By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
All right, trivia fans, which R&B act has actually scored a chart hit in each one of the past five decades? Here’re a few clues for ya: Their songs have been covered by everyone from the Beatles to Whitney Houston; they‘ve been sampled by everyone from Ice Cube to Destiny’s Child; and they once employed Jimi Hendrix as a member of their backing band.
Give up? Unfortunately, so would a lot of other folks. For despite a 1992 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a song catalog that includes such classics as “Twist and Shout,” “It‘s Your Thing” and “Between the Sheets,” and their profound influence on everything from mid-’60s garage rock to contemporary rap, the Isley Brothers still can‘t claim the kind of crossover name recognition enjoyed by, say, Sly Stone or Parliament-Funkadelic. Deeply revered in the black community, the Isleys are only vaguely remembered by the white audience that once helped send “That Lady” and “Fight the Power” into the upper reaches of the pop charts.
“Paul McCartney told me that, when the Beatles were discovered in Liverpool, they were doing our songs and trying to do what they saw us do onstage,” Ronald Isley says, with equal traces of pride and annoyance. “They’re looked at as the greatest group in the world, and they patterned themselves after who? We‘re still looking for that recognition, and we’re still doing what we‘re doing in order to get it.”
In other words, if you’ve got a jones for impeccable old-school soul, the Isleys are still more than happy to hook you up. Described by Ronald as “the Super Bowl of Isleys records,” their new Eternal CD (DreamWorks) was recorded with the help of R. Kelly, Jill Scott, Avant, Angela Winbush, Raphael Saadiq of Lucy Pearl, and producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, but it still sounds like vintage Isley Brothers. Ronald puts his seductive tenor to work on sensuous slow-jams like “Warm Summer Night,” “Just Like This” and “Settle Down,” while his younger brother Ernie -- one of the most underrated guitarists of all time -- sends each track into the stratosphere with his shivering lead lines. Nods to previous hits abound, but Eternal doesn‘t rehash old glories so much as it refines an already potent formula. “This album is like Frankenstein,” Ronald says, laughing. “You try to make him stronger than he was the first time, then you plug him in and see if he can walk!”
In that sense, little has changed since 1954, when Vernon, O’Kelly, Rudolph and Ronald Isley formed a gospel group in their hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. Ronald moved into the lead vocal slot in 1955 after Vernon died in a bike accident -- the first of many times that the Isleys would have to evolve or adjust in their pursuit of musical greatness. They moved to New York in 1957 and branched out into doo-wop; two years later, they achieved their first chart success with “Shout,” the unhinged R&B raver that‘s since been immortalized (for better or worse) through its inclusion in the 1978 film comedy Animal House.
“We were wild in those days,” Ronald remembers. “Jumpin’ around, shakin‘ our head, kickin’ off the shoes, ripping off our coats like Jackie Wilson! We had some great teachers. Our friends were Billy Ward and the Dominoes, Clyde McPhatter, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke and Little Willie John. We studied what they did and adapted to it very well.”
A succession of raw, high-energy singles followed. Some, like “Twist and Shout” and “Twistin‘ With Linda,” became immediate hits; others, like “Respectable” and “Nobody but Me,” would be successfully revived a few years later in cover versions by bands like the Outsiders and the Human Beinz. “Testify,” a 1964 release, didn’t go anywhere at the time, but it did feature a young Jimi Hendrix (playing under the name Jimmy James) on lead guitar.
“Most people can only talk about Jimi Hendrix from 1967 on,” says Ernie, who wasn‘t yet in his teens when he started picking up licks from Jimi. “But I can talk about him from 1963 or ’64. It‘s a whole different perspective when somebody like that is in your house!”
Too young to be a part of the original Isleys lineup, Ernie and his bassist brother Marvin began appearing on their siblings’ records in the late ‘60s, and would contribute mightily to the Isleys’ most successful period. After spending 1966 to 1968 under Berry Gordy‘s thumb at Motown -- where they’d notched their biggest smash to date with Holland-Dozier-Holland‘s “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)” -- O’Kelly, Rudolph and Ronald felt ready to call their own shots. With Ernie and Marvin in the fold, they now had a self-contained unit that could function equally well onstage or in the studio, and record songs that were more suited to the tumultuous atmosphere of the era.
“Every record company wanted us to make another ‘Twist and Shout,’” Ronald remembers. “But after all that screaming, I was like, ‘Let me sing ”Lay Lady Lay.“ Let me sing ”Ohio.“ Let me sing some songs that have some really deep meaning to them.’ We started working those underground places where people would get into your lyrics, and you had to have those types of songs. And that‘s where everything opened up for me to do my thing.”