The Isley Brothers - Biography

By Lee Hildebrand


           During a recording career that spanned a half century (1957-2007), The Isley Brothers—originally a vocal trio comprised of Cincinnati-born siblings O’Kelly Jr., Rudolph, and lead singer Ronald—managed to keep their records on the charts by changing with and adapting to the musical times. In the 1960s, they were a show-stopping stand-up act that jumped from label to label, working with such songwriter-producers as Bert Berns and Holland-Dozier-Holland. The Isley's refashioned their style during the next decade, producing mostly original material for their own T-Neck label. With the addition of younger brothers Ernie on guitar and Marvin on bass, plus Rudolph’s brother-in-law Chris Jasper on keyboards, The Isley Brothers became a brand of molten, rock-tinged funk that transformed them into an arena-headlining band.


            The sons of O’Kelly Isley Sr. and the former Sallye Bernice Bell, O’Kelly Jr.—later known simply as Kelly—was born on December 25, 1937; Rudolph on April 1, 1939; and Ronald on May 21, 1941. These three—along with younger brother Vernon (who died in 1954)—began singing gospel music as children, with their mother supplying piano accompaniment. In 1956, the surviving trio caught a Greyhound to New York City. Their debut recording, “Angels Cried”/“Cow Jumped over the Moon,” was issued in 1957 on the Teenage label. The siblings started turning heads with their energetic stage act at such leading black theaters along the so-called “chitlin’ circuit” like the Apollo in Harlem, the Uptown in Philadelphia, the Royal in Baltimore, and the Howard in Washington, D.C. The Isley's recorded for George Goldner in 1958, with four unsuccessful singles appearing on his Cindy, Gone, and Mark-X labels—all of them produced by Richard Barrett.


            The Isley Brothers’ big break came in 1959 when they signed with RCA Victor Records and were placed with producers Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore. The two-part “Shout!” evolved from a wild call-and-response gospel interaction that they had shared with the crowd when concluding their stage rendition of Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops.” The song was a minor pop hit in 1960, peaking at #47 on Billboard’s pop chart but failing to penetrate the trade magazine’s R&B list. “Shout!” quickly became a staple in the repertoires of other groups, including Joey Dee and The Starliters, whose 1962 version on Roulette Records became a #6 pop charter. “Shout!” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.


            The trio had little luck at Atlantic Records, where they recorded four singles in 1961. They then moved to Wand Records, where a 1962 treatment of the Latin-flavored Bert Berns/Phil Medley tune “Twist and Shout”—originally recorded for Atlantic by The Top Notes—became a #2 R&B, #17 pop hit. The Beatles famously revived the song two years later, taking it to # 2 on the pop chart. The brothers then turned up on United Artists, where the four singles they released were met with little fanfare. In 1964, the group launched its own label, T-Neck, named for their place of residence, Teaneck, New Jersey. On the self-produced “Testify,” their guitarist at the time, Jimi Hendrix, performs  a screaming solo. It flopped, as did their next three T-Neck productions, issued on the Atlantic label. This would signal a temporary end to T-Neck.


            The Isley’s fortunes improved temporarily after signing with Motown in 1966. The first of eight singles on the company’s Tamla label, “This Old Heart of Mine,” written and produced by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland, was a #4 R&B, #12 pop hit in 1966, but none of the others cracked the R&B Top 10 or the pop Top 40. But all that changed once they reactivated the T-Neck label in 1969. The Isley’s produced a #1 R&B, #2 pop hit with “It’s Your Thing,” a funky group-penned tune on which younger brother Ernie (born March 7, 1952) played bass. The group would maintain a consistent presence on the charts for the next 14 years with their T-Neck releases, at first distributed by Buddah and, beginning in 1973, by CBS. During the Buddah period, they not only scored with such original songs as “I Turned You On”  (1969), “Lay-Away” (1972), and “Pop That Thing” (1972), but also with inventive reworkings of rock tunes like Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” (1971), Eric Burden and War’s “Spill the Wine” (1971) and Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” (1971).


