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Reissue spotlights the underrated achievements of the Isleys

By Ron Wynn

SEPTEMBER 7, 1999:  The Isley Brothers are arguably R&B's most versatile unit; they've scored hits during the doo-wop, soul, funk, and urban eras, constantly adjusting to and helping usher in changes on the musical landscape. They were among the first self-contained R&B and funk bands, and helped pioneer the acceptance of rock influences in black pop music. Yet they've seldom been acknowledged as innovators and are applauded more for their longevity than for the scope of their achievements.

Despite celebrating their 40th anniversary last year and being voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, the Isley Brothers aren't viewed in the same light as Billy Ward & The Dominoes or The Temptations. They're customarily regarded as caretakers of the R&B tradition, rather than members of its vanguard. Ronnie Isley, a marvelous ballad stylist and great shouter, has not been widely recognized as a great lead vocalist, nor has Ernie Isley been acknowledged as one of R&B's premier guitarists and session musicians.

A new three-disc boxed set on Sony's Legacy imprint may help correct matters. Contrary to label publicity, It's Your Thing: The Story of the Isley Brothers is not the first retrospective of the group's career--Rhino issued The Isley Brothers Story, Vols. 1 & 2 in 1991--but it provides a more exhaustive portrait of their music. The set compiles material from every period, including three formative doo-wop singles cut in 1957 and 1958. The track selection moves through periods when the Isleys sang gospel-based soul, then electrified funk and rock-disco, before settling into their current identities as urban balladeers. Along the way, the brothers survived family tragedies and internal conflicts while operating their own record label from 1969 to 1983. More important, It's Your Thing undeniably demonstrates that the Isleys stayed on the R&B cutting edge longer than many other groups with higher profiles.

O'Kelly, Rudolph, Ronald, and Vernon formed the first edition of the Isleys in the early '50s, assisted by younger brothers Ernie and Marvin. They performed weekly at the First Baptist Church in Cincinnati and became so famous regionally that they were urged to join the ranks of other gospel singers such as Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson, who were becoming famous by moving into secular music. They almost never took that step; when Vernon Isley was killed in a 1954 motorcycle accident, the other brothers stopped performing out of grief. Their parents insisted they resume, and Ronald, Rudolph, and O'Kelly (later Kelly) regrouped as a trio. They moved to New York in 1957 and began their careers at sessions supervised by Richard Barrett. In 1969, they were joined by Ernie and Marvin, as well as Rudolph's brother-in-law Chris Jasper, and shifted from a strict gospel-tinged singing ensemble into a full-blown band with instrumental backing.

The group's early days, along with '60s dates for RCA, Wand, United Artists, Motown, and their own label T-Neck, form the bulk of the set's first disc. Included are their first definitive singles, "Shout" and "Twist and Shout," both superb secular gospel, along with "This Old Heart of Mine" and "Take Me in Your Arms," which deserved a better fate than they enjoyed on Motown. There are also such oddities as the Isleys' disastrous rendition of "Time After Time," in which they tried their hand at jazz-flavored pop, plus novelty cuts like "Move Over and Let Me Dance" and "Rockin' McDonald."

Also on the disc are the first, slower version of "Who's That Lady," which bombed on United Artists in 1964, and their first No. 1 R&B single, "It's Your Thing" from 1969. The latter was not only the Isleys' initial crossover hit, it ushered in an American catch phrase and signaled the arrival of funk and electric instruments in black pop music.

While a lot has been written about the time Jimi Hendrix spent with the band, in truth he had more influence on Ernie than the rest of the group. The two singles with Hendrix are decent period pieces; "Testify (Pts. 1 &2)" offers more explosive group harmony than Hendrix licks, though you hear traces of the explosiveness that came later.

The second disc chronicles the Isleys' emergence as major R&B players, hit-makers, and pop stars. "Live It Up," "Midnight Sky," the remake of "That Lady," and "Fight the Power" not only filled dance floors, they also showed that tunes with lengthy rock solos wouldn't turn off R&B and soul fans. The Isleys also proved that black audiences would embrace creative remakes of folk and pop tunes; perhaps that's because Ronnie Isley never diluted his sound, whether covering James Taylor's "Fire and Rain," Stephen Stills' "Love the One You're With," or Todd Rundgren's "Hello It's Me." Meanwhile, Ernie Isley lit things up with blistering guitar, booming drums, hot bass, and the occasional keyboard riff. The group's arrangements made their songs natural for clubs; the rhythms were raw and energetic, and the compositions included enough breaks and movements to keep dancers rocking.

The final disc is the most inconsistent, chronicling the group as it began floundering during the '80s. There are still some magnificent cuts like "Harvest for the World" and "Take Me to the Next Phase" (though Legacy has included an alternate take that lacks the original's intensity), as well as a wonderful cover of Curtis Mayfield's "I'm So Proud" and the above-average urban ballads "Smooth Sailin' Tonight" and "Between the Sheets." But tension between the older and younger brothers led to the defection of Ernie and Marvin Isley, along with Chris Jasper. "Caravan of Love," the trio's lone hit as Isley-Jasper-Isley, is among the disc's 15 selections, but the fact that this set rounds out the track selection with four unreleased live sessions and another alternate take indicates how much the split affected the Isleys.

Kelly Isley's death in 1990 reduced the original trio to a duo; Ernie and Marvin rejoined the ranks, and they've continued periodic recording, though Ronald Isley has worked more lately with R. Kelly and Angela Winbush. Even if the Isleys' latter-day output is less than impressive, this three-disc anthology offers vivid evidence that they belong in the pantheon of R&B giants--not because they've survived so long, but because they've created extraordinary music.

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