The Isley Brothers   Leave a comment

The Isley Brothers (play /ˈzl/ yz-lee) is 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.

Starting their careers in the gospel performing circuit in the early 1950s, they eventually crossed over to secular music first finding modest success in doo-wop until the release of their first million-selling hit, “Shout“, in 1959. After several flops resulted in them being dropped from their record label, they found success again with sixties hits such as “Twist and Shout“, later covered successfully by The Beatles and the Motown hit, “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)” in 1962 and 1966 respectively. The group didn’t find success again until the end of the decade when their 1969 single, “It’s Your Thing“, (with Ernie Isley on bass guitar) was released. The song brought them success in the then-fledgling funk genre.

After forming their own label, T-Neck Records, the group found modest success with their own recordings between 1969 and 1972 until revamping the vocal group into a sextet in 1973 with the release of their landmark album, 3 + 3, this time featuring younger brothers Ernie Isley and Marvin Isley and brother-in-law Chris Jasper who brought the musical and songwriting component to the group, making them a self-contained band. The addition of Ernie, Marvin, and Chris led to their most successful period as they successfully mixed their brand of R&B with rock, soul and funk elements. Hits they would have during that period included a revamped version of their 1964 song “That Lady” (featuring Ernie’s characteristic guitar playing), “Fight the Power” (written by Ernie), “For the Love of You” and “Between the Sheets” (written by Chris and Ernie).

In 1984 the group split up after the departure of Ernie Isley, Marvin Isley and Chris Jasper (who formed Isley-Jasper-Isley and reached #1 on the charts with “Caravan of Love” a year later). The original trio released Masterpiece in 1985. By that time O’Kelly Isley had fallen ill and died the following year. Rudolph and Ronald released the post O’Kelly albums, Smooth Sailin’ and Spend the Night in 1987 and 1989 respectively, collaborating with Angela Winbush. Rudolph retired in 1989, leaving Ronald by himself.

In 1991, Ernie and Marvin teamed up with Ronald again for the next album, Tracks of Life. In 1997, Marvin retired from the group and show business after developing diabetes forcing Ronald and Ernie to continue the group as a duo. The duo scored a top 40 hit with “Contagious” in 2001. With that hit, The Isley Brothers became the only act to have at least one Hot 100 hit in each of six consecutive decades: the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. The Isleys managed to reach the top 40 in the last five of those decades.

The Isleys and Jasper were inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by Little Richard in 1992. They are the recipients of a single Grammy Award.


 Early formation and career: 1954-1959

Brothers O’Kelly “Kelly” Isley (December 25, 1937 – March 31, 1986), Rudolph “Rudy” Isley (b. 1939), Ronald “Ronnie” Isley (b. 1941) and Vernon Isley (1942–1955) grew up in the predominantly black section of Lincoln Heights, Cincinnati, Ohio and were raised by Christian-reared parents O’Kelly Isley, Sr. and Sallye Bernice Bell. Sallye would later tell interviews how her husband, a gospel singer, wanted to have sons to become “the next Mills Brothers“. As soon as all four boys were able to walk and talk, they were immediately trained by their parents to sing songs together as a group. From the beginning, Ronald Isley, considered to have the best voice, was positioned as the group’s lead singer and front man (Vernon shared co-lead duties with him while O’Kelly and Rudy had some sporadic leads). As a child he entered talent contests winning most of them and even opened for several musicians including Mahalia Jackson and Dinah Washington.

In 1954, the Isley Brothers were officially formed and the quartet toured the gospel circuit. Their success was short-lived, however, when in 1955, 13-year-old Vernon Isley was suddenly struck by a car while riding on his bicycle and was killed instantly. Devastated, the boys withdrew from singing. Eventually encouraged by their parents, the three eldest Isleys returned to music but were now being buoyed by the potential secular market of doo-wop. With their parents’ blessings, in 1956, the brothers left for New York where they auditioned for, and eventually, landed their first recording deal. In 1957, the group released their first single, “The Cow Jumped Over the Moon”, which had a strong sound similar to that of The Teenagers. The record flopped. Two years later, the group faced tragedy again when their father died after a struggle with cancer. By the summer of 1959, the Isley family had moved from Cincinnati to a home in Englewood, New Jersey.[1]

Moving on, the group built a local fan base due to their energetic live performances. James Brown once described the Isleys entering the stage flying through ramps “like Tarzan” and this was before they began performing.

