The Isley Brothers may be the most underrated black band in history with an astounding 58 years in the music business and counting, 30 studio albums to date including prolific runs where they put out two albums in one year on two occasions, showmanship, entrepreneurship with their own T-Neck Records label and genre-bending musicianship.
Their first hit, Shout! in 1959, was a church-y, rock and soul-inflected testimonial with call-and-response, doo-wop, howling, growling and secularized gospel which earned them 1 million in sales, only to be covered with a lukewarm version by The Beatles that sold 5 million records and became their first hit, setting them up for eventual mega success.
The Isley Brothers are a highly influential, successful and long-running American music group consisting of different line-ups of six brothers, and a brother-in-law, Chris Jasper. The founding members were O’Kelly Isley, Jr., Rudolph Isley, Ronald Isley and Vernon Isley.
The same thing happened again with the Isley’s “Twist and Shout“, which would become a defining single for the Beatles when they covered it. The Isley lineup then included O’Kelly and Rudolph Isley as background vocalists and Ronald Isley as the lead. Their brother Vernon died soon after they formed the group.
They would go on to add brothers Ernie, a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, bass guitarist Marvin, brother-in-law Chris Jasper on keyboards and synthesizers, and none other than a virtuoso left-handed guitarist named Jimi Hendrix, who lived with the brothers before gaining solo fame.
Through nearly sixty years, they have covered every genre and made a name for themselves by alternating funk tracks like “Work to Do,” “Live It Up,” and “The Pride“, and uptempo bouncy bass lines with slippery, delicate ballads on their albums, along with prolific songwriting, much of it coming from younger brother Ernie, including politically and socially conscious songs like Harvest for the World, Fight the Power, Ballad for the Fallen Soldier, and Slow Down Children.
Artist: The Isley Brothers Album: Brother, Brother, Brother Song: Work To Do Genre: Funk Released: 1972 Enjoy!
They even got into the motion picture business, starting a movie company and putting out “It’s Your Thing“, a live show that came out before Woodstock, featuring acts like Moms Mabley, the Five Stairsteps and Ike and Tina Turner.
And they got payback for white artists profiting off of their best material, by making hits while covering Seals and Crofts’ “Summer Breeze,” Eric Burdon and War’s “Spill the Wine” and Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay,” among others.
Song: Summer Breeze Composed by: The Isley Brothers The original song was composed by Seals and Croft The Isley Brothers took the song and made their own version.
When O’Kelly died of a heart attack and Rudy left to join the ministry, it was Ronald Isley, also known to contemporary audiences as Mr. Biggs, who was at the heart of the Isley empire and who kept them rolling long after most group’s expiration dates.
He gave us ballads like “Between the Sheets,” “Sensuality,” “Make Me Say it Again Girl,” “At Your Best (You are Love)”, “I Once Had Your Love,” “All in My Lover’s Eyes,” “Hello, It’s Me” and “Let Me Down Easy” sometimes mixed with uptempo bass lines like “Brown Eyed Girl” or love songs bathed in funk like “Ain’t I Been Good to You.”
ISLEY BROTHERS – BETWEEN THE SHEETS
In a 1970 interview, older brother O’Kelley said in a prescient statement, “Ronnie’s talents haven’t even been scratched yet. He will be one of the greats, you’ll see.”
And Ron, a true musical artist, has done that and then some, defying any categories while collaborating with, among others, Burt Bacharach, Warren G., Kelly Price, R. Kelly, and Kendrick Lamar.
“Hello It’s Me” is a Billboard #5 hit song composed by Todd Rundgren that has been recorded numerous times, and would become Rundgren’s best-known song. The Isley Brothers are an American musical group consisting of brothers Ron and Ernie Isley. The founding members of the band were Ronald Isley, older brothers Rudy and Kelly and younger brother Vernon.
For his latest work, Power of Peace, due out July 28th, he and brother Ernie have collaborated with Carlos Santana for an album creating a new take on diverse cover songs like Swamp Dogg’s soul/rockabilly “Total Destruction to Your Mind,” gospel in the form of Billie Holliday’s “God Bless the Child,” blues like Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You” and soul in the form of Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me” among others.
Ron and Ernie Isley recently sat down with The Shadow League to talk about their upcoming album, Power of Peace, and their collaboration with Carlos Santana:
Power of Peace Featuring Isley Brothers Album Available July 28th
The Shadow League: What made you and Santana decide to do this collaboration? What theme connects you?
Ron: We had been talking about it for years, at one of his concerts we talked about one song that I liked and he knew something about. We said we should record that. He asked me to do something on his album and I did a couple of songs on his album and then I asked him, would he be interested in producing an Isley Brothers album and he flipped out. And that was three years ago.
