SoulTracks 3 Minute Update: The Isley Brothers

 

Three Minute Update is the newest SoulTracks feature. It is designed to give classic soul fans to catch up with what’s going on with their favorite soul music artists of the 60s, 70s and 80s. All in three minutes. 

 

Three Minute Update is the newest SoulTracks feature. It is designed to give classic soul fans to catch up with what’s going on with their favorite soul music artists of the 60s, 70s and 80s. All in three minutes. 

The amalgamation of siblings and in-laws known as The Isley Brothers has withstood time, vast changes in musical styles, revolutionary developments in race relations and age to become by any measure one of the most important musical groups of the last sixty years. Formed in the mid-50s by brothers Ronald, Rudolph and O'Kelly Isley in their hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, the brothers struggled for several years as teenagers to score a hit record. They finally achieved national attention and a minor hit in 1959 with the ultimate rock classic "Shout" (which received a second life in the movie "Animal House") on RCA. They wouldn't have another hit for three years, when their cover of "Twist and Shout" became a hit (and later became a much bigger hit for the Beatles.

The brothers then signed with Motown and toiled through the mid-60s with only moderate success, as Motown tried to mold the Isleys into a "Motown Machine" group, generally unsuccessfully. They scored one major hit there, the classic "This Old Heart of Mine" (later reworked by Ronald with Rod Stewart), but mostly found frustration. The group left Motown in 1968, forming their own T-Neck label, and struck immediate gold with "It's Your Thing," a funky double-entendre that shot to the top of the pop and Soul charts. Younger brothers Marvin (bass), and Ernie (lead guitar) and brother-in-law Chris Jasper (keyboards) joined their backup band about this time, adding fresh funk and hard rock elements that completed what became the trademark Isley Brothers sound. In 1972 the group released its best album to date, Brother Brother Brother, a mixture of funky, percussive numbers and smooth, if ponderous, ballads that is still considered by many the seminal Isley Brothers album.

In 1973, the three younger members formally joined the group, and were introduced in 3+3, an out-of-the-box smash that featured the hard rocking rock and soul hit, "That Lady." This began a string of gold and platinum albums that elevated the Isley Brothers to the stratosphere of popular black music, making them perhaps one of the most important R&B acts of the 1970s and the first to successfully merge the funk sounds of Sly and the Family Stone with the electric rock work of former Isley guitarist Jimi Hendrix. 

The Isleys kept the hits coming for the rest of the decade. Funked up cuts "Live It Up," "Livin In The Life," "Harvest For the World," and "Take Me To The Next Phase," alternated with sweet, sexy ballads like "Groove With You," "Footsteps In The Dark" and "Voyage to Atlantis." 

In the 80s, the group’s popularity waned, and ultimately they split in two in 1984, with the younger three members forming Isley/Jasper/Isley (and hitting #1 with "Caravan of Love") for two years before themselves breaking up. The elder Isleys continued on, but brother O'Kelly died of a heart attack in 1986, and Rudolph left two years later to become a minister. The five living Isley members were present for the group’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.

Chris Jasper has continued on with a successful independent solo career, hitting #1 with the single “Superbad,” and issuing more than a dozen albums over the past 30 years. He received the SoulTracks Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020.

On and off since the early 90s Ronald and Ernie Isley have recorded and toured as The Isley Brothers (for several years with Brother Marvin, before he retired due to complications from diabetes. Sadly, he died in 2010). They have been particularly active of late. In 2021, they received some well-deserved celebration in the form of the "VERSUZ" web series with Earth, Wind & Fire. And they immediately followed with the hit single “Friends and Family,” hitting the top 10 on the adult soul charts even as Ron Isley hit age 80. They are now planning a tour with Chaka Khan and show no signs of slowing down.

By Chris Rizik

 

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