The Isley Brothers have moved fluidly through time and a wide range of musical genres (including R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, funk, psychedelic rock and smooth urban soul) to create an essential body of work.
Born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, brothers O’Kelly (December 25, 1937-March 31, 1986), Rudolph (born April 1, 1939), Ronald (born May 21, 1941) and Vernon (who died in ’55 bicycle accident) Isley first began performing as a gospel group in the early-50s. They moved to the New York-area in ’57 to record doo wop for Teenage Records.
Their first successful release, the album Shout, came out in 1959 and was produced by Hugo & Luigi. The title track, the famous raw, uproarious call-and-response screamer, only went to No. 47 on the pop chart at the time, but established the group’s rock ‘n’ roll credentials and has sold over a million copies in the ensuing years, in addition to becoming the centerpiece of the movie Animal House.
Recalls Luigi Creatore: “We brought ‘Shout’ down to the review board at RCA and we played it. A guy sitting there said, ‘I don’t understand what they are saying.’ I said, ‘Well the kids understand.’ He said, ‘But I don’t understand this whole record, let’s hear the other side.’ So, we played the other side, which was a continuation. He said, ‘I don’t understand it.’ I said, ‘If you were fourteen years old you would understand it.'”
In addition to the title track, the original version of “Twist and Shout” also appeared on the album – both became rock ‘n’ roll party staples.
After casting about in the mid-’60s (recording one hit for Motown, “This Old Heart of Mine” in ’66), the Brothers returned with a vengeance in ’69 writing and producing the Grammy-winning “It’s Your Thing” for their own T-Neck Records.
The next version of the Isleys – as brothers Ernie (guitar, drums), Marvin (bass, percussion), and brother-in-law Chris Jasper (keyboards) joined up – took the band into uncharted waters. In the early-’70s, black artists and producers like Norman Whitfield, George Clinton, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Gamble & Huff and the Isleys simultaneously elongated their music, as album replaced single as the basic unit of musical currency. The Isleys created a heavy, funky bass-and-psychedelic guitar (from Ernie) sound that became extremely popular with black and white audiences alike.
The sound really came into its own with 1973’s 3+3 album, which made the top 10 and spawned the hit single “That Lady.” The Heat Is On went all the way to No. 1 in ’75, proving that the world was ready for black rock from someone other than Jimi Hendrix (who had toured with the Isleys in the mid-’60s).
The band regularly hit the Top 10 throughout the ’70s (Harvest For the World, Go For Your Guns, Showdown, Go All the Way) before Ernie, Marvin and Jasper left to form Isley, Jasper, Isley in the ’80s. That trio reunited with Ronald and Rudolph under the Isley Brothers rubric in ’91.
As other musical families have fallen by the wayside, the Isley Brothers have found a way to stay strong for 50 years. Their success in performing, business, writing and production is unique – with hits in SIX decades – and continues into the third millennium. Their latest album is Body Kiss, with Ronald and Ernie remaining active and R. Kelly doing most of the writing and producing.