While opening for Jackie Wilson, the group did a cover of Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops“, which got a notice from a scout who was working for RCA Records. He brought the group to RCA’s main headquarters and the group was immediately offered a contract. While their first single with the label failed to make an impact, their second single, “Shout“, a song the three brothers had composed almost spontaneously, found chart traction eventually peaking at #47 on the Billboard Hot 100. In spite of the relatively low chart position, it became their first gold single on the basis of its longevity and became a much-covered tune. In the 1990s and continuing to the present, it would even become a theme song and marketing hook for the Buffalo Bills of the National Football League.

Early success: 1960-1972

Though the brothers continued to struggle with recordings, their early success was mainly built on their live performances. In 1960, the group released the original version of the song, “Respectable”, a doo-wop ballad they had also had a hand in writing. While their version failed to chart, another group, the Outsiders, had success with it, as did The Yardbirds several years later. By 1961, “Shout” had been covered successfully by the likes of singers such as Joey Dee and the Starlighters and Lulu, it was also covered as a live version by an earlier incarnation of The Beatles during their developing careers. Because of this success, the song became a million-seller and prompted RCA to re-release the Isley Brothers’ original in 1962. The group even made live appearances on local rock and roll-based television shows to promote the song. However, the song failed to reignite for the group and they soon left RCA.

In 1962, they signed with the Scepter subsidiary, Wand Records, and that year, scored their first top 40 hit with “Twist & Shout” (written and produced by Bert Berns) which peaked at #17 on the Hot 100, while also reaching #42 in England. The original version had been recorded the previous year by The Top Notes, but Bert Berns was so unhappy with producer Phil Spector‘s treatment of the song that he took it to the Isley Brothers.[2][3]

Much like “Shout” and “Respectable” before, the Isleys’ R&B version of “Twist & Shout” would be covered successfully, this time by the Beatles. Their version reached number two on the Hot 100 in 1964. Much like their earlier success, the group struggled with a follow-up and left Wand Records for United Artists Records in 1964. That would also turn out to be short-lived and feeling they had nothing to lose, the group, who was now living in Teaneck, New Jersey, living off their early successes, formed their own label, T-Neck Records, becoming the first recording group to do so and just one of only a few black recording acts (Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and later Curtis Mayfield) to do so.

In 1964, the group hired a young guitarist who had been in several rhythm and blues groups as a backing guitarist. His name was Jimi Hendrix but was then going by his nickname at the time, Jimmy James. Hendrix, who was homeless when O’Kelly Isley saw him while at a store, was brought in to the Isleys’ family home and soon Hendrix was included in recordings the group was doing for T-Neck. Two of which, “Testify” and “Move Over and Let Me Dance”, was released locally. By 1966, Hendrix had left the group to tour with Little Richard and the group signed with Motown Records after accepting a deal from Berry Gordy, who had promised to bring the group crossover success. That year, they had their first hit in four years with the pop-friendly “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)“, which peaked at number eleven on the Hot 100.

While they had modest success with other songs following its release, the group again struggled with a follow-up and in late 1968, were allowed to leave Motown. While at the crossroads of their career, the group toured the United Kingdom, where they had had a following thanks to Northern soul enthusiasts. Returning to the United States, they revamped T-Neck, signed with Buddah Records and began to write their own material again. This led to a major success in the summer of 1969 when their single, “It’s Your Thing“, their first recording under the then burgeoning funk genre, became a top five hit reaching number-two on the Hot 100 and number-one on the R&B singles chart. Younger brother Ernie Isley (b. 1952) played bass on the record, his first professional recording. The song sold over a million copies and later won the group their first and only Grammy Award. While follow-ups after “It’s Your Thing” didn’t chart as successfully, the group released several top 40 R&B hits between 1969 and 1972. It would be after the release of Brother, Brother, Brother, that the group would include new members Ernie Isley (full time), Marvin Isley (August 18, 1953 – June 6, 2010) and brother-in-law Chris Jasper (b. 1951) (Chris’s sister is married to elder brother Rudolph Isley).

