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Stayin' Alive



Isley Brothers

It's Your Thing: The Story of the Isley Brothers

(Epic Associated/T-Neck/Legacy)

By Frank Youngwerth

A list of the artists the Isley Brothers have influenced reads like a brief history of cutting-edge pop: the Beatles covered their fist two hits and emulated their three-voice group sound; Jimi Hendrix patterned the vocal-instrumental interplay of the Experience after tracks he'd cut as an Isley Brothers sideman; the Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, and numerous other rappers have sampled them liberally; and R. Kelly's chart-topping sexy soul balladry reflects the timelessness of the Isleys' later, mature R & B style.

Yet white Americans know precious little of what the group has done in its 40-some-year recording career, save the handful of up-tempo crossover hits that have cropped up in movie sound tracks or TV commercials: "Shout," "Twist and Shout," "It's Your Thing," "That Lady," and "Fight the Power." And even those who know more dismiss most of it out of hand, including mellower late-70s fare like "Voyage to Atlantis" or "Footsteps in the Dark," songs that established the group as an institution in black pop.

Robert Christgau, who's been writing about pop music for nearly as long as the Isleys have been making it, covered a long stretch of the group's output in his Consumer Guide columns for the Village Voice. In his book Rock Albums of the 70s, he rates and reviews 15 LPs the brothers released on their own T-Neck label during that decade. Eleven of them receive a B (on his scale, "admirable") or B+ ("good"), but none higher. Christgau qualifies his skepticism while reviewing the 1978 set Timeless: "Though T-Neck puts out excellent product, product is all it is. This two-LP compilation...reminds us that even back when [the Isleys] were inventing their shtick, they were also victims of it. The only great songs are 'It's Your Thing' and 'Work to Do'; they reuse the same harmonies and dynamics again and again. The Isleys to own, probably--but there's no doubt you can live without it."

You might be able to live without the just-released three-CD box It's Your Thing: The Story of the Isley Brothers, too, but there's no doubt it's now the Isleys to own, replacing a more hastily compiled three-disc Rhino comp that just went out of print. Loaded with great songs and historic curios, the new set for the most part dispels Christgau's portrait of the Isleys' style as a singular "shtick." While steps they took to survive on the developing pop scene of the 60s at times threatened to tie them to a manufactured sound and image, particularly during a stint on Motown, their break with that label in 1968 signaled the scrappy vocal trio's rebirth as a self-reliant progressive soul band.

In liner notes that told me more than anything I'd previously read about this sadly underchronicled group, lead singer Ronald Isley offers a revealing anecdote: "I thought of myself as a ballad singer. Right after we recorded 'Shout,' I asked Dionne Warwick if Burt Bacharach would write a song for us, but he came back and said, 'Oh, I don't write those kinds of songs.' That really hurt. Then I realized: our gift was in our resourcefulness; that, being versatile, we could grow any way we wanted."

"Shout" was really more a routine than a song, put together by the three original Isley Brothers--vocalists Ronald, Rudoph, and O'Kelly--in 1959 at the suggestion of an RCA executive who one night happened to catch Ronald ad-libbing "You know you make me want to shout!" over a cover of Jackie Wilson's "Lonely Teardrops." An infectious throwback to the Isleys' roots--they grew up in Cincinnati, singing gospel with their mother at the piano--it paved the way for a string of successes that would carry them through the 60s. That was no small feat in those days, when the music business still treated performers less like artists than novelty acts on the old vaudeville circuit: if your act wasn't broke, you didn't fix it, but your "career" lasted only as long as the crowd liked your act.

In 1962 a cover of "Shout" by twist-fad sensations Joey Dee & the Starliters made Billboard's Top Ten, and the Isleys retaliated with "Twist and Shout," which got them into the top 20 for the first time. "Twist and Shout" was then famously covered by the Beatles, who also did "Shout" for a TV special; the Isleys then revived "Shout" themselves before a throng of screaming teens on ABC TV's Shindig in late 1964. Motown offered them a deal on its Tamla imprint, and in 1966 put them in the top 20 again with "This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)." (The song would return to the charts in 1990, when Ronald joined Rod Stewart in a duet version.)

The Isleys didn't compose "This Old Heart of Mine"--the Motown staff had assembled the melody out of parts from two hits of the previous summer, the Supremes' "Back in My Arms Again" and, of all things, the Four Tops' "It's the Same Old Song." But a pair of tunes the brothers did write--both rave-ups based on the simple chord changes of "Shout"--became national hits in the late 60s when covered by garage bands from their home state: "Respectable," by the Outsiders, and "Nobody But Me," by the Human Beinz (which made it onto last year's Nuggets box).

