Friday, November 6, 2009

The Isley Brothers - Success at Its Best

By Robert D Hill

The original members of the Isley Brothers were O'Kelly Isley, Jr., Rudolph Isley and Ronald Isley. They were the elder sons of O'Kelly, Sr. and Sally Bell Isley, and were raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. The group was originally formed in 1957 as an African-American R&B band but also branched into soul music and funk. As a group, they had several lineups aside from the original trio - a quartet, a sextet and a duo over the years of their career.

The Isleys started their recording career with small labels, doing doo-wop and rock n' roll music, but in 1969 their brand of gritty sound and funk single titled "It's Your Thing" earned them their first Grammy Award. Before this, they had their taste of modest success with their singles such as "Shout", "Twist and Shout", and "This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)". They also had a short time collaborating with Jimi Hendrix as background guitar player.

Going back to the beginning, the Isley Brothers' were first exposed to the public at church performances. Kelly, Rudy, and Ron were taught by their parents to perform in front of audiences, and they later convinced the trio to form a new singing group in 1957. The group left Ohio for New York and started recording doo-wop music.

RCA Records noticed their performance at a Jackie Wilson concert, where they sang an opening number for the main act. RCA were impressed and signed them up. They started recording for RCA and "Shout" was the group's first single to hit the charts, reaching no.47 on the Billboard Hot 100. The group was released from their contract when it was not able to chart another hit after "Shout".

Their first top 40 single was "Twist and Shout", originally recorded by the Top Notes and later covered by The Beatles. This was recorded just after they signed with Wand Records in 1962. The group released other follow-ups but finally left Wand Records in 1964, moving to New Jersey and forming T-Neck Records. The anticipated level of success did not come with T-Neck so they signed with Motown under Tamla in 1965.

Their biggest Motown success came with "This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)", which Ron was later to record with Rod Stewart. It reached number 12 in the Hot 100 and no. 6 at R&B. However, history was repeated when they were unable to produce a successful follow-up, so in 1968 requested that Motown release them from their contract.

After discovering that they had a good fan-base in Britain, the Isley Brothers tried to break into Europe. They did tours in the UK, pushing their three Motown singles "This Old Heart", "Put Yourself in My Place", and "Behind a Painted Smile", the latter reaching the top 40. They returned to the United States with a new image and moved and signed in with Buddha Records.

They also revived the T-Neck label, and with Ernie on lead guitar the group recorded the gritty soul single "It's Your Thing". It became the group's biggest charting success, rising to no. 2 on the Billboard hot 100 and winning a Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performances by a Duo or Group.

Motown CEO Berry Gordy claimed that "It's Your thing" was recorded while they were still with his record label, and after several years of wrangling they reached an out-of-court settlement. The group's tenure with Buddha Records produced several albums, including "The Brothers: Isley", "Givin' It Back" and "Brother, Brother, Brother". Chris Davis, then CBS Records president offered the Isley Brothers a long term deal with Epic so they left Buddha in 1973.

In 1973, they reformed with six members, including younger brothers Ernie Isley and Marvin Isley and brother-in-law Chris Jasper. They called the band "3+3" for obvious reasons. The albums that earned them gold and platinum were titled "3+3", "The Heat Is On", "Go For Your Guns" and "Between The Sheets". Their hit singles include "That Lady", "Fight The Power", "For The Love Of You", "Don't Say Goodnight (It's Time For Love)" and "Between The Sheets", recorded from 1973 to 1983.

Their days as 3+3 were considered by many as the most successful of the different group reformations. Chris Jasper, Ernie and Marvin left in 1983 and formed the Isley-Jasper-Isley group, leaving Kelly, Rudy and Ron as the original line-up. They left Epic as a trio and joined Warner Bros. Records.

The three of them released "Masterpiece" in 1985, but Kelly died of a heart attack the following year, leaving Rudy and Ron. In 1987, they collaborated with producer Angela Winbush and dedicated their album "Smooth Sailin" which included the song "Sending a Message", as a tribute to Kelly's memory. Rudy left the group to become a minister, while Ron married Winbush. Carrying on a solo career, Ron worked with Rod Stewart on the remake of "This Old Heart of Mine".

In 1991, Ron reformed a trio with younger brothers Ernie and Marvin. They recorded the album "Tracks of Life" in 1992 and in that same year, the Isley Brothers, as a group, was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The group's popularity was significantly boosted by Ron Isley's music video character as lead singer in the hit album "Mission to Peace" in 1996. They reached the top of the charts with "Contagious", with its heavily rotated video. They held the record of being the only group to have a single and album in the charts over five decades, longer than any other group in the history of the charts, and all because of "Contagious" and "Eternal".

Marvin's battle with diabetes was a big blow to the group's career when he retired in 1997, and he had both legs amputated because of it. Rudy still lives with his wife Elaine in California, and little is heard about Chris Jasper and Ernie Isley. In 2006, Ron Isley was convicted of tax evasion and was imprisoned for taxes unpaid for the five years from 1997 to 2002, and during that period he was also diagnosed with kidney cancer. In 2003, The Isley Brothers were inducted to the Vocal Group Hall Of fame.

The Isley Brothers were a fabulous band and had many fans. They probably reformed in different guises more times than any other band, but their fans remained with them and they remain an iconic group. Age caught up with them, but it cannot be disputed that they rank up there with the other Tamla greats of the era, and are one of these bands that will never be forgotten.

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