            The group’s initial CBS-distributed album, 3 + 3 (1973 T-Neck), announced the official arrival of younger brothers Ernie and Marvin Isley and brother-in-law Chris Jasper. It was the first of 10 albums to go gold for the sextet, of which three—#6 Go for Your Guns (1977 T-Neck), #4 Showdown (1978 T-Neck), and #8 Go All the Way (1980 T-Neck) —also went platinum. With Ronald’s soaring gospel tenor in the forefront and Ernie providing blistering Hendrix-inspired guitar lines, this iteration of the Isley’s enjoyed one hit song after another, most of them six-way writing collaborations, with one notable exception being a 1975 cover of Seals and Crofts’ “Summer Breeze.” Among the hits that were group written were “That Lady” (1973),”What It Comes Down To” (1973), “Live it Up” (1974), “Midnight Sky” (1974), “Fight the Power” (1975, which hit #1 R&B/#4 pop), “For the Love of You” (1975), “Who Loves You Better” (1976), “Harvest for the World” (1976), “The Pride” (1977), and “Livin’ the Life” (1977). They hit #1 on the R&B charts with “Take Me to the Next Phase” (1978), “I Wanna Be with You” (1979), and “Don’t Say Goodnight (It’s Time for Love)” (1980), and charted highly with “Inside You” (1981), “Between the Sheets” (1983), and “Choosey Lover” (1983). It would be hard to find a better decade of commercial success anywhere in the music world than what the Isley’s shared during this span.


            Ernie, Chris, and Marvin broke away from the group in 1984 to form Isley-Jasper-Isley and had an R&B chart-topper with the following year’s “Caravan of Love” on the CBS Associated label. The original trio joined Warner Bros. in 1985, but Kelly died of a heart attack in 1986 and Rudolph left three years later to become a preacher. Besides continuing to score hits under the group banner—the biggest being “Smooth Sailin’ Tonight” from Smooth Sailin’ (1987 Warner Bros.) and “Spend the Night” from the album by the same name (1989 Warner Bros.)—Ronald teamed up with Rod Stewart for a remake of “This Old Heart of Mine” in 1990, and with future wife Angela Winbush on the “Lay Your Troubles Down.” In 1993, The Isley Brothers—comprising Ronald, Ernie, and Marvin—recorded a live album for Elektra, for which Ernie had cut a solo album three years earlier. Ronald and Ernie were featured on R. Kelly’s #1 R&B, #4 pop hit “Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)” in 1996, the year the Isley’s joined Island Records. They released Mission To Please (1996 Island) and scored with the R. Kelly-penned-and-produced “Let’s Lay Together” (from the soundtrack of Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood), as well as with that year’s “Floatin’ on Your Love” and “Tears.” Marvin retired in 1997 at 44 yeas old due to the diabetes-related amputation of both legs. 


            R. Kelly fashioned an OG (original gangsta) character for Ronald Isley called Mr. Biggs, and the name stuck, helping give the singer credibility with the hip-hop set and hits into the new millennium. In 2001, The Isley Brothers—now comprising Ronald and Ernie—scored a #3 R&B/#19 pop with “Contagious,” a DreamWorks single written by Kelly. The two remaining brothers went on to score at #14 R&B with “What Would You Do?” on DreamWorks in 2003 and with “Just Came Here to Chill” on Def Soul Classics in 2006. They had three huge albums during the decade: the #3 pop/#1 R&B Eternal (2001 DreamWorks), the #1 pop/#1 R&B Body Kiss (2003 DreamWorks), and the #5 pop/#1 R&B Baby Makin’ Music (2006 Def Soul Classics).


            Ronald suffered a mild stroke while touring England in 2004 and was later diagnosed with kidney cancer, although he continued recording. In 2006, he was sentenced to prison for income tax evasion, and is scheduled to be released from the Federal Correctional Institute at Terre Haute, Indiana, in 2010. A final Isley Brothers album, I’ll Be Home for Christmas, was issued by Def Soul Classics in 2007.


            The Isley Brothers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.


            Thirty-four of the group’s hits, from “Twist and Shout” to “Down Low (Nobody Has to Know),” are collected on the two-CD The Essential Isley Brothers (2004 Sony Legacy). Fifty tracks, spanning the years 1959 to 1987 and including a few RCA Victor, Wand, Tamla, and Warner Bros. recordings, can be found on the three-CD box It’s Your Thing: The Story of The Isley Brothers (1999 Sony Legacy).

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