It's Their Thing

Despite changing fashions and lineup upheavals, the Isley Brothers are still going strong, some 45 years after forming

Oct 24, 2001 at 4:00 am
I think you've got a great football team," says Ernie Isley, lead guitarist for one of the most popular and longest-lived musical groups in history. Isley, who moved to St. Louis from Los Angeles almost two years ago, is obviously happy here. "You've got McGwire. You've got the Cardinals. You've got Tony's, O'Connell's, Hodak's; you've got Cracker Barrel. This kind of stuff we don't have in LA."

Actually, Isley still maintains a house in Los Angeles as well as his home here, in the West County area. He followed his older brother Ronald, who moved here in 1997 with his wife, R&B vocalist Angela Winbush, a St. Louis native. "This is not Hollywood," Isley continues. "Out there, a lot of people look like movie stars, and they're waiting tables at the IHOP. But they got a script. People come up and say, 'Oh, you're in the music business. Take my tape.' I don't necessarily get that here in St. Louis, and it's much appreciated."

The Rams remain a major point of contention among Los Angeles residents, and Isley seems to delight in his new hometown's good fortune. "You really ticked a lot of people off in LA when you won the Super Bowl," he notes. "There was talk about how Los Angeles needs a football team, and I said, 'You had a Super Bowl team, and you let them go to St. Louis, and you made a bunch of fun of them leaving.' Now these guys are out of the gates, and they're undefeated, the first [six] games they've won, so it's, like, 'Get out of here!'"

The Isley Brothers are as good at their game as the Rams are at football. The original group began singing in the mid-'50s, with four Isleys -- Ronald, Rudolph, O'Kelly and Vernon -- working the doo-wop stylings of the day. Vernon died in 1955, and Ronald assumed the lead vocal role, which he holds to this day. In 1957, they released "Shout," one of the most seminal rock & roll and R&B records ever made. As familiar as that classic is to us today, it wasn't actually a hit in its time. The Isleys' first commercial success was in 1962, with "Twist and Shout," a cover of a tune by the now-forgotten Topsiders. A few years later, now signed to Motown, the Isleys released "This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)," another smash. Of course, another way of looking at the first 15 years of the Isleys' career is to consider the frustration of seeing the potential in a group that had only managed to tweak out two admittedly popular records despite constant attempts to model their sound on whatever style happened to be popular at the moment.

Then the cavalry arrived, in the persons of younger Isleys (and a brother-in-law). Ernie and Marvin Isley joined the band, along with Chris Jasper, around 1970. Ernie remembers getting the bug a few years before that. "When I was coming of age, like around 12, I started playing drums. I played my first live gig on drums at 14, in Philadelphia. Martha and the Vandellas were also on the show, and they didn't have a drummer, so I played behind them, too. In between the two acts, somebody gave me a twenty and said, 'Go get some popcorn and a soda.' And the door swung open, and there were all these girls saying, 'It's him!' I was only 14, but it struck me that there were certain things that were possible that I might be able to do in the musical thing."

Although he started his musical career as a drummer, Isley began his Isley Brothers career playing bass on "It's Your Thing," the record that launched a string of smash-hit records for the group. Isley's bass line here propelled the song in ways that echoed what Sly and the Family Stone were doing, with a little bit of James Brown showing. Suddenly the Isleys were in the forefront of a new trend: funk. Although Ernie Isley played mostly drums in the early days (and he continued to pound the skins on record into the '80s), he contributed some bass and acoustic guitar parts for a couple of years before discovering his truest calling, the electric guitar; his unmistakable style became an Isley Brothers' trademark, right behind the lead vocals of Ronald. "That Lady (Pt. 1)" was actually a remake of an earlier record by the group, but this 1973 version was powered by a snaking guitar line that sounded like none previously heard. There was a definite Jimi Hendrix influence, but Ernie used distortion in a slicker fashion, exploiting the guitar's unquenchable sustain to bring about a series of miniclimaxes that never exploded into high drama. This was fretwork as infinite tease, a melodic approach sufficiently rich to allow revision for almost 30 years.

The Isley Brothers could do no wrong in the '70s, but their star faded a bit in the '80s. Ernie, Marvin and Chris Jasper left the older brothers alone for a while. O'Kelly died in 1986. Rudolph left the group shortly thereafter. Since then, occasional projects have been released under the Isley Brothers name, with Ronald Isley the only constant.

The newest album, Eternal, features Ronald and Ernie Isley, the two most dominant sounds in the group's repertoire. Released earlier this year, Eternal has benefited from the increasing popularity of R&B that looks back to the '70s for inspiration; in fact, Jill Scott, one of the most successful young retro stylists, makes a guest appearance. In a time when the charts are dominated by artists in their early 20s (or even younger), the veteran Isley Brothers sold more than a million copies inside of one month -- a gratifying fact, because it's the most enticing Isley album of the last two decades. Recorded over two years, with several leading contemporary producers paying homage to their influential heroes, the songs let the brothers shine bright. Keyboards dominate the mix, lending a contemporary feel. Ernie's guitar lines cut through, just as they always have, and Ronald's sweet tenor and falsetto vocals are more buttery than ever. There are no funk workouts this time around; everything is a pleasing midtempo, perfect for seduction purposes. The album's big hit is "Contagious," a gorgeous gem from R. Kelly, who can probably crank out this sort of classic R&B in his sleep. The song that defines the record as a return to Isley glory, though, is "If You Leave Me Now," a new version of the old Chicago hit. Once again, the Isley Brothers have demonstrated their ability to take songs from other artists, even artists who weren't all that great in the first place, and turn them into something stunning and original.

"Any song that we do that's a cover version, we like the song," Ernie Isley explains. "Nine times out of 10, people can hear our stuff and say, 'That sounds like the Isleys because of the guitar sound' or 'That sounds like the Isleys' because of the vocal.' When it came time to do 'If You Leave Me Now," it was just applying those particular brushstrokes to that musical canvas.

"We don't have a problem with that in terms of maintaining our identity," he continues. "I mean "Summer Breeze" is Seals and Crofts, but a lot of people were introduced to it or rethought what they heard when they heard the Isley version; the same way with "Love the One You're With" or "Hello It's Me," or "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight" by James Taylor, or Bob Dylan with "Lay Lady Lay." We've done a number of cover versions through the years. That's a very challenging thing, for any artist, to maintain their identity while working with a different group of producers or different songs. People can go, 'You've got on the wrong clothes. That doesn't sound like you, or that doesn't look like you.'"