Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Miracle of the Isleys

“That Lady” blows your face off. Its rhythm guitar struts its way out of the gate, soon to be joined by Ernie Isley’s searing lead. Ronald Isley’s vocal, buffeted by a chorus of his brothers, is the equivalent Ron's arched eyebrow--leering, but needy below that. Stuttering Latin percussion sets the thing on fire, and the three minute guitar solo that closes the song is a jaw-dropper--a shimmering vortex of energy that gives Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Hazel a run for their money. It’s a funk monster, a band rebapitzed in electricity and groove.

1973, when The Isley Brother released “That Lady” as a single from 3 + 3, was a time of seismic change for the band. Look at that album jacket--the one with them in slick, cowboy-pimp costumes--and the evidence is there. The title itself alludes to a handful of new band members. And on the back, there’s the record label: T-Neck Records.

They couldn’t have chosen a better song to kick off their new era. “That Lady” is a rewrite of 1964 single by none other than The Isley Brothers. Their first stab at the song, titled “Who’s That Lady,” failed to chart. Responding to the rise of The Impressions, the song has a gentle, samba-like lilt. It’s elevator music, absolutely eviscerated by the 1973 version.

Fuck, it was even eviscerated by their next single. Also from 1964, “Testify” is a bluesy rave-up. In addition to being a startlingly funky song for 1964 (“Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” wouldn’t arrive for another year), it also features the first recorded appearance of a young Jimi Hendrix. His guitar threatens to engulf “Testify,” and it wasn’t long before Hendrix and the Isleys parted ways.

“Testify” was the first single released on T-Neck Records, the label the Isleys set up to release their own music. At the time, the three Isley Brothers, O’Kelly, Rudolph, and Ronald, were living in Teaneck, New Jersey, a few miles outside the Bronx. They named their new label after their new hometown. But T-Neck didn’t last for long, with the brothers quickly bolting for Atlantic, Veep, and, finally, Berry Gordy’s Tamla.

Which should have been great, but the journeymen brothers never really clicked in Motown. Aside from one hit, the classic “This Old Heart of Mine,”* there was a string of middling successes. The Isleys felt like they weren’t getting the best songs that Motown had to offer. So they left, went back to T-Neck.**

In 1973, T-Neck inked a deal with Epic Records to distribute their music, a bit like the one Philadelphia International had with CBS. The Isleys now had the independence of being their own bosses, along with the public platform and national distribution a major could provide.

At the same time, the Isley Brothers officially added three new members: Ernie Isley, Marvin Isley and Chris Jasper (a brother-in-law of the Isleys). It was a pretty momentous change for a group that had been a trio since 1957. The three new members, and in particular Ernie and Chris, became the group's primary songwriters.

I made a Spotify playlist of these dudes' brilliant work. Check it out.

And the new kids are all over “That Lady,” which they rewrote (funkified might be a better word). The older Isleys harnessed their energy, switching up their vocals into an intoxicating melange. The end result was magic--the best song on the very strong 3 + 3. That title, by the way, referred to the three original Isleys adding three new members.

The Isleys' new freedom and new members sparked a revolution in their sound. It’s a remarkable change for a group whose roots date back to gospel and doo wop. The Isleys had been around for so long by 1973 that it had been a decade since their “Twist and Shout” inspired the Beatles. The Fab Four were toast by '73, but the six Isleys were hanging tough.

R&B had its fair share of vets who rolled with the times, from geniuses like James Brown and Marvin Gaye to the Wilson Picketts and Joe Texes of the scene (who are also amazing, don’t get me wrong). But even in that world, the Isleys' career is remarkable. They were a band, first of all, who kept up with the times by calling on their own family members. It didn't hurt that the new bandmembers were younger.

And, like Brown and Gaye, they found a way to pursue their vision without pesky label oversight. Owning their label allowed the brothers an artistic freedom most journeymen R&B acts never saw. Their vision wasn’t as radical as, say, Sly Stone's, which is perhaps why it’s overlooked today.*** That's no reason to ignore it.

