While the Isley Brothers may have started out singing gospel in church, it was having a father on the vaudeville circuit that guaranteed there was showbiz in their blood.
The four brothers were Ronald, O’Kelly (named after their dad), Vernon, and Rudolph. With Vernon singing lead, they won some local talent contests in their native Cincinnati. But in 1955, Vernon died in an accident. Still determined to make music their lives, the three surviving brothers headed for New York City in 1957.
Almost immediately, they started making an impact on the music industry, but it was for the material they created and demonstrated rather than for record sales. Their own albums sold only modestly at first. Some of the songs they recorded, however, found their way into more powerful hands, most famously those of The Beatles, who turned “Twist and Shout” into a monster hit.
When they arrived in NYC, it didn’t take them long to sign with RCA Victor. Shout! (1959) was their first album. It was produced by industry innovators (and cousins) Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore.
Shout! is an interesting mix, almost two separate mini-albums pressed together. Side 1 is the “safer” collection of songs, with known entities like the spiritual “When the Saints Go Marching In” and W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.”
Side 2 is a different story, and the one that made the music scene take notice (even if the record-buying public barely did). It features a number of tracks written by the Isleys. One of those is “Respectable.” The high-energy pulse was perfect for the burgeoning pop-soul genre poised to break through to the charts.
The titles of Isley Brothers albums can be confusing. For example, Twisting and Shouting (1963) is not to be confused with their record Twist and Shout from the year before. By 1963 they’d moved on to United Artists and were called The Famous Isley Brothers.
“You’ll Never Leave Him” is by Bertrand Russell Berns (aka Bert Russell), who wrote a bunch of hits including “Twist and Shout” and “Piece of My Heart.” The arrangement has a calming Caribbean feel.
Like many artists, the Isleys were constantly disappointed by the mainstream recording industry. Unlike many artists, though, they found a solution that worked. The fact that they attempted to found their own label in 1964 is not surprising. What’s unusual is that T-Neck Records was a big success.
Well, it took a few years and almost failed. But 1969’s It’s Our Thing solidified the label and put the Isleys up on top as performers for the first time. One major factor was bringing in their younger brothers, Ernie (guitar) and Marvin (bass). Ernie provided a nuanced guitar sound, thanks to influence from Jimi Hendrix (who was a session musician for the group in 1964!). The Isley’s cousin, Chris Jasper, joined on keyboard.
It’s hard to be sure whether the album Givin’ It Back (1971) started out as a tribute or a snub, but it certainly is an interesting moment in the racial politics of the music industry. After all those years of white acts outselling them on their own material, the Isleys, bolstered by their newfound success, now covered a bunch of hits by stars like Stephen Stills, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan. Here’s their funky and intricate version of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”:
The group’s success was no flash in the pan. Harvest for the World (1976) was one of the fastest-selling records of all time (500,000 copies in the first three weeks). Even some of the non-single tracks became hits, thanks to radio play.
The Isley-penned “You Still Feel the Need,” which closes the album, is a sexy full-out funk with a heart-thumping bass line from Marvin. The lead singer on this one is Rudolph. While he doesn’t have the clear vocal power of Ronald, his emotional authenticity puts this song over the edge.
The Isleys bowed to the inevitable in Winner Takes All (1979), adding a disco beat to their funk sound. Apparently they did it right, since they made the UK disco charts while topping the US R&B chart.
It was a two-disc set, with softer ballads providing contrast with the dance club numbers. One of the ballads is “You’re Beside Me,” gently sung by O’Kelly. The fact that they resisted over-producing the accompaniment to this song is one of the things that keeps it tasteful and lovely.
While Grand Slam (1981) sold well, it wasn’t the same level of domination the Isleys had become used to. The six-member group brought in a few session musicians (harp, congas, etc.) to bolster their sound and mix things up.
One of the album-only tracks is the philosophical “Don’t Let Up,” featuring the almost Zen lines “I can’t change my yesterdays/ It’s out of my hands.” Besides Ronald Isley’s gritty delivery, this song is worth a listen for its distinctive slappy bass.
By the time they cut the 1985 album Masterpiece, the younger brothers and Jasper had dispersed. That left the original trio -- O’Kelly, Rudolph, and Ronald. As it turned out, this was their last chance to record together: O’Kelly died the next year.
It’s hardly a three-man album, though. The personnel list is long, with a full spectrum of instruments that create a rich (and often frantically over-complicated) sound for the Stevie Wonder song “Stay Gold”.
One thing you can say about the Isley Brothers: They’re not one of those old groups who just keep dragging out their old hits. The Isleys have never been afraid to keep trying new material. Ronald and Ernie hit the No. 3 spot with the album Eternal (2001) because of its single, “Contagious,” by R&B/hip hop star R. Kelly.
The album ends with “Think,” which originated as a 1972 instrumental by Curtis Mayfield from his Super Fly album. Here it’s arranged with added lyrics by Ronald Isley. The biggest change is the meter. The Mayfield recording is in 3/4 time, but the Isleys extended each bar to four beats, making the source tune almost unrecognizable.
Inevitably, the Isleys are winding down, but a couple of years ago they made themselves heard again. Of the original three Isley Brothers, only Ronald survives. He and Ernie, following an 11-year break from recording, hit the studio in 2017. They invited Santana to join them. The result was Power of Peace.
The crisp interplay of Latin, gospel, funk, and psychedelia makes “Are You Ready” an irresistible track, and the perfect cap on a career that combined innovation with tradition.