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.”
Between 1969 and 1983, the Isleys released a string of amazing albums on their own T-Neck label, all preaching love for both mankind and that special lady (themes that dominate Isleys records to this day), with Ernie’s souladelic guitar and Marvin‘s elastic bass positioned high in the mix. Ernie, Marvin and brother-in-law Chris Jasper were finally given equal billing on 1973’s 3+3, a flawless fusion of soul, funk, pop and rock that still stands as the group‘s high-water mark. Like many Isleys LPs of the era, 3+3 also showcased the group’s knack for reworking AM-radio cheesefests like James Taylor‘s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” or Seals & Croft‘s “Summer Breeze” into dignified and transcendent soul music. It’s a tradition that continues with Eternal‘s dreamy cover of Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now.”
“It‘s gotta be something that sticks with you, that you walk around subconsciously singing,” says Ronald of his litmus test for cover choices. “You go, ’Why am I singing ”Hello It‘s Me“ all the time? What is it about ”Lay Lady Lay“ that stays on my mind?’ I‘ve been singing ’If You Leave Me Now‘ for a couple of years, whenever I’m going hunting or fishing, and I thought we could bring a lot to it. I can always tell the songs that we‘re going to do, but I can’t explain it.”
He can, however, explain the essential elements of a good slow-jam, something that Ronald has honed to an art form. Since 1983, death, sickness and family infighting have rocked the Isleys‘ lineup, but Ronald has kept the family name on the charts with such romantic, adult-oriented ballads as “Between the Sheets” and “Sensitive Lover.” “If you take a girl out, and you’re trying to go to bed with her, the song should ask her for you,” he explains. “If you‘re dancing with her, and you know the lyrics to the song, you can squeeze her on certain lyrics, and the song start talkin’! She knows what you‘re trying to say, but you didn’t say anything. If she kinda squeeze you back, or smile at you in a certain type of way, you know that ‘Okay, I’m gettin‘ over!’ But if she kinda pushes away, you know that you‘ve gotta work toward it a little bit more.”
Whether it’s an evening of romance or a blockbuster album, Ronald Isley clearly has no problem with “working toward it,” even after almost 50 years in the music biz. If Eternal fails to give the Isleys their much-deserved Supernatural-type breakthrough, it‘s still almost certain to jack their “decades of hits” total to a mind-boggling six.
“Santana, if he had stopped doing what he did, he wouldn’t have had the big album,” Ronald says. “As long as I can step out there in the spotlight, there‘s no doubt in my mind that I’m gonna be able to play ‘That Lady,’ and that Ernie‘s gonna be able to play it. If anything, Ernie’s gonna play it behind his back, or with his teeth! You never know when it‘s gonna be your turn, but you got to be in it to win it.”