard of material and musicianship is pretty consistent."

The band went cold on the American Pop Singles chart after 1977, though they continued their success outside of the pop setting with 11 Top 20 singles on the R&B chart, with four going to #1. The band's ballads got slower, more explicitly sexual ("Don't Say Goodnight (It's Time for Love)", "Inside You"). On these songs, Ronald's voice comes off as a cooing, near-pleading, instrument; it contained none of the brazen fait accompli of, say, Barry White's. Instead, the Isleys' best songs have a faint glow of paranoia and anxiety that makes them all the more engaging.

In "Footsteps in the Dark" from Go For Your Guns, the singer, his relationship limping along, is racked with indecision in the face of the question of whether to stay or to go ("Who feels really sure? Can that feeling guarantee your happiness shall endure? / I keep hearing footsteps in the dark"). On "Here We Go Again", from 1980's Go All the Way, the singer can't walk away from a relationship that seems incapable of ever running its course ("What do you do when you love somebody, and everything is going wrong?/ Nobody knows the way you feel about it because only you know you can't leave it alone"). Even a song like 1970's harsh take on sexual gamesmanship, "Take Inventory", ("Don't be so loyal and don't be so true / Because if you are boy, they'll run over you"), stems from the premise that all lovers are un-trustworthy from the start ("If you give true love, and I know you do, soon your woman will be leaving you").

 

With 1983's, "Between the Sheets", a response to Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing", the band's mastery of the form is on full display. In a 2013 interview with Ebony Magazine, Ronald Isley said, "At the time, Marvin Gaye had 'Sexual Healing' out, and it was such a hit. I was talking to him on the phone one day and I was like, 'Hey man, wait until you hear 'Between the Sheets'. I said, 'We going to knock 'Sexual Healing' off.' We just laughed. We were very competitive in those days. Somebody like Teddy Pendergrass would do 'Close the Door' or 'Turn Off the Lights', and we'd do something like 'Don't Say Goodnight'.

It was fun to listen to those records and have a competition going at the same time." For Gaye, and later on for Prince, sex and spirituality often get into bed together. Even "Sexual Healing", for all of its plain-stated desire, is ultimately about therapy and relief of pain ("I got sick this morning, a sea was storming inside of me/ Baby, I think I'm capsizing, the waves are rising and rising/ And when I get that feeling, I want sexual healing"). For the Isleys, however, giving and getting pleasure could be an end unto itself ("Hey girl, ain't no mystery, at least as far as I can see / I want to keep you here laying next me / Sharing our love between the sheets").

Following the success of Between the Sheets, the 3 + 3 line-up fractured over financial problems, writing credit, and struggles over the band's direction, and it's at this point that the box set drops off as well. By 1983, the band had been changing with the times and making hits for almost 25 years. They navigated gospel, early rock 'n' roll, production-line rhythm and blues, soul, rock-infused funk, disco, and quiet storm balladry, and managed hits in each genre. "We did recognize that there were different kinds of hit records," says Jasper, "some of them funky and some of them dance, some of them were ballads, some of them were folk songs. When we were coming up there were so many different kinds of songs that were hitting. Even country songs were on the top of the pop charts. And that variety made us aware that you can get a hit in a number of ways."

The original Isley trio, Ronald, O'Kelly, and Rudy, regrouped for one last album before O'Kelly's death in 1986. The younger half of the band, Chris Jasper, Ernie and Marvin Isley, formed Isley-Jasper-Isley, recording three albums and scoring a #1 hit on the R&B charts with 1985's "Caravan of Love". In 1986, the Housemartins covered the song and had a #1 hit in England, turning it into an international anthem. "That's sung by everybody all over the world," says Jasper. "If you Google that song, you'll see people all over the place singing that song. And when I wrote it, I had no idea it would be that well-received, but it is and I consider it a great blessing." In 1987, Whitney Houston included her version of "For the Love of You" on her second record, Whitney, an album that has gone on to sell 25 millions copies worldwide.

The Isley Brothers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 by Little Richard, as part of the class that included, among others, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Johnny Cash, Booker T & The MGs, Doc Pomus, and Professor Longhair. Ronald Isley stayed in music headlines throughout the decade, as well, due to his legal battles with Michael Bolton over plagiarism claims against Bolton's song, "Love is a Wonderful Thing". Bolton appealed lower court rulings in Isley's favor all the way to the Supreme Court, who refused to hear the case, and Bolton was eventually forced to turnover close to $1 million dollars in royalties.

The Isleys had been away less than a decade before they managed to find themselves part of a full-on revival of their music. In 1993, Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day" was released, featuring a prominent sample of "Footsteps in the Dark". In 1995, Bone Thugs N Harmony's "Tha Crossroads", built on a sample of "Make Me Say It Again Girl" reached #1 on the US R&B, Rap, and Hot 100 charts. That same year, Notorious B.IG.'s "Big Poppa", built on a sample of "Between the Sheets", reached #1 on Billboard's Rap charts, #6 on the Hot 100, and #4 on the R&B charts. Also in 1995, Ronald Isley began his collaboration with R. Kelly, appearing in Kelly's videos as the crime lord Frank Biggs.

In the '00s, the re-formed band, featuring Ernie and Ronald, would release three more Top 10 records. In 2014, Kendrick Lamar's "i", built on a sample of "That Lady", was released as the lead single for his To Pimp A Butterfly album. "It lets me know that, number one, whatever we were doing back then was kind of special for so many people to go back and use pieces of it to form a new version, or a new song," says Jasper. "And I take it as a compliment when they do that because there's 1000s of songs to choose from. And when someone samples [you], they're acknowledging that there's something really good about this that [they] want to use."

The Isleys have been navigating the commercial waters of popular music since the '50s, an unmatchable track record, and have left a mark on contemporary music that's more tangible than influence; their recordings have been re-purposed by significant artists to make new hits that will go on to influence future generations. "When [CBS Records] first heard the 3 + 3 album and heard 'That Lady'," remembers Ernie Isley, "their actual reaction was, 'Well, it doesn't sound like, 'It's Your Thing'. It doesn't have saxophones or trumpets on it, but we like it. We don't know in terms of category, because it's not in one particular, pre-conceived place.' And our attitude was, 'That's precisely what we are. The Isley Brothers are not in one conceived musical genre. We are not limited to so-called categorization.'

The RCA Victor and T-Neck Album Masters box, an exhaustive portrait of the band's recordings from their prime hit-making years that collects a body of music that grows more and more relevant with age, proves this point.

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