The Isley Brothers Featuring Ronald Isley
Mission to Please
By Frank Youngwerth
Pop musicians with careers spanning five decades typically come to be associated with their earliest hits, yet ironically the Isley Brothers have become dissociated from theirs. "Shout," their electrifying 1959 gospel-based romp, was immortalized in the film Animal House by the otherwise obscure Otis Day & the Knights. The Beatles covered the 1962 Isley hit "Twist and Shout" so well on their first album that the song, which otherwise might have died with the Twist fad that produced it, remains famous for John Lennon's unforgettable vocal performance. "This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)" was a big hit for the Isleys on Motown in 1966, but today it sounds like something the Temptations or Four Tops might just as easily have done.
The Isley Brothers hit their stride in the 70s, evolving from a vocal trio into a self-contained, self-produced (for their own label T-Neck) six-piece funk band by adding three younger family members who later broke off to form the group Isley Jasper Isley. The present-day Isley Brothers lineup features original lead singer Ronald Isley, younger siblings Ernie and Marvin, and Ronald's wife Angela Winbush (formerly of the 80s R & B duo Rene and Angela), who serves as a writer, producer, programmer, and singer.
Four years ago the Isley Brothers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and now they're back on the charts. Their new album, Mission to Please, debuted last week in Billboard at an impressive number 31. To their credit the Isleys have more or less ignored whatever attention the rock press pays them from time to time. They've resisted the temptation to change their sound or image to broaden their appeal to white audiences. Following their own sensibilities and refusing to turn into rock stars, the Isleys have avoided the pitfalls that wrecked the careers of artists like Sly Stone and Rick James.
The group's influence on 90s black pop is reflected on the "Hot 100" singles chart. The current number one song, Cleveland rap group Bone Thugs-n-Harmony's "Tha Crossroads," incorporates the instrumental groove of the 1975 Isley Brothers ballad "Make Me Say It Again Girl." And Chicagoan R. Kelly's recent top five hit "Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)" features prominent guest vocals by Ronald Isley, who appears in the song's video. Although half of the ten tracks on Mission to Please boast writing and production credits by current R & B heavyweights R. Kelly, Babyface, and Keith Sweat, the album succeeds mainly on the strengths of Ronald's trademark sweet falsetto crooning and Ernie's Hendrix-inspired guitar (Jimi Hendrix actually worked as the group's guitarist briefly in the mid-60s).
Still the mighty Isleys' talents can't save the album's weaker moments; mediocre material and unfocused production drag the group down. The opening track, "Floatin' on Your Love," nearly capsizes under the weight of too many overdubbed voices and Winbush's awkward lines: "Everyday I pray our love / Floats on--and on--and on." The lyrics of "Whenever You're Ready" ("Ya-whoo...let's celebrate") suggest it was conceived as an erotic rewrite of Kool & the Gang's disco-era wedding-reception favorite "Celebration." And once again there's a lot of vocal clutter.
In sharp contrast the R. Kelly-produced single "Let's Lay Together" spotlights Ronald's solo voice, offsetting it with a plush, gliding synth flute lifted straight out of the 1975 Isley Brothers hit "For the Love of You" (a sound originally programmed for the group by Stevie Wonder's innovative production team of Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff). Backed by a vocal chorus in tight unison, Ronald attains slow jam nirvana, guided along by Ernie's gentle acoustic guitar and a searing electric solo that moves the elder Isley to call out, "Let me help you with your stockings, girl!"
The sentimental lyrics of Babyface's song "Tears" are strengthened by its urbane melody as well as what sounds like the songwriter's uncredited singing on the chorus. Ronald does a nice turn on Simply Red's "Holding Back the Years," in the tradition of earlier memorable Isley covers of soft-rock material by Seals & Crofts, James Taylor, and Todd Rundgren.
But the standout on Mission to Please comes from the pen of Ernie Isley, written and produced together with Ronald and Winbush. "Let's Get Intimate" sounds like Marvin Gaye and Barry White covering Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain." Eerie church-organ chords, wildly oscillating synthesizer, and slightly sinister wa-wa guitar create a haunting atmosphere in slow waltz time, unusually intense for pop made in the all-too-formalistic 90s.
It's not surprising to find Mission to Please aimed primarily at a black audience. The rock establishment and fans that put the Isleys into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame typically "honor" artists with a history by relegating them to the past. But how many other Hall of Famers could score a high chart debut now with an album of new material? How many even have an album deal? Over the years the Isley Brothers have contributed as well as adapted to changes in pop fashion, holding their own as proficient, inspired entertainers eager to please the audience at hand.