The 3 + 3 period: 1973-1984

In 1973, with a new lineup and a new deal with Epic Records, the Isley Brothers, released what has been called a groundbreaking album with 3 + 3, which mixed soul with elements of folk rock and funk rock. The album showcased the group’s transition from strictly an R&B act to a group that had more of a rock sound. The first single from the album, “That Lady, Pt. 1, a remake of their 1964 song “Who’s That Lady”, featuring Ernie’s characteristic guitar playing, became a success reaching number six on the Hot 100 and number fourteen in the UK. Their follow-up single, “What It Comes Down To”, was a top five R&B hit. Their power rock cover of the folk hit, “Summer Breeze“, by Seals & Crofts, featuring Ernie Isley’s signature guitar sound, became a top ten hit in the United Kingdom. Sales of 3 + 3 eventually reached a million copies. In 1974, their follow-up album, Live It Up, found R&B success while also peaking at the top 20 of the pop albums chart, also selling a million. The album was noted for the funk rock hit, “Midnight Sky”, and their quiet storm cover of Todd Rundgren‘s “Hello It’s Me“. By 1975, the direction of the Isley Brothers’ music was solidly in the hands of the younger half of the so-called 3 + 3 lineup as younger brothers Ernie Isley, Marvin Isley and brother-in-law Chris Jasper looked after the music and the lyrics of most of the group’s recordings. Ronald and Rudolph occasionally gave the group compositions while eldest brother O’Kelly Isley controlled the group’s finances during this time. Producers Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff once said O’Kelly controlled the group with an iron fist.

In 1975, the group released their landmark album, The Heat Is On, which included some lead vocals from O’Kelly and Rudolph though Ronald continued to contribute most of the lead vocals especially with ballads such as “For the Love of You” and “Make Me Say It Again, Girl”. The album peaked at number-one on the Billboard 200 and eventually sold more than two million singles. “Fight the Power, Pt. 1” (written by Ernie and sung in unison by Ronald and Rudolph) and “For the Love of You” (written by Ernie and Chris) became top 40 smash hits on the pop chart. This success continued into the mid-1970s with follow-ups such as Harvest for the World (1976, another Ernie composition), Go for Your Guns (1977), Showdown (1978), the double album Winner Takes All (1979) and Go All the Way (1980). By the late 1970s, the group had included disco elements into their music and had also began to produce more ballads. By the early 1980s, the group struggled to find pop success and three albums released between 1981 and 1982 including Grand Slam, Inside You and The Real Deal, failed to chart successfully even in the group’s trusted R&B fan base.

In 1983, they revamped their sound, adding more synthesizers and drum programming. The result, Between the Sheets, returned the group to R&B success especially with its title track, written by Chris and Ernie, which peaked at number-three on the R&B chart.

 The Split: 1984

After failing to come to terms with musical direction, feeling fatigued from monetary problems, and straining from the changing times in the music industry, the group splintered when younger brothers Ernie and Marvin and brother-in-law Chris Jasper left to form their own group, the modestly successful Isley-Jasper-Isley, who topped the charts with “Caravan of Love“, a song that went on to become a worldwide hit, covered by many groups, including a #1 a cappella version by British group The Housemartins.

The elder brothers carried on as a trio until after the release of 1985’s Masterpiece. Shortly after its release, O’Kelly Isley, Jr. fell ill and succumbed to a heart attack brought on by a bout with cancer on March 31, 1986. He was just 48 years old. The death of Kelly Isley stunned the family. By the late 1980s, the group had hired Angela Winbush to be an honorary Isley Brothers member and she produced the group’s Smooth Sailin’ and Spend the Night. Before the latter album’s release, in 1989, Rudolph Isley announced his retirement from show business to become an evangelical minister leaving Ronald to carry on as a solo artist, finding success in a pop duet with Rod Stewart covering the Isleys’ hit, “This Old Heart of Mine”.

The group Wham! covered the song, “If You Were There”, on their 1984 smash album, “Make It Big.” The track went on to become the title track for the 1997 greatest hits collected entitled “If You Were There: The Best of Wham!”

Reformation of the Isley Brothers and renewing success with R. Kelly: 1991-2003

In 1991, Pullman Bonds made a deal with the Isley Brothers founders Rudolph and Ronald Isley and the estate of O’Kelly Isley, Jr. to give the group unearned royalties from their extensive catalog. That same year, the surviving two brothers sued Michael Bolton accusing the singer of copyright infringement for singing their 1964 song, “Love is a Wonderful Thing”, which they wrote, without their permission. While Bolton insisted he didn’t steal from the group, a judge awarded damages to Rudolph and Ronald after noting that while their songs, with the same titles, were different, elements of the songs were similar to each other. Bolton tried overturning the ruling on appeal in 2001 but was again defeated in court and was forced to share writing credits of his hit with the brothers. This success revamped interest in the Isley Brothers and while Rudolph insisted on staying retired, Ronald, Ernie Isley and Marvin Isley reformed the group. The group’s billing was also slightly changed to The Isley Brothers featuring Ronald Isley to reflect Ronald’s desire to be seen as the group’s dominant leader. Later that year, they released the album, Tracks of Life.

