The Isley Brothers Biography (2023)

Three brothers, O’Kelly (25 December 1937, d. 31 March 1986), Rudolph (b. 1 April 1939) and Ronald Isley (b. 21 May 1941), began singing gospel in their home-town of Cincinnati, USA, in the early 50s, accompanied by their brother Vernon, who died in a car crash around 1957. Moving to New York the following year, the trio issued one-off singles before being signed by the RCA Records production team, Hugo And Luigi. The Isleys had already developed a tight vocal unit, with Rudolph and O’Kelly supporting Ronald’s strident tenor leads in a call-and-response style taken directly from the church. The self-composed ‘Shout’ - with a chorus based on an ad-libbed refrain that had won an enthusiastic response in concert - epitomized this approach, building to a frantic crescendo as the brothers screamed out to each other across the simple chord changes. ‘Shout’ sold heavily in the black market, and has since become an R&B standard, but RCA’s attempts to concoct a suitable follow-up were unsuccessful.

The group switched labels to Wand Records in 1962, where they enjoyed a major hit with an equally dynamic cover version of the Top Notes’ ‘Twist And Shout’, an arrangement that was subsequently copied by the Beatles. In the fashion of the times, the Isleys were forced to spend the next two years recording increasingly contrived rewrites of this hit, both on Wand and at United Artists Records. A brief spell with Atlantic Records in 1964 produced a classic R&B record, ‘Who’s That Lady?’, but with little success. Tired of the lack of control over their recordings, the Isleys formed their own company, T-Neck Records, in 1964 - an unprecedented step for black performers. The first release on the label, ‘Testify’, showcased their young lead guitarist, Jimi Hendrix, and allowed him free rein to display his virtuosity and range of sonic effects. However, the record’s experimental sound went unnoticed at the time, and the Isleys were forced to abandon both T-Neck and Hendrix, and sign a contract with Motown Records.

They were allowed little involvement in the production of their records and the group were teamed with the Holland/Dozier/Holland partnership, who effectively treated them as an extension of the Four Tops, and fashioned songs for them accordingly. This combination reached its zenith with ‘This Old Heart Of Mine’ in 1966, a major hit in the USA, and a belated chart success in Britain in 1968. UK listeners also reacted favourably to ‘Behind A Painted Smile’ and ‘I Guess I’ll Always Love You’ when they were reissued at the end of the 60s. Such singles were definitive Motown: a driving beat, an immaculate house band and several impassioned voices; but although the Isleys’ records always boasted a tougher edge than those by their stablemates, little of their work for Motown exploited their gospel and R&B heritage to the full.

Tired of the formula and company power games, the Isleys reactivated T-Neck in 1969, along with a change of image from the regulation mohair suits to a freer, funkier ‘west coast’ image, reflected in their choice of repertoire. At this point too, they became a sextet, adding two younger brothers, Ernie (b. 7 March 1952; guitar) and Marvin (bass), as well as a cousin, Chris Jasper (keyboards). While their mid-60s recordings were enjoying overdue success in Britain, the Isleys were scoring enormous US hits with their new releases, notably ‘It’s Your Thing’ and ‘I Turned You On’. These records sported a stripped-down funk sound, inspired by James Brown And The JBs, and topped with the brothers’ soaring vocal harmonies. They issued a succession of ambitious albums in this vein between 1969 and 1972, among them a live double set that featured extended versions of their recent hits, and In The Beginning, a collection of their 1964 recordings with Jimi Hendrix. In the early 70s, the Isleys incorporated into their repertoire a variety of rock material by composers such as Bob Dylan, Stephen Stills and Carole King.

Their dual role as composers and interpreters reached a peak in 1973 on 3+3, the first album issued via a distribution agreement with CBS Records. The record’s title reflected the make-up of the group at that time, with the three original vocalists supported by the new generation of the family. Ernie Isley’s powerful, sustained guitar work, strongly influenced by Jimi Hendrix, became a vital ingredient in the Isleys’ sound, and was featured heavily on the album’s lead single, ‘That Lady’, a revamped version of their unheralded 1964 single on Atlantic. 3+3 also contained soft soul interpretations of material by Seals And Croft (the memorable ‘Summer Breeze’), James Taylor and the Doobie Brothers. An important key track was the Isleys’ own ‘Highway Of My Life’, which demonstrated Ronald’s increasing mastery of the romantic ballad form. Having established a winning formula, the Isleys retained it throughout the rest of the 70s, issuing a succession of slick, impressive soul albums that were divided between startlingly tough funk numbers and subdued Ronald Isley ballads. The Heat Is On in 1975 represented the pinnacle of both genres; the angry lyrics of ‘Fight The Power’, a US Top 10 single, contrasted sharply with the suite of love songs on the album’s second side, aptly summarized by the title of one of the tracks, ‘Sensuality’. ‘Harvest For The World’ (1976) proved to be one of the Isleys’ most popular recordings in Britain, with its stunning blend of dance rhythm, melody and social awareness (the song hit the UK charts in 1988 in a version by the Christians).

In the late 70s, the increasing polarization of the rock and disco markets ensured that while the Isleys continued to impress black record buyers, their work went largely unheard in the white mainstream. ‘The Pride’, ‘Take Me To The Next Phase’, ‘I Wanna Be With You’ and ‘Don’t Say Goodnight’ all topped the specialist black music charts without registering in the US Top 30, and the group responded in kind, concentrating on dance-flavoured material to the exclusion of their ballads. ‘It’s A Disco Night’, a UK hit in 1980, demonstrated their command of the idiom, but a growing sense of self-parody infected the Isleys’ music in the early 80s. Conscious of this decline, Ernie and Marvin Isley and Chris Jasper left the group in 1984 to form the successful Isley, Jasper, Isley combination. The original trio soldiered on, but the sudden death of O’Kelly Isley from a heart attack on 31 March 1986 brought their 30-year partnership to an end. Ronald and Rudolph dedicated their next release, Smooth Sailin’, to him, and the album produced another black hit in Angela Wimbush’s ballad, ‘Smooth Sailin’ Tonight’. Wimbush now assumed virtual artistic control over the group, and she wrote and produced their 1989 release Spend The Night, which was effectively a Ronald Isley solo album. The artistic innovations of the Isley Brothers, continued by the second generation of the family in Isley, Jasper, Isley, belie the conservatism of their releases since the late 70s. Their 1996 release Mission To Please attempted to move them into the same smooth urban soul territory as Keith Sweat and Babyface. In 2001 they were awarded over $5 million in a lawsuit, to be paid by singer Michael Bolton for plagiarism of their song ‘Love Is A Wonderful Thing’. Later in the year, their new album Eternal proved their enduring appeal when it debuted in the US Top 5. For a third time the Isley Brothers had managed to reinvent themselves, and even more success was to follow in 2003 when Body Kiss reached the top slot on the US album charts. Ronald Isley’s luck ran out in October 2005 when he was convicted of multiple counts of tax evasion.

The Isley Brothers represented the apogee of gospel-inspired soul on their early hits, they pioneered the ownership of record labels by black artists, and invented a new funk genre with their blend of dance rhythms and rock instrumentation in the early 70s. Their series of US hits from the 50s to the 90s is one of the major legacies of black American music.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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