Coming from a gospel background, the Isley Brothers successfully entertained several generations of R&B and rock and roll lovers.
The Isley family was from Cincinnati, Ohio, and the original group was a quartet consisting of four Isley sons of Kelly and Sallye Isley. They were Ronald (b. 5/21/41, lead), O’Kelly (b. 12/25/37), Rudolph (b. 4/1/39), and youngest brother Vernon.
In 1944, three-year-old Ronald won a $25 war bond for singing in a spiritual contest at the Union Baptist Church, and by the time he was seven he was singing on stage at the Regal Theatre alongside Dinah Washington and others. With their mother accompanying them, the Isleys toured churches throughout Kentucky and Ohio, but activities ground to a halt in the 1950’s when young Vernon was killed in a traffic accident. A year later their parents convinced them to regroup, and the trio set about crafting a balance of gospel, rhythm and blues, and doo wop into an energetic style.
In 1957 they left for New York with bus fare and $20 out of the family fund. A woman on the bus liked their harmonizing and recommended they see an agent in New York that she knew. The introduction allowed the teens to work and earn money for food and lodging.
Through their local shows they met Bill (Bass) Gordon, former lead singer of the Colonials (Gee, 1956) and owner of Teenage Records. He recorded the group and issued their first single, the doo wop, tenor-led ballad “The Angels Cried.”
A year later they crossed paths with George Goldner and recorded the Ron Isley-penned JESTERS/”So Strange” styled ballad “Don’t Be Jealous”
Three more Goldner singles (two on Gone and one on Mark-X) went nowhere. The group was then spotted by Howard Bloom of RCA at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., and in the spring of 1959 they signed with that label.
On July 29th the trio made the historic recording of “Shout, Parts I and II,” the song that epitomized the merging of gospel and rock and roll. With a high-energy rhythm, gospel shouts, insistent tambourines, Professor Herman Stephens (their hometown church organist) on the keys, and the Isleys’ now-famous “hey-ey-ey-ey” call-and-response section, “Shout” charted Pop on September 21, 1959, and reached number 47. It never made it to the R&B chart, but in years to come it sold over a million copies as a standard rock and roll oldie and became one of oldies radio’s most popular plays.
In 1962 it charted again (#94), but their other RCA releases didn’t fare as well even though they included such gospel rockers as “Respectable,” which the Outsiders (another Ohio group, this one from Cleveland) took to number 15 in 1966, and the rousing “Tell Me Who.”
They moved to Atlantic Records in 1961 and were produced by Leiber and Stoller, but they couldn’t come up with a commercial package for the group’s gospel power. Four singles failed. In 1962 the brothers switched over to Wand (a division of Florence Greenberg’s Scepter operation) and hit with a Bert Berns song and production called “Twist and Shout” (#17 Pop, #2 R&B, #42 U.K.). The Beatles made it a number two hit in 1964.
In 1964 the group set up their own T-Neck label named after the New Jersey city where they and their family now lived. They issued only one single at the time, “Testify, Parts I and II,” a recording that featured a 22-year-old touring band member named Jimi Hendrix on guitar.
By 1966 the Isleys had signed with Motown’s Tamla affiliate and recorded some of their best material, including the Holland , Dozier, and Holland song “This Old Heart of Mine” (#12 Pop, #6 R&B, #47 U.K.).
In 1968 the group toured England and “This Old Heart” was reissued for a chart climb to number three. The group wasn’t on Tamla anymore, so they resurrected T-Neck, arranged distribution through Neil Bogart’s Buddah label, and in 1969 hit with “It’s Your Thing,” which turned out to be their biggest record ever (#2 Pop,#1 R&B, #30 U.K.). Their It’s Your Thing LP eventually sold over two million copies.
Meanwhile, in the U.K. Tamla releases that did little in the U.S. began to hit the upper reaches of the charts. “I Guess I’ll Always Love You” hit number 11 in early 1969 and “Behind a Painted Smile” went to number five in the spring of 1969 – just two of the eventual charters the Isleys would accumulate in Britain.
By the fall of 1969 the family trio had been joined by brothers Marvin (bass), Ernie (Guitar and drums), and cousin Chris Jasper (keyboards).
The group began producing other acts for T-Neck like Dave “Baby” Cortez (of THE VALENTINES, Rama) and Judy White.
The also began covering rock and folk-rock material, adding their own gospel flavor to songs like Stephen Stills’s “Love the One You’re With” (#18 Pop, #3 R&B, 1971 and Bob Dylan’s “Lay, Lady, Lay” (#71 Pop, #29 R&B, 1971), while doing a whole LP of covers (Giving It Back) that included James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.”
In 1973, T-Neck moved from Buddah to Columbia and the initial release, “That Lady,” became on of their biggest hits (#6 Pop, #2 R&B).
From 1974 to 1984 the group scored 27 times on the R&B chart and 12 times on the Pop list with songs like Seals and Crofts’ “Summer Breeze” (#60 Pop, #10 R&B, 1974), “Fight the Power” (#4 Pop, #1 R&B, 1975), “The Pride” (#63 Pop, #1 R&B, 1977), “Take Me to the Next Place” (#1 R&B, 1978), “I Want to Be with You” (#1 R&B, 1979), and “Don’s Say Goodnight” (#39 Pop, #1 R&B, 1980).
In 1984 the younger brothers, Ernie and Marvin, along with cousin Chris, formed the Isley, Jasper, Isley group and hit number 51 in late 1985 with the gospel-influenced “Caravan of Love.” The House Martins in England did an a cappella version in 1986 and reached number one there. The split of the family into two groups may have taken the wind out of the original trio’s sales for a while but in late 1985 they mothballed T-Neck, signed with Warner Bros., and reached number 12 R&B with “Colder Are My Nights.”
On March 31, 1986, O’Kelly died of a heart attack at age 48, and little Isley Brother action happened after that.
A previous cut, “Smooth Sailing Tonight,” became their last top five R&B single (#3) in the spring of 1986, and in 1990 Ron Isley and Rod Stewart teamed up for a strong remake of “This Old Heart of Mine” (#10) Pop).
– Jay Warner