Ernie: I was talking to Carlos and Andy (Vargas). I had actually met Carlos a couple of other times previous to this time, it was a mutual admiration and so of course when we had a chance to do this collaboration there was a lot of joy in it. If everybody that was in my study hall when I was 16 could have seen me in the studio, they totally would have flipped out.
Ron: There are three guitar players that are the best in the world to us. My brother, Jimi Hendrix and Santana. And having Santana, and just the idea of him and Ernie playing together, to me was like a dream come true.
TSL: Jimi Hendrix lived with you at one point, tell me about that.
Ron: Kelly and Ronald found him in New York and got him his first Fender Rhodes guitarthe first he ever had in his lifeand he came to stay at my mothers house. He was on the couch in the middle between me and Marvin when Ed Sullivan introduced the Beatles for the first time. A couple of days after that there was a meeting with all of the members of the band, and a couple of things that Kelly said, amongst other things was, “I think we are gonna be alright cause these English guys do Twist and Shout in their repertoire.” This is before Twist and Shout by the Beatles came out. He was like, “They got two guitar players, but we got Jimi!” When he said “but we got Jimi”, I looked over at Jimi and he was grinning ear to ear. He was maybe 21 or 22.
Music video by The Isley Brothers, Santana performing I Remember (Audio). (P)(C) 2017 Starfaith, LLC and RI Top Ten, LLC, under exclusive license to Sony Music Entertainment http://vevo.ly/lCOjQb
TSL: Lets talk about other musicians on the album, so you have Greg Phillinganes.
Ron: His band is top of the food chain players, theyre wizards. Each in their own individual right. The thing that they do when meshed between Cindy Santana on drums, Carlos on guitar and his whole percussion section is killer.
TSL: The cover songs you decided to do for the new album, Power of Peace, tell me a bit about why you chose them. We can start with the Chamber Brothers – “Are You Ready” and “Love, Peace and Happiness“
Ron: That was Carlos’s idea – “Are You Ready People.” He wanted to start the album off that way. First song I wanted to do was the song with Stevie Wonder, and “Mercy Me” and “What the World Needs Now” and “Gypsy Woman”, those were all my ideas.
From their T-Neck album “Go All The Way”, this song reached #11 on the R&B chart in 1980.
TSL: “Gypsy Woman” by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, why that one?
Ron: Cause me and Ernie love the guitar. We always play with that song. We would sit in the studio with Eddie Levert, who was there as a visitor. Ernie would start playing and I would start singing the part.
TSL: For “Higher Ground“, you made it more of a rock song.
Ron: The way they set it up, it was great. I chose that one for the lyrics. We loved that song when it came out. All the Isley Brothers, that was a favorite of ours.
Ernie: We were working on 3+3 at the same studio where Stevie Wonder was working on Innervisions. Stevie is a very good friend of ours, we spent a lot of time together at Motown when he was first there. “What the World Needs Now“, Burt Bacharach did that. Burt is one of the happiest people to hear this song. I played it for him. Burt is one of my best friends.
TSL: Why did you choose “Mercy Mercy Me”
Ron: Because of the lyrics and Marvin Gaye. I think it was some of the greatest lyrics he did. It’s all about the album being named the Power of Peace, we have those type of songs about love and peace on it.
WHAT’S GOING ON (1971) Eli Fontaine: alto saxophone Wild Bill Moore: tenor saxophone Marvin Gaye: piano, mellotron, box drum Johnny Griffith: celeste, keyboards Earl Van Dyke: keyboards Jack Brokensha: vibraphone, percussion Joe Messina, Robert White: electric guitars James Jamerson: bass guitar Bob Babbitt: bass guitar Chet Forest: drums Jack Ashford: tambourine, percussion Eddie “Bongo” Brown: bongos, congas Earl DeRouen: bongos, congas Bobbye Hall: bongos Katherine Marking – graphic design Alana Coghlan – graphic design John Matousek – mastering Vic Anesini;- Digital Remastering James Hendin – Photography Curtis McNair – Art Direction
TSL: When you think about the Isley Brothers, you guys have done just about every genre you could possibly do, but I think a lot of the general public knows you only for your ballads.
Ernie: Thats on the resume certainly, but we got some serious funk on there. Its Your Thing. Fight the Power..
TSL: Yeah, and you did the writing for a lot of them like “Harvest for the World,” “At Your Best (You are Love)”, “Between the Sheets”, “Voyage to Atlantis”, “The Highways of My Life”, etc.
