I spent last weekend in New Jersey. It’s always good to be back in my home state, but I’m beginning to wonder if there’s a place for me there, if I still fit in. It’s been over four years since I moved to Rhode Island, and each time I go back to NJ I feel a little more removed from the place that I lived for nearly my entire life. This week I’m going to take a look at the Isley Brothers, a group that was not from NJ, but eventually made the Garden State their home. It was while they were headquartered in NJ that they had some of their greatest success. There must be something in the air.
The Isleys were originally from Cincinnati. O’Kelly, Ronald, Rudolph, and Vernon Isley put the group together in 1954 to sing gospel music. Sadly, Vernon died a couple of years after they started singing. In the late ’50s the remaining brothers decided to move to New York and sing secular music. There they hooked up with producer George Goldner, and hit regional hits with records like “Angels Cry,” and “The Cow Jumped Over the Moon,” for small labels like Teenage, Cindy, and Mark X.
In 1959, the Isley Brothers live show included a cover of Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops,” which they would extend into a kind of gospel/doo wop rave up. When the group was signed to RCA Records that year they translated that live performance into a record called “Shout.” Believe it or not, the song which has become iconic was not much of a hit when it was released. It only made #47 on the Billboard Hot 100, and somehow never made the R&B chart at all.
The Isleys released more singles for RCA, but they didn’t hit either, and in 1961 the brothers left the label. Eventually they ended up at Scepter Records where they finally hit the Top 40 with the Bert Berns classic “Twist & Shout.” The record spent 19 weeks on the chart, reaching #2 on the R&B chart, and #17 on the pop chart.
Then it was Jersey time. The Isleys moved across the river in 1964 and set up their own T-Neck label. Around that time their live band included one Jimi Hendrix on lead guitar. Hendrix can be heard on the studio recordings “Testify,” and “Move On Over and Let Me Dance.” Despite a distribution deal with Atlantic Records, neither T-Neck single was a hit, and Hendrix left the group in 1965.
Motown Records was the next stop for the Isleys, and early in 1966 they had a hit for the label with “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You).” Unfortunately, follow up success proved elusive, and the brothers left Motown in 1968. They got T-Neck Records on its feet again and signed a distribution deal with Buddha Records. Before long the Isleys had another hit with “It’s Your Thing.” In 1969 the single went to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, and to #2 on the R&B chart. It was their second million seller (“Shout” eventually did catch on), and earned the Isleys a Grammy.
“It’s Your Thing” also marked the first appearance of younger brother Marvin Isley on an Isley Brothers record. Marvin played bass, and by 1971 he had been joined by another brother, Ernie, as well as brother-in-law Chris Jasper in the band. The young guys began to influence the sound of the Isley Brothers. They took rock songs and added their own funk and gospel influences to turn them into something new. This new groove can be heard on the Isley’s cover of Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With.”
In 1973 the Isleys left Buddha and entered into a new distribution deal with Epic Records. Ernie, Marvin, and Chris became permanent members of the band. That year the group released the appropriately titled 3 + 3 which included the hits “That Lady,” and their cover of Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze.” “That Lady” wasn’t new in 1973. In fact, the Isleys had been performing the Impressions-influenced song since 1964, and had even released it as a single that year under the title “Who’s That Lady.” That record was produced by Bert Berns, but it failed to make the Top 100. Then the rock era intervened, and influential groups like Santana came to the fore. The Isleys heard what was going on, and when they went into the studio to remake “Who’s That Lady” they equipped the record with Latin percussion, and guitar and organ solos.
The younger guys wrote the instrumental passages, and the older guys created new harmonies for the occasion. Ronald’s lead vocal on the new version was noticeably smoother than his take in 1964, and Ernie’s Hendrix/Santana-inspired guitar solo became a defining element of the Isley Brothers sound during this era. “That Lady” was released as a two-sided single divided into Part 1 and Part 2. The album version of the song was over five minutes long, but the single version was pared down to a radio-friendlier 3:09. It was the first Top 10 hit for the Isley Brothers since “It’s Your Thing” four years earlier, reaching #6 on the pop chart, and #2 on the R&B chart. The single sold over two million copies.
The Live It Up album went gold in 1975, and it was followed by double-platinum The Heat Is On, the first time the Isley Brothers hit the top spot on the pop album chart. Successive albums Harvest for the World, Go For Your Guns, and Showdown all went either gold or platinum, and spawned Top 40 singles. In 1983 the six member lineup of the group released a final album, Between the Sheets. It sold two million copies.
Success began to take its toll as it often does with bands. Ernie, Marvin, and Chris Jasper left to form Isley-Jasper-Isley. The original three, Kelly, Ronald, and Rudy Isley, signed with Warner Brothers Records in 1985. They released an album called Masterpiece but soon after its released the group suffered a shattering blow when Kelly died of a heart attack. Ron and Rudy carried on, putting out a couple of albums, but then Rudy retired from the music business to enter the ministry.
After a short break, Ron put the group back together again, enlisting Ernie and Marvin back into the fold. In the ’90s the group released the albums Tracks of Life and Mission to Please. In the same year, 1996, that Mission to Please was released, Marvin’s music career came to and end when he had to have both legs amputated as a result of diabetes. Ron and Ernie soldiered on. In fact, they had their biggest album in years with 2001’s Eternal, which sold two million copies and included the Top 20 single “Contagious.” That success made the Isley Brothers the only group to have Top 100 hits in each of six decades.
Ron had some tax problems and went to prison for a few years. While he was away, Ernie toured with the Experience Hendrix project. Ron got out of prison in 2010 and continues to tour with Ernie. Marvin died in 2010 after his long battle with diabetes.
The Isley Brothers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2003.