My esteemed colleague first pointed me to their incredible run from 1973 to 1978, writing to me that:
the era between 3 + 3 [1973] and Showdown [1978] constitutes one of the greatest six album runs in history. Seriously listen to all of these: Live It Up, The Heat is On, Harvest for the World, Go For Your Guns, Showdown
He’s right. If you told me that a band wielded the sick funk of P-Funk, deep grooves of Stevie Wonder, and smoothness of the finest Yacht Rock****, I’d say that surely that band released blockbuster after blockbuster, and has earned its place among the soul celestials.

Not quite, but the Isley Brothers deserve it. I can't do justice to the range of their 70’s material, which runs the gamut from funk beasts to quaking quiet storm. There’s a sharpness to the way the older brothers’ vocals play off one another. Ronald Isley, quite shy in real life, is a commandingly soulful lead. Chris Jasper’s keyboards stomp, simmer and slice across these albums. And Ernie Isley is one of the great R&B guitarists, hands down. Listen to the way he tears up the back halves of "That Lady," "Who Loves You Better" and "Midnight Sky."

During their six-album run, the Isleys surrounded themselves with talented people. On the first four of these albums, they worked with engineers Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff in LA. That team were early explorers of the synthesizer, and helped Stevie Wonder harness its power on his early 70's classics (Cecil would later work with Gil Scott-Heron). One of the wonderful things about the Isley's run is that they toyed with R&B's new sandbox in always ecstatic, often conventional songs. Chris Jasper wasn't the first dude to deploy swamps of clavinet on his jams, but damn if they don't sound good.

So do yourself a favor a get 3 +3Live It Up, The Heat is On, Harvest for the World, Go For Your Guns, and Showdown. A lot of these are easily found (and inexpensive) at used record stores. And if whoever owns the rights to these songs is reading this--you could certainly bring some attention to what NS rightfully calls "one of the greatest six album runs in history" with a box set. Give it the Harry Nilson treatment.

Of course, one group has been light years ahead in keeping the legacy alive: hip-hop producers. Isley Brothers samples could sustain an entire series of blog posts, but suffice to say Public Enemy, Biggie, Salt-N-Pepa, De La Soul, Nas, Jay-Z, the Beastie Boys and OutKast have all rapped over Isleys samples. Personally, I love the way UGK flips "Ain't I Been Good To You" into the paranoid slow drip of "One Day." And DJ Pooh's repurposing of the paranoid "Footsteps In The Dark" into the ultimate cruising anthem, Ice Cube's "It Was A Good Day," is immortal.

R. Kelly deserves the gold star in terms of reppping the Isleys, having starred alongside Ron Isley several times in their Mr. Biggs song cycle. Isley plays Biggs in the songs and videos, who challenges the younger Kells for the affections of a lady. It's not "Who Loves You Better," but the songs are always fun.

It's a late career curio for the Isley Brothers. But these 70's albums are no curio, they're the vital work of R&B giants. Seek them out.

*I’m compelled to mention that Rod Stewart does an incredible cover of “This Old Heart of Mine” on Atlantic Crossing (with Booker T and the MGs behind him). Stewart and Ronald Isley would later hook up for a remarkably dated remake in 1990.

**The pre-Epic T-Neck years (1969-1973) aren’t the focus here, but suffice to say that in this time period they did record some classic shit before going back to T-Neck.

***But don't underestimate the way Ron Isley spits out bullshit in "Fight The Power." It caused problems for radio programmers, and was pretty rare for 1975. Asked why he swore--which surprised the rest of the band--Ron just said "because it needed to be said." "Power" was written by Ernie Isley the same day as the similarly political "Harvest For The World." And, for what it's worth, 1977's "Tell Me When You Need It Again" sounds like something from Fresh, and the bass on 1978's "Ain't Givin' Up No Love" is like a less drugged-out "Thank You For Talkin' To Me Africa."

****The Isleys cover of "Summer Breeze" goes down so smooth, after its gently psyched-out intro, that British DJs find themselves powerless before it whenever the weather gets nice.

1 comment:

  1. I love the Isley Bros.! So glad you guys made this post. I was afraid Rockaliser was dead Baby.

    I think my fave album is probably Givin' It Back. Most definitely the best cover album I have ever heard. "Lay Lady Lay", "Spill the Wine", and "Cold Bologna" are all jams I would sex to (especially "Cold Bologna" *wink).