At Motown the Isleys exercised very little control over their own recordings. Standard procedure was for producers to cut a record's instrumental backing tracks with session musicians in the group's absence. Sometimes this was done before the song had been assigned to a particular singer or group. By the time the Isleys got into the studio, they could do little more than follow the blueprint. Still, by 1968, when they decided to leave, the Isleys had managed to survive a whole decade in the biz.

After Motown the brothers decided to revive their own label, T-Neck, which in 1964 had released one unsuccessful single, "Testify," featuring Hendrix on guitar. They needed something fresh to get the venture off the ground. "It's Your Thing," with a precociously funky bass line by younger brother Ernie, a new addition, did the trick, climbing to number two, going gold, and winning a Grammy for best R & B vocal performance. For the soundalike follow-up, "I Turned You On," Ernie switched to drums, and yet another brother, Marvin, jumped in on bass. The Isleys now supervised their own recordings from the ground up, bringing in session players of their own choice to augment the expanded lineup.

The band had a couple more hits in the early 70s, and in '73--with Juilliard-trained brother-in-law Chris Jasper on keyboards and Ernie doubling on guitar--they struck gold again with "That Lady." Though it was an update of the Isleys' 1964 flop bossa nova single for United Artists, "Who's That Lady," itself reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions' hit "Gypsy Woman," it broke new ground for the group, thanks primarily to Ernie's searing, soaring guitar leads. The next year, on Live It Up, the brothers took that development and ran with it. The title track starts off like a revved-up rip-off of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition," with Ernie duplicating the drum intro and Jasper creeping in on sticky Clavinet. Ronald enters, sweetly at first but building intensity until he erupts with anger and frustration. Ernie, now on guitar, responds with a fuzzed-out bloodcurdling shriek; Ronald replies, pushing his spectacular pipes to their limits trying to outwail Ernie; then both fade out into the murky, complex protodisco rhythm tracks. "Superstition" sounds like bubblegum by comparison.

During this period of self-discovery, the Isleys also looked for inspiration in decidedly less hip places, and Ronald's penchant for soft rock made an interesting match with Ernie's early influences: "I was seduced by the acoustic guitar. The warmth and richness that Jose Feliciano got on 'Light My Fire.' What a sound. It was like a woman peeling her stockings off. As a kid I loved the 12-string on Paul Mauriat's 'Love Is Blue' and the dynamics of Mason Williams's 'Classical Gas.' Those records are still in my player today."

What would soon become the Isleys' signature sound began to jell in 1974, on their epic cover of Seals & Crofts's "Summer Breeze." The hippie duo's original version was all over AM radio in 1972, but its wispy country-rock harmonies and proto-New Age overproduction haven't worn well. The Isleys' earthier approach to the jazz-inflected tune showcases the group's strengths--Ronald's intensely engaging falsetto, Ernie's dazzling guitar work, the interplay of the two--and to this day the track barely shows wrinkles. Their "Summer Breeze" only got to 60 on the pop chart, but went Top Ten on the R & B side, and it remains a highlight of the group's live set.

Gradually the Isleys adapted the sweet melodic approach of the white singer-songwriters they had been covering--who also included James Taylor, Carole King, and Todd Rundgren--to their own songwriting, but ironically this new direction progressively alienated them from the pop audience they'd won back in the early 70s. Some of their biggest R & B hits, like "Take Me to the Next Phase" (number one in 1978) and "Between the Sheets" (number three in 1983), missed Billboard's Hot 100 completely.

The sequencing of one long slow smoocher after another on disc three of It's Your Thing might not win many converts to the bedroom joys of the group's last couple decades; it even lends some credence to Christgau's complaint that the Isleys liked to stick with a format when it worked for them. The omission of fierce uptempo rockers "Livin' in the Life," which just barely crept into the pop Top 40, and "Who Loves You Better" misrepresents the range and thrust of the group's work in the late 70s.

That said, the collection is still remarkably diverse, beginning with the sublime 50s street-corner doo-wop of "Angels Cried" and running through a splendidly mellifluous 1996 collaboration with R. Kelly. It shows that the Isleys' secret of survival ultimately had less to do with adhering to shtick or pandering to the market than with facing obstacles head-on. At key points, they regrouped and rejuvenated themselves, discovering yet more facets of their unshakably soulful "thing."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo copyright 1999 London Features Dyndicate/ album cover.

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