On the long ago, momentous, Xmas Day that Santa kindly brought me a record player he also provided two 7″ vinyl discs by the most popular beat combo of the day, the Beatles. The 4 track “Twist & Shout” EP was matching the sales of that single about holding someone’s hand. Surely no vocalist had ever matched the wild drive & urgency of leather-lunged John Lennon on the title track. Wasn’t this powerful energy an innovatory part of the the sound that was taking over the world ? Of course the Fab Four’s music introduced my generation to the rock & roll originators. Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, they were from the olden days of the 1950s. On the first LPs their Mop Top take on Motown opened a lot of doors for Detroit’s soul label. it was no archaeological stretch to unearth the original Twisters & Shouters.
The Isley Brothers’ first successes made them the Sultans of Screech & they were then always around. The trio were not always consistent hit makers but now & again they found themselves at the cutting edge. A talent for reinvention, to react to the changes in music, has become a requisite for long term commercial success. The Isley Brothers knew this before many others did. It was 10 years after the Beatles covered their song that the group’s new sound struck gold records & brought a rich funk/disco vein that they were able to mine for the rest of the 1970s.
Here come the incredibly expanding Isley Brothers. Ronald, Rudy & O’Kelly, the original trio are joined by 2 more brothers Ernie & Marvin along with brother-in-law Chris Jasper. So, “3 + 3” geddit ? “That Lady” is the opening track of the 1973 LP which put the group back into the US Top 10 for the first time since 1969. Then “It’s Your Thing”, the first single on their own T-Neck label, had socked it to Berry Gordy & Motown. The Isleys made some classic Motown records but were, they felt, never given a fair shake. Independence, success & confidence led to more than 10 LPs in 4 years, that’s a whole lot of variants on “things” & “thangs”. The records before “3 + 3” had included the junior Isleys & there had been a gradual move to this new sound. Now, with the marketing might of Epic behind the group for the first time a lot more people got to hear it & a lot more records got sold.
“That Lady” is a reworking of a 1964 Isley song. Back then the trio were copying the Impressions but now they could unveil a couple of new weapons while still keeping it in the family. The influence of Jimi can be heard in the funk of the time but Brother Ernie had a direct line to the source when Hendrix had lived in the Isley house while gigging with the group. Now the 21 year old was ready to wail, a black guitar hero bringing the rock to the funk. Chris jasper was on to the ARP synthesizer thing. He hooked up with Malcolm Cecil & Robert Margouleff, programmer/engineers who had worked so effectively with Stevie Wonder. The Isley Brothers had been in music for 15 years & they were bang at the front of it with this record.
“3 + 3” included covers of tunes by James Taylor, the Doobie Brothers, Seals & Crofts. The group made it there thang to turn soft rock melodies into quiet storm soul ballads. They had full LPs of this, a 10 minute long version of a Carole King song ! For an audience unfamiliar with the group but who knew the songs it was a wrinkle that appealed. Now I have no great beef with this side of the sound, Ronald Isley stepped up & showed himself to be a great & distinctive vocalist on these tunes. I just think that the song choice leans towards the cheesy & I do have a serious problem with the still-around “Summer Breeze”. I mean, come on, here is the worst excess of hippy-dippy nonsense, a mush-minded meaninglessness. I am no neurological expert, I am not prepared to ask Mr Google. I am pretty sure that there are, never has been, never will be, any such thing as “the jasmines of my mind”. Bah !
“Hello It’s Me” seems to be a more imaginative selection, a Todd Rundgren song, the only cover on 1974’s “Live It Up”. In the early 1970s Todd wrote a lot of songs that could have, maybe should have, been hits. The Isley Brothers were sussed enough to know this. Here on “Soul Train” Ronald knows that he has work to do, that people are listening to his slow songs on national TV & he wins in a canter. “Hello” is the best of the Isley ballads.
It was the slabs of funk what did it for me. There was an LP a year, 1975’s “The Heat Is On” was a #1 album, black groups just didn’t hit that market. Each record had a couple of variations on a theme by Ernie that just hit the spot & kept on going into Part 2. “Live It Up”, “Fight the Power”, “The Pride”…it’s a great & longer list… especially “Fight The Power”. Man, this was before the 12″ extended mix. Some 10 minute jam of these songs would have been solid. The brothers had always tended to stick with what worked. By 1978, with disco ubiquitous & Ronald’s sexed-up ballads a little complacent, they had perhaps been to the well too often. There were still platinum records though & the Isleys were still one of the world’s biggest bands.
“Harvest For The World”, prelude & all, opened the 1976 LP of that title. I know that the uncomplicated, catch-all lyrics have a touch of “I believe that children are the future” about them but come on…this is a perfect pop-soul anthem, anthemic & uplifting. The Isley brothers had a worldwide audience at this time. A slice of social-conscience was surely better than being growled at by the Walrus Of Love or slimed by the Stylistics (post-Philly). “Gather every man, gather every woman. Celebrate your life, give thanks for your children”…a great record.
Just before the release of “3 + 3” the Isley Brothers released a “Greatest Hits” LP, a fantastic collection of their work on their own T-Neck label. Earlier Motown had a “Best Of” from the group’s years on that label. The three original brothers had already compiled a seriously impressive body of work. Then along came the next generation of the family & new blood brought new inspiration & energy. Now there were “Ultimate”, “Essential” even “Definitive” collections with a whole shedload of new hit records to be collated. For a few years there the Isley Brothers were as good as gold.