The Isley Brothers

From Academic Kids

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The cover of the 2003 Isley Brothers album, Body Kiss. From left to right: Ronald Isley and Ernie Isley.

The Isley Brothers are a hugely successful group that began their musical career in Cincinnati, Ohio in the early 1950s. Ever since their first records in 1957, the Isleys have remained active with a repertoire that has included gospel, doo-wop, R&B, Motown, soul, funk, rock, disco, and hip-hop. The Isley Brothers hold the record for being the only band and only act to have scored a Hot 100 hit in six consecutive decades: '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s and '00s, and are also one of the most sampled and most covered bands in music history.

The group, whose original four members were the sons of singer Kelly and pianist Sallye Isley, first formed as a gospel quartet featuring brothers O'Kelly, Rudolph, Ronald and Vernon Isley, in 1954. After Vernon's tragic death in 1955 due to a bicycle accident, the brothers reformed and from 1955 to 1973 performed as a full-fledged trio. In 1973, with the arrivals of younger brothers Ernie, Marvin and brother-in-law Chris Jasper, the group became a full-fledged band. They continued as a sextet under the "3+3" moniker until 1984, when the younger half split and formed Isley-Jasper-Isley.

The Isleys returned as the original trio briefly until O'Kelly's untimely passing in 1986 then carried on as a duo until 1989 when Rudolph retired to become a minister. After a brief split, the group returned in some form in 1991 with brothers Ernie and Marvin singing with Ronald again until 1997 when Marvin contracted diabetes. From then until now, the Isley Brothers' lineup includes Ronald, a/k/a "Mr. Biggs", and Ernie.



Early years

The journey of the Isleys began in the 1940s growing up in Cincinatti, Ohio with music already at the epicenter of their lives - the Isleys' father Kelly was a professional gospel singer, their mother Sallye played piano. There are nine Isleys in all - six brothers and three sisters. Born the third eldest of the family, Ronald began singing when he was a toddler. At the age of three, he won a $20 war bond for singing spiritual songs in church. He was already singing live onstage at places like The Apollo Theater and The Regal Theater at the age of 7. Six years later, 13-year-old Ronald, his older brothers O'Kelly, 17, and Rudolph, 15, and younger brother Vernon, 12, formed as simply The Isley Brothers. The group toured with their parents to church revivals during most of 1954 and into 1955. Tragedy suddenly struck, though, when Vernon was killed in a bicycle accident. The Isleys decided to continue singing, this time as a trio.

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The Isley Brothers during the early 1960s.

Early success

By 1957, the teenage threesome were looking to sing more secular music after hearing Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers on the radio. With their parents' blessing, the brothers moved out of Cincinatti and moved to New York where they began their odyssey recording for several short labels singing doo-wop. The brothers never found success but their high-tailed performances while at the chitlin' circuit were legendary. In 1959, a scout for RCA Records was sitting in the front row seat during the brothers' inspired performance of Jackie Wilson's "Lonely Teardrops" adding the ad-libs, "You know you make me wanna shout!" The scout was so impressed he helped get the Isleys signed to the label and record what they captured live. The result: Their self-penned "Shout" became a breakthrough in early rock and roll with the mixture of gospel shouts and testifies, the call-and-response approach of soul and the party atmosphere of rock. When originally released, the song went as high as #47 on the Hot 100. But despite that, the song became the brothers' first million-seller.

The Isleys released several modest hit singles in the next three years. Some of those songs - 1960's "Respectable" and 1961's "Nobody But Me" would end up being successful recorded by white acts like Lulu. In 1962, the Isleys scored their first Top 40 hit with their seminal cover of the Topnotes' "Twist & Shout", which peaked at #2 on the R&B charts and #17 on the pop charts. A small band from Liverpool, England heard the Isley's version on the radio and revised it a couple of years later to hit #1 on both the US and UK Pop charts. That band ended up becoming The Beatles and their inspired cover of the Isleys' version was one of the group's first hit recordings. In 1964, frustrated with the slowing grind of waiting for that "big hit", the Isleys formed their own label, T-Neck. Their first - and only release - from the label was a song titled "Testify". The song, now a cult classic, is notable because a then-unknown guitarist named Jimmy James took part in the song's amazing guitar solo. Jimmy James later went on to become Jimi Hendrix. The song also was important for claims that it was the first funk record, surpassing James Brown's later efforts. Nevertheless, success was egging at the brothers and they signed with Motown in 1965. They scored their biggest hit ever, at that time, with the Holland-Dozier-Holland-composed "This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You)", in 1966. That song rose to #11 on the pop charts and #6 R&B. But that was as far as they got in Motown. In 1967, the Isleys took on a tour of England after discovering that the record rose to #3 on the UK pop charts. After a couple of years, the Isleys walked out of their contract with Motown, reformed T-Neck and signed with Buddah Records in the end of 1968.

