When the Isley Brothers take the stage Sunday as headliners at the AFRAM cultural and music celebration at Druid Hill Park in Baltimore, they will be the closing act of a weekend that largely showcased hip-hop performers.
Ronald Isley will be singing lead, as he did when the Isley Brothers were on stage at a Washington, D.C., concert 64 summers ago, in 1959.
Back then, as they performed their version of Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops,” Ronald Isley ad-libbed, “Wellllllll … you know you make me want to shout,” and brothers Rudy and O’Kelly joined in with improvised background vocals. The audience loved it, and music executives heard what happened and later released “Shout” as the Isley Brothers’ first rock and roll single.
While the song achieved only moderate success on the Billboard charts for the Isleys, other artists charted with it in the years that followed, and generations have sung along to the version performed by a cover band in the 1978 hit movie “Animal House.”
The Isley Brothers have included a performance of “Shout” in just about every concert since then, Ronald Isley said in an interview on “The Breakfast Club” radio show in May. It still draws plenty of shouts from audiences.
The enduring appeal of their first rock and roll record offers one example of the Isley Brothers’ impact on popular music and their influence on artists.
“The Isley Brothers are the most important American band of all time.” That was the 2019 proclamation of Andrew Winistorfer, senior director of music and editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, which releases remastered albums, anthologies and books.
Winistorfer wrote the liner notes for the Vinyl Me, Please remastered edition of the Isley Brothers’ 1976 album, “Go for Your Guns.”
“More than maybe any other band or artist, you can chart the changes in Black music — how it was played and what it was called — via the Isleys,” Winistorfer wrote. “They’re the only group in the history of music to have a demonstrable influence on both the Beatles (who covered the Isleys’ take of “Twist And Shout” for one of their biggest early hits) and Ice Cube (who rapped over this album’s “Footsteps In The Dark, Pts. 1 & 2″ on “It Was A Good Day”).”
Music historian and musicologist Bob Gulla drove this point home in his book, “Icons of R&B and Soul.” “With the possible exception of the Beatles, no band in the history of popular music, and certainly no African American act, has left a more substantial legacy on popular music than the Isley Brothers.”
The Isley Brothers began performing in the mid-1950s as a teenage gospel quartet. The four oldest brothers — O’Kelly, Rudolph, Ronald and Vernon — were the original members. They quit performing when Vernon was killed at age 13 while riding his bike. In 1957, at the urging of their parents, the remaining three brothers moved from Cincinnati to New York to pursue a rock and roll career.
In the years after “Shout,” the brothers recorded with Motown and scored a hit with “This Old Heart of Mine.” They would move on from Motown and find success with a folk-inspired, acoustic sound on songs such as “Brown Eyed Girl” (not to be confused with the Van Morrison hit) and a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay.” The album “Brother, Brother, Brother” featured memorable performances of Carole King compositions, including the title song and “It’s Too Late.” That song showcased the searing guitar solos of younger brother Ernie, drawing comparisons with Jimi Hendrix.
Hendrix played guitar for the Isley Brothers from 1963 to 1965 and was living with them, Ernie Isley said during “The Breakfast Club” interview. Ronald said, “We watched him. Ernie watched him. We didn’t know Ernie was going to wind up playing guitar.”
Ernie was playing drums at the time — self-taught. He was also self-taught on the guitar. When Ronald wrote one of the group’s biggest hits, “It’s Your Thing,” Ernie picked up the bass and played it on that record at age 16.
The group’s sound has continually evolved, reflecting musical and cultural shifts among Black Americans and speaking to what was going on in the country. Songs such as “Fight the Power” and a cover of the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song “Ohio,” gave voice to the rising political and social consciousness of the 1960s and 1970s.
The biggest transformation of the Isley Brothers’ sound occurred when brothers Ernie, Marvin and brother-in-law Chris Jasper joined full-time for the 1973 album “3+3.” The Isley Brothers — along with bands such as the Ohio Players, the Bar-Kays and Parliament-Funkadelic — formed the leading edge of funk music throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s.
In yet another chapter of their career, the Isley Brothers were singing love ballads that would make them a favorite of the “quiet storm” Black radio formats. “Between the Sheets,” from their 1987 album, “Smooth Sailin’,” is one of the best examples.
The group was starting another transition during that time. By the mid-1980s, Chris Jasper, who had been a writer and producer of so many of the hits, left the group and pursued a solo career. O’Kelly Isley died of a heart attack in 1986, at age 48. Rudy Isley left the music industry in 1989 and became a Christian minister. Marvin Isley died of complications from diabetes in 2010, at age 56.
Ronald and Ernie are still standing, still touring and still performing. Isley Brothers songs are finding new audiences all the time.
Isley Brothers songs have been sampled more than 1,000 times on hip-hop recordings and others. “Big Poppa,” by The Notorious B.I.G., samples the Isleys’ “Between the Sheets.” “Them Changes,” by Thundercat, samples “Footsteps in the Dark.” “My Block,” by 2Pac, samples “Don’t Say Goodnight.” “Hip Hop Hooray” by Naughty by Nature and “The Crossroads” by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony sample “Make Me Say It Again Girl.” Kendrick Lamar’s “I” samples “That Lady.”
Ronald Isley was introduced to another generation when he assumed the identity of the fictional “Mr. Biggs” in those R. Kelly long-form music videos. Featuring Isley that way, joined by female artists such as Angela Winbush and Lil’ Kim, helped boost R. Kelly’s stardom before his downfall from the horrifying legal cases against him.
Generations of fans of hip-hop, R&B and soul music turned their attention to what was billed as the Isley Brothers versus Earth, Wind & Fire battle in the pandemic-era “Verzuz” webcast series during Easter of 2021. Rather than a battle, it had the feel of an especially joyous celebration of the music of both iconic bands. It closed with a match-up of the Isleys’ “That Lady” versus “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire before a video for the Isleys’ Snoop Dogg–accompanied “Friends & Family” premiered.
The Isley Brothers’ music has always had a particular resonance with people like me — Black men of their generation. Growing up, they reminded me of my big brother or some of his peers I tried to emulate.
Ronald Isley mentioned during “The Breakfast Club” interview that they would purposely have an even number of slow songs and fast songs on their albums. Sometimes the slow songs would all be on one side. You could listen to, or dance to, all the slow songs without turning the record over.
In high school or college, Isley Brothers ballads were among our favorite songs for slow dancing at house parties. What we had to say to girls just might be some version of an Isley Brothers song. Or we might just sing the lyrics off-key in a their ears.
We certainly knew what Ronald Isley meant in “For the Love of You,” when he sang, “Now and then I lose my way, using words to try to say what I feel.”
Mark Williams is The Baltimore Banner’s Opinion Editor.