The Isley Brothers: The RCA Victor & T-Neck Album Masters (1959-1983)
This boxed set reveals the full scope of the Ohio-born group's genius across 23 discs and hours of pure joy.
Formed in 1954, The Isley Brothers isn’t just one of America’s longest-running bands, it’s also one of their best and most eclectic. Coming to life in Ohio, Isleys showed promise in their earliest days and quickly left the Buckeye State behind for the promise of New York City. They racked up regional hits and finally broke into the national scene in 1959 with “Shout!” As ubiquitous as that song seems today it only climbed to 47 on the Billboard pop charts and didn’t bother the R&B world at all. That’s where this new box set begins, taking listeners all the way to 1983 and through some impossible twists and turns that found the band touching on soul, gospel, psychedelic rock, disco, and funk, among just about everything else along the way.
The 1959 RCA collection Shout! is little more than a collection of songs. The idea of a well-made album was still close to a decade in the distance, but it does provide evidence of the group’s eclecticism and sheer talent. The titular track is a song that’s really little more than a rave-up with a couple of phrases repeated and a steady, insistent rhythm, but what a rhythm it is and what a persistent part of American musical history it is. It’s become a centerpiece of high school dances, weddings, and the like with probably few realizing who wrote and sang it. The Isleys could have slipped into anonymity—and very nearly did—but there are hints at their greater talents on this first collection, including a jaw-dropping reading of “That Lucky Old Sun” and the self-penned “Respectable”, with Ronald, Ruldolph and O’ Kelley showing exactly what they were made of: sensitivity to arrangements, lyrics that were smart but memorable, and emotions that were evident with each syllable uttered.
It was probably talents such as that that buoyed the Brothers as they bounced from label to label in the coming years. The RCA experiment didn’t generate much in terms of chart success and some of the material—probably chosen more by producers than the Isleys themselves—shows a band that’s sometimes saddled with material that’s not in tune with a great artistic vision. The group did strike it big with “Twist and Shout” but consistent greatness remained elusive as did sustained success. By 1964 the band had formed its own T-Neck imprint and bounced labels the way an out of work actor bounces checks. Atlantic and Motown both failed to really ignite Isley material and so the 1969 landing on the Buddah label and a full-blown dedication to T-Neck saw the band come into its own.
That year’s It’s Our Thing featured hard-hitting pieces such as “I Know Who You Been Socking It To”, “It’s Your Thing” and “Somebody Been Messin’”. Although there’s not really a bum track in the lot it’s hard to make the case that it’s an out-and-out brilliant album. Still, it marks the start of what would be a long and prosperous run during which the Isleys were never less than worth watching. If they didn’t always set the trends then they were certainly adept at embracing them in their own way. The second of three Isley releases in 1969, The Brothers: Isley, features material that is as strong as anything on its predecessor, including “The Blacker The Berrie” and “I Turned You On” and provides evidence of the family’s drift toward harder-edged material and is consistent with an act well aware of the world it was living in. The material is often seductive, sometimes funny, and always filled with examples of good singing and good playing and both of those are in fine supply on the third release from that year, a record that purports to have been recorded at Yankee Stadium.
The best songs from those other two releases on featured on the recording, along with a decent enough reading of “Shout!” but the text that appears on the back sleeve, declaring, “Now Hear It All In This Exciting ‘Live’ Album’" says everything you need to know. The audience noises seem canned and the record itself if little more than showcase for T-Neck/Buddah acts, including Judy White, The Brooklyn Bridge and The Edwin Hawkins Singers. There’s a lot of gospel fare and flair here and it actually paints the Isleys in the least interesting and least “live” light of all. It’s in some ways the least necessary of the Isley recordings here but conversely the one that best illuminates where the group stood among its peers and how that urge to move forward was present even then. It should also be said that the Isleys would acquit themselves quite nicely of any crimes committed with this record just a few years down the road.
The restless pace of 1969 would not be repeated, though, as the group entered the 1970s with greater focus and greater material. Everything on 1970’s Get Into Something was self-penned, including the title track and “Freedom” and proved that the Isleys had enough to say to get them by and enough of a voice to make a noise that could resound across genres and charts. “Freedom” is testament to the group’s greatest gifts and other tunes, such as “Take Inventory”, are fundamental in understanding how R&B would develop in the coming decade.