Ernie: Writing politically conscious lyrics, I was thinking about the things that were happening. I remember one song, I was actually hoping that Ron and Kelly would approve it. I was like apologizing, like this is not gonna sound like “Hello, Its Me”, its not gonna sound like the “For the Love of You.” They push play and it turns out to be “Voyage to Atlantis. They were like, man wow. It starts there with them.
Ron: He was writing songs for what was happening in the world at the time and what needed to be said. We always had one song, “Harvest for the World,” still that song right now with the lyrics its right on. Another song was “Ballad for the Fallen Soldier” on Between the Sheets.
Voyage To Atlantis by The Isley Brothers
TSL: So tell me some of your guitar influences, I know Jose Feliciano is one.
Ernie: Yeah, he made me get a guitar. Kelly had a closet full of Jimmy Reed‘s 45’s, blues guy. Later on I got into Jimi Hendrix, He was in the house when I was like 11. You are listening to stuff in somebody elses company, you never know what rubs off on me
Ron: We had no idea that Ernie would play guitar. He was playing drums, then all of a sudden he picked up a guitar. You know thats one of the hardest instruments there is, your hands gotta be fast and he mastered that.
TSL: Ron, who were your vocal influences?
Ron: Johnny Mathis, Sam Cooke, Clyde McPhatter, Jackie Wilson, Nat King Cole. My family introduced me to these singers and those were the first records I rehearsed with my mother. Clara Ward and the Ward singers. We knew her whole catalogue. My mother brought us up on that. Aretha Franklin is one of my favorite singers. Whitney Houston, she became one of our favorites. Frank Sinatra. Sammy Davis.
Single by The Isley Brothers from the album Harvest For The World. Released 1976 on T-Neck lable. Composers: Isley Brothers/Chris Jasper. Group Members: Ronald Isley, Kelly Isley, O’Kelly Isley jr., Rudy Isley, Ernie Isley, Marvin Isley, Chris Jasper.
TSL: The Isley Brothers have always pushed the envelope in terms of doing new things and this album is an example of that.
Ron: The first thing was family, our father wanted this quartet, he wanted us to last as long as the Mills brothers, which weve already done. And to me and to Ernie, its a joy to do this music. When you find out youre blessed to do it. You know its a gift from God or else you wouldnt be doing it now. Its something that we love doing. I am always thinking of some kind of idea that’s just gonna keep us out there forever and ever and to be the type of group that has done something that no one has done whether they write about it or not. We have been the group that has lasted with this music and doing the music and being loved by a certain audience of people that no one else has done.
TSL: What made you do a cover of “God Bless the Child?”
Ron: Thats a song that Carlos loved and we loved it too. Thats the last song we did and we had a great feeling about it. Tracy (Ernie’s wife) and everybody came in singing on that.
Them that’s got shall get Them that’s not shall lose So the Bible said and it still is news Mama may have, Papa may have But God bless the child that’s got his own That’s got his own Yes, the strong gets more While the weak ones fade Empty pockets
TSL: Tell me about you and Santana. You seem like kindred spirits.
Ron: Santana is the kind of person that does everything from his heart. What he believes in. Hes so for real. We trust him. Hes for real with this business. And its not all about money. He loves it. Thats why we are really on the same track. He’s always thinking about, “I’m gonna make my next album.” I like the way he feels about music, the way he feels about life and himself. We gelled from that. After we finish making the music, its still the same feeling for him.
Ernie: He is interested in the journey and the adventure and we have a commitment to the journey, to the musical journey because it’s gonna go where it goes and it turns out in many ways, its a surprise or a discovery. As we were doing this record, it had a lot of discovery in it. The “God Bless the Child” song is a Billie Holliday song and Ronald sings it and its new life. I never heard it like that before. Carlos is playing something and I’m looking at him grinning and then he stops playing and points at me and I start playing and he’s looking at me grinning. It’s been fun and a sense of discovery and adventure in doing this.
Music video by The Isley Brothers, Santana performing The Story of “I Remember”. (C) 2017 Starfaith, LLC and RI Top Ten, LLC, under exclusive license to Sony Music Entertainment http://vevo.ly/tZMCLX
TSL: You and Carlos go back and forth on the album with the guitar.
Ernie: Oh yeah, it’s kind of like ‘okay now you play’ and he points at me and to hear a sound–that authentic sound coming from the actual person live, it’s kind of like thats really him! I’m watching him playing and I’m like thats actually him. Then at a certain point, he would stop and point and play and hed be looking at me like thats that tone. Thats that dude. It was really wonderful.
Ron: It’s one of those things that if Jimi Hendrix was here and Ernie was playing, we would be looking at the three of them. Now that he’s not here, we think about all of things it could be like if he and Ernie were playing. Other musicians are going to go crazy to see Carlos and Ernie together.