A year later, with one of their biggest admirers, Little Richard, the group, along with Chris Jasper, was inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. After the release of a live album in 1993, their Warner Bros. Records contract was allowed to expire and in 1995, they signed a new contract with Island Def Jam‘s Def Soul imprint. A year later, the group released Mission to Please, which resulted in their biggest chart success in thirteen years. Boosted by Ronald Isley’s collaboration with R&B star R. Kelly on the hit, “Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)” (credited on the single as R. Kelly featuring Ronald Isley and Ernie Isley) and its accompanying video, which saw Isley play a villainous character named “Mr. Biggs”, the album went platinum and boosted a top 50 hit with “Float On Your Love”, which was a duet between Ronald Isley and then-wife Angela Winbush. The song found success mainly from its hip-hop remix produced by Puff Daddy and including rapper Lil’ Kim. Shortly after promotion of the record ended in 1997, Marvin Isley left the group after contracting diabetes. The illness eventually led to Isley’s legs being amputated. Brothers Ronald and Ernie carried on as a duo. Ronald also worked with R. Kelly on solo ventures and collaborated with Kelly Price on R. Kelly’s remixed production of Price’s first hit, 1998’s “Friend of Mine”.

In 2001, the Isley Brothers scored their biggest hit in years when they released the R. Kelly-produced ballad, “Contagious“, which peaked at number nineteen on the Billboard Hot 100 and number three on the R&B chart. Because of this, they had become the only group to chart in six decades. The song went platinum, selling over a million copies, while its parent album, Eternal, with its title track lyrics written by Ernie, sold over three million copies alone in the states. Two years later, their follow-up album, Body Kiss, became their first album to debut at number-one on the Billboard 200 becoming their first number-one pop album since 1975’s The Heat Is On, later going gold. The same year, Ronald Isley released his first solo album, Here I Am, which was a collaboration between Isley and producer Burt Bacharach, the collection won critical praise. Throughout the early millennium, Ronald Isley gained notice as a popular hook singer for hip-hop recordings.

On July 30, 2003, the group performed in front of its largest audience ever when they played in the afternoon during Molson Canadian Rocks for Toronto, a benefit to help raise the city’s failing economy during the SARS crisis.

Ronald Isley’s legal problems and the death of Marvin Isley: 2004-2010

In 2004, while touring in England, Ronald Isley suffered a stroke which led to a hospitalization near his home in St. Louis, where he had moved from Cincinnati after marrying (and later divorcing) Angela Winbush. A year later, Isley found himself in trouble with paying back taxes with the IRS. Isley was later charged for tax evasion in 2005. A year later, the Isley Brothers returned with Baby Makin’ Music, which included the adult R&B top 40 hit, “Just Came Here to Chill” and came out with their first holiday album a year after that. In 2007, Isley was convicted of tax evasion charges and was given a 37-month sentence, which he served, first in a federal prison and then in a halfway house. He was released from the halfway house in April 2010 bringing an ending to his sentence. While his brother was serving jail time, brother Ernie began working on solo material and also participated in the Experience Hendrix festival for two months in the spring of 2010. On June 6, 2010, Marvin Isley died from complications of diabetes at the Seasons Hospice within the Weiss Memorial Hospital in Chicago, Illinois. He was 56. Ronald Isley released his first solo album, Mr. I, in November. Chris Jasper, who has had little contact with his brothers-in-law since splitting from Isley-Jasper-Isley in 1988 (except for Marvin Isley, with whom he kept in close contact until Marvin’s untimely death), continues to record and release solo material and produce artists for his independent Gold City Records label. Rudolph Isley has retired from his ministry work and is living quietly in California. Ernie toured with the fall edition of the Experience Hendrix Tour in Canada and the United States later in 2010. The group – consisting of just Ronald and Ernie – continue to perform together on the road.


Posted February 19, 2012 by pennylibertygbow in Uncategorized

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