There’s only one place to start when discussing the musical legacy of The Isley Brothers, and that is to marvel at the incredible longevity and creative consistency that the group have experienced in their six-decade career.
Originally forming in 1954 by the brothers Rudolph, O’Kelly, and Ronald, the trio became noted for their delicate vocal intricacies. The group briefly took a young Jimi Hendrix under their wing, before being joined in 1971 by the younger Isleys Ernie and Marvin, playing guitar and bass respectively, as well as brother-in-law Chris Jasper on keys. This outfit would go on to create some of the sweetest soul and rhythmic grooves ever laid down on vinyl, releasing a string of platinum and gold albums unrivalled by almost every other group. As a result, everybody knows an Isley Brothers song even if they don’t know who performs it: whether it be their first hit ‘Shout’, or their cover of ‘Summer Breeze’, or the seductive ‘Between the Sheets’. Yet as this epic new 23-CD collection demonstrates, there is far more to the Isley Brothers than most know.
Now we did think about reviewing each album in this new collection, or even writing a short history to tell their fascinating tale. In the end we realized that task could effectively be a dissertation-length undertaking, and probably wouldn’t be that enjoyable to read. So we decided to pick our top highlights from this new box set instead.
10. ‘That Lady’
Where to start with this classic? Well, lets start with the fact that it re-launched the Isley Brothers career, injecting the rock influences of Jimi Hendrix into the sweet vocal harmonies of group. Released in 1973 on their 3+3 album, this was the first to feature the talents of the younger Isleys and Chris Jasper. This infusion of younger blood into the group redefined the group’s sound, and it gave them one of their biggest hits of their career. More importantly, the song has undoubtedly stood the test of time. Listening to it today it still sounds fresh and exciting, and it still remains a source of inspiration for the artists of today: take Kendrick Lamar for instance who has just sampled this on his new album. But it is the Isley’s version that we love. Ronald’s soaring vocals, O’Kelly and Rudolph’s tender harmonies, Marvin’s funky bass, and of course Ernie’s incredible guitar solo, all combine to create something truly magic. This is undeniably one of the all-time greatest soul songs released.
9. ‘Go All The Way’ & ‘Say You Will’
Yes we know, these are two selections. But they do appear on the same album, 1980’s Go All The Way, a fairly decent Isley Brothers album that went under the radar after it’s release. Nonetheless, it has some great moments, particularly the title track and the following number, ‘Say You Will’. The former is a fabulously funky, up-tempo groove clearly written in the mold of ‘That Lady’. The latter is an equally fabulous tune, a mid-tempo, funky ballad that finds Ronald in perfect voice (although, to be fair, we’ve never heard him sound bad), with the rest of the Isleys following suit. Ernie’s wailing guitar is once again present, and Marvin’s slap-bass is delightfully subtle. The chorus is particularly catchy, making it a fairly memorable tune. Although it may not be well known, it’s nonetheless a pretty good song.
8. ‘Lay Lady Lay’
Whilst The Isley Brothers were particularly talented songwriters, they also knew how to reinvent songs written by others. Take their cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Lay Lady Lay’; the Isleys craft a smooth, soulful reinterpretation of a classic with Ronald once again in beautiful voice. Indeed, this cover is simply gorgeous. The harmony between the three elder Isleys is a delight to hear, with the stripped back acoustic instrumentation allows Ronald to really explore his incredible vocal abilities. This version of ‘Lay Lady Lay’ is arguably one of the finest recordings, injecting that Isley musical magic into the songwriting talents of Bob Dylan.
7. Harvest For The World
This is certainly one of The Isley Brothers’ most underappreciated songs. Whilst the song appears to get slightly more recognition here in the UK than the US (indeed, Brit-Funk legends Incognito have just released a new live version of the song), it appears to have been sadly lost in the group’s back catalogue. This is a terrible shame for ‘Harvest For The World’ is one of the Isley’s best. Not only does the song poses the big philosophical question of exactly when will there be a harvest for the world, it takes a less rock-infused approach in favour of a more acoustic, stripped back track. Again, Ronald’s vocals are simply incredible, sounding effortlessly stunning. Ernie and Chris meanwhile prove themselves to be equally talented, with Chris’ keys sounding great and Ernie’s acoustic guitar sounding better than anything Ed Sheeran has ever managed. Take a listen, and prepare to be amazed.
6. ‘It’s Your Thing’
Part of the most interesting section of the history of The Isley Brothers is their brief spell being signed to Motown Records. Whilst at the Detroit label, the elder Isleys had some solid single releases such as ‘Behind A Painted Smile’ and ‘This Old Heart of Mine’, both becoming Northern Soul classics. Yet, frustrated with the lack of attention and restrictions on their own creativity, the group left Motown in 1969 order to form their own label T-Neck, striking up a distribution deal with Buddah Records. Indeed, the Motown recordings are conspicuously missing from this box set, likely due to the company’s draconian copyright policies.
After leaving Motown, The Isley Brothers released the funky hit ‘It’s Your Thing’ from the album It’s Our Thing. The song saw the group switch from the more Northern Soul-oriented sound of ‘Behind A Painted Smile’ to the funkier elements of soul inspired by artists such as James Brown and Sly Stone. The song is a delectable bit of late-sixties funk, featuring a memorable guitar riff provided by Memphis studio legend Charles ‘Skip’ Pitts, who would later find success as Isaac Hayes’ go-to guitarist. The success of the song would cement the Isley’s in soul music history, and would earn them a Grammy Award.