It’s curious, then, if not entirely surprising, that the group took a step back for its next release In The Beginning, which examines Jimi Hendrix’s tenure with the Isleys in 1964 and 1965 but not issued until 1971. The material isn’t entirely revelatory, though Hendrix’s voice is in place and evident throughout, lending “Have You Ever Been Disappointed Part I and II” (giving songs “parts” is an Isley trademark and would border on parody come the disco era), “Wild Little Tiger” and “Move Over and Let Me Dance” (both parts) a little extra something that lends extra currency to the next few recordings, namely the superb covers collection Givin’ It Back with its superb covers of songs by Dylan (“Lay Lady Lay”), Stephen Stills (“Love The One You’re With”) and James Taylor (“Fire and Rain”) as well as Hendrix’s “Machine Gun”. That and the subsequent Carole King-heavy Brother. Brother. Brother are the part of the collective’s rugged ascent and perfectly prepare the listener for the awe-inspiring living outing The Isleys Live (1973) which finds brother Ernie lending guitar leads that surpass anything Hendrix did nearly a decade earlier during his tenure and also offer evidence of Ernie Isley as one of the great unsung players in American guitar.
Recorded at The Bitter End in New York City, it focuses on material from the most recent studio outings but expands them into the kind of mind-altering creations they deserved to be, including a tight-as-hell rendition of “Ohio” that moves without apology and ever-so-perfectly into “Machine Gun”. Between that and a 13-minute reading of King’s “It’s Too Late” the record is nearly perfect but the addition of “Love The One You’re With” and a group of self-penned pieces (“It’s Your Thing”, “Lay-Away”) sweeten the deal. It also marked the end of an era for the Isleys. Although they would continue to record outside material as well as originals by September of ’73 they issued 3+3 and moved closer to their roots and took a few giant steps toward the future.
The record opens with “Who’s That Lady”, one of those songs that everyone seems to know even if they don’t know who recorded it but placing that single in the context of the album we find a band that is celebrating hard times put if not to rest then momentarily (and perhaps permanently) behind. The social protest evident on the earlier live release is more or less gone, making room for late night jams and moans that easily predict the music Prince would deliver on his debut album which by then was just a few years away. The lineup from 3+3 is one of the best, anchored by the bass of brother Marvin and drummer Chris Jasper (with some help from George Moreland here and there). The group delivers across numbers such as “If You Were There”, “What It Comes Down To” and “You Walk Your Way” but surprises and surpasses expectations (and originals) with James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”, the Doobie Brothers’ “Listen to the Music” and an unexpected but oh-so-good rendering of the Seals and Croft number “Summer Breeze”.
Although some might argue that the next recording, 1974’s Live It Up doesn’t match its predecessor pound-for-pound it’s still an impossibly good record, featuring a version of Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me” that very nearly renders the original irrelevant, and originals such as “Lover’s Eye” and “Midnight Sky (Part I and II)”. It perfectly sets the stage for a breathtaking run of records including 1975’s The Heat Is On with “Fight the Power (1 & II)”, the titular track (both parts) and “Make Me Say It Again Girl (Part I & II)”, the following year’s Harvest For The World and 1977’s Go For Your Guns, featuring one of the unit’s most enduring numbers, “Footsteps in the Dark”.
If the next round of albums didn’t yield the same number of outstanding individual tracks, neither did they spiral into dreck. The double set Winner Takes All from 1979 should have been swallowed by disco-era clichés but in reality is the kind of deep funk album that Sly Stone should have been capable of making at that point in the decade. Some of the sounds get softer, more middle of the road as the 1980s came into view but there are excellent moments to be found across Grand Slam and Inside You (both 1981) and the final entry in this set, 1983’s Between the Sheets.
With 23 discs to sort through what matters most is the main album cuts and not the odds and ends unique to this box with one exception: a 1980 recording from Woodstock, New York titled Wild in Woodstock. Recorded in a studio up there with the understanding that the band would add crowd noises later, this “live” album retains the best Isley sensibilities for the stage, as heard on a 10-minute reading of “Don’t Say Goodnight (It’s Time For Love)” and an epic version of “Summer Breeze” plus better-than-average takes on “Voyage to Atlantic”, “Living’ in the Life/Go For Your Guns” and “Here We Go Again”.
The Isleys would soon jump ship to Warner Bros. but continued to release a series of convincing and consistent records there and on Island and Dreamworks in subsequent decades, becoming one of those rare acts that never really had a dark era, never faltered and instead kept in step or just ahead of trends and always focused on making consistently great music with a kind of ease and grace that others would be wise to emulate.