5. ‘Let’s Make Love Tonight’
By the mid-eighties tensions within the group were beginning to show, primarily the result over conflict of the group’s musical direction: the younger Isleys sought to embrace the new sounds of the decade, whilst the older Isleys more skeptical. Nevertheless, the six came together one final time in 1983 to produce one of their most memorable albums in Between The Sheets. The album largely leaves behind the rock-infused soul of ‘That Lady’, choosing instead a more soulful approach, being heavy on the ballads and rather drippy on the love. That said, it’s worth checking out simply for Ronald’s incredible vocal performances, none if which are more excellent than on ‘Let’s Make Love Tonight’. This song and album marks the growing dominance that Ronald would have over the future direction of the band, choosing the ballads over the up-tempo grooves.
Soon after the release of Between The Sheets the younger Isleys would form Isley-Jasper-Isley and have the hit ‘Caravan of Love’, whilst the elder three Isleys would release the album Masterpiece before O’Kelly’s young death and Rudolph’s retirement from the business. Eventually Ernie and Marvin would rejoin Ronald, but by then the Isleys were all about the heard on ‘Let’s Make Love Tonight’, rather than the funky grooves of ‘That Lady’
4. ‘That Lucky Old Sun’
Taken from the Shout album originally released way back in 1959, this gospel-infused version ‘That Lucky Old Sun’ is simply stunning. Ronald Isley’s unmistakable voice is beautiful, as are the harmonies of O’Kelly and Rudolph, and it’s interesting to hear this early incarnation of the group attempting to find their own sound. If you do check out this song and album then you’ve also go to check out their version, or rather the original version, of ‘Shout’ the song that really launched the group’s career, and remains a fan favourite over fifty years later.
3. ‘Brown Eyed Girl’
This is another brilliant cover from the Isleys on the follow up album to 3+3, entitled Live It Up. The album largely continues in the successful format of 3+3, with the title song being an effective remake of ‘That Lady’. Yet this cover is particularly sweet in comparison to Van Morrison’s grittier, slightly faster-paced original. Ronald’s vocals are soothing, and Ernie’s guitar playing is equally sweet, combining to make a really fine cover of another classic song.
2. The Isleys Live LP
This album was originally released in 1971, marking the inclusion of Marvin and Ernie Isley as part of the line-up. Shamefully, this record has been out-of-issue for several years, and whilst it did make it onto CD it has been a particularly difficult record to acquire. The album was recorded live at the famous Bitter End venue in New York City, providing the album with an intimacy that many other live records sadly lack. The set includes the brilliant opener of ‘Work To Do’, which instantly showcases Ernie’s incredible guitar chops, as well as Ronald’s powerful vocals. Furthermore, it is worth checking is the groups rendition of ‘It’s Your Thing’, again demonstrating Ernie’s spectacular guitar skills; also check out their version of ‘Love The One Your With’, interpreted beautifully by the group.
1.Wild in Woodstock: The Isley Brothers Live in Bearsville Sound Studio 1980
This is truly the highlight of the new collection. Back in 1980 the group set out to record a live album, but instead of recording live in front of a crowd the group recorded their live set in a studio, and audience applause was to be dubbed in over the top. Thankfully that never happened, and the album was shelved; to record a ‘live’ album in this manner would have been a travesty. That said, the performance of the group on this recording is incredible and captures the magic of The Isley Brothers in performance. The set opener, ‘That Lady’, is reproduced exquisitely sounding very similar to the record, with Ernie’s guitar solo being a true delight. ‘Say You Will’ is also delivered brilliantly, as are versions of ‘Fight The Power’ and ‘It’s a Disco Night’. But the true highlights are the ballads ‘For The Love of You’ and the twelve minute epic version of ‘Summer Breeze’, both sung beautifully by Ronald backed by the wonderful harmonies of O’Kelly and Rudolph, with Chris, Marvin and Ernie providing the musical accompaniment, as well as an unnamed drummer and percussionist.
For fans of The Isley Brothers it is great to have a ‘live’ performance of the 3+3 line-up finally on record: whilst a nineties recording of Marvin, Ernie and Ronald exists, taken from the North Sea Jazz festival, it lacks the finesse of this recording, partially thanks the poor mixing and production. But now we have this brilliant release, it’s just a shame we had to wait so long to hear it.
Despite all the trials and tribulations the Isley Brothers have endured, the group has remained one of the most successful soul acts, with Ronald and Ernie still delighting fans on tour today. Ronald has also released two solo albums, and a brilliant album in collaboration with Burt Bacharach. Chris Jasper has carved out a solo career for himself, releasing several albums to much acclaim from the soul community; Rudolph meanwhile retired from the business to become a minister. O’Kelly sadly passed away in 1986 at the age of 48 of heart attack after beating cancer; Marvin died due to complications of diabetes at the age of 53 in 2010. As demonstrated by this mammoth new box set, the legacy and music of the Isley Brothers continues today, and they will remain to be a source of enjoyment for millions around the world for many more years to come.
The new box set ‘The Isley Brothers – The RCA Victor & T-Neck Album Masters (1959-1983)’ is available to purchase on Amazon, with the digital album versions being available on iTunes. Most of the re-issed albums are also available to stream on Spotify.