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The 3 + 3 lineup of The Isley Brothers.

The 3 + 3 years

In February of 1969, the brothers released the funk anthem, "It's Your Thing", which up until that point became the group's biggest selling record rising to #2 on Billboard's pop singles chart and was their first #1 R&B single. It also marked the group's first and only Grammy award for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. Their album of the same name sold over 2 million copies.

Between 1969 and 1972, the Isleys expanded their T-Neck empire with several artists which records they wrote and produced for and they also managed to make experimental side projects including a soulful mixture of folk and rock tunes in the album Givin' It Back, while first discussing social material in 1972's Brother, Brother, Brother, which included the working-class anthem, "Work to Do".

In 1973, the original Isleys announced that their backing band (which included younger brothers Ernie and Marvin and brother-in-law Chris Jasper) were now members of the Isleys. This brought on to give them the nickname, "3+3", which was also the name of their seminal 1973 album, which included the Top 10 pop smash funk-rock opus, "That Lady, Pt. 1 & 2". With the mixture of Ronald's searing vocals, the brothers' harmonies, Chris Jasper's innovative piano, keyboard and synthesizer work, Marvin's bass and Ernie's drumming and guitar talents, the Isleys began to ride a wave of success that finally gave the group the mainstream success they had been looking for.

Between 1973 and 1983, the band released such great hit albums including Live It Up (1974), The Heat Is On (1975); which became the Isleys' first #1 album on Billboard's pop albums chart; Harvest for the World (1976), Go For Your Guns (1977), Showdown (1978), the double album Winner Takes All (1979), Go All the Way (1980), Inside You (1981), Grand Slam (1981), The Real Deal (1982) and Between the Sheets (1983). All eleven albums either went gold or platinum instantly. Among the hits included during this long period include "Live It Up", "Hello, It's Me", "Midnight Sky", "Fight the Power, Pt. 1 & 2", "For the Love of You", "Make Me Say It Again, Girl", "Harvest for the World", "People of Today", "Who Loves You Better", "At Your Best (You Are Love)", "Footsteps in the Dark", "The Pride, Pt. 1 & 2", "Voyage to Atlantis", "Take Me to the Next Phase, Vol. 1 & 2", "Groove With You", "It's a Disco Night (Rock Don't Stop)", "I Wanna Be With You, Pt. 1 & 2", "Don't Say Goodnight (It's Time For Love)", "Inside You", "It's Alright With Me", "Choosey Lover", "Between the Sheets", "Let's Make Love Tonight" and "Ballad for the Fallen Soldier". In between 1973 and 1983, the group scored a successive 30 hit singles or more on the Billboard R&B singles chart and a dozen or more hit singles on Billboard's Pop singles chart. About eight of the songs between that period were #1 hits on the R&B charts.

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The cover of the 2001 Isley Brothers album, Eternal.

Introducing Mr. Biggs

In 1984, after the success of "Between the Sheets" and due to friction, record label issues and the changing musical landscape, the 3 + 3 lineup broke up as two separate bands. The original Isleys carried on with their name; while Ernie, Marvin and Chris became Isley-Jasper-Isley, scoring a hit under that name with 1985s' "Caravan of Love". On March 31, 1986, the music world and the Isley family suffered a major blow when oldest Isley member O'Kelly died of a heart attack due to complications from diabetes. He was only 48 years old. After 31 years, Ronald, 44, and Rudolph, 46, were without a third brother. They decided to charge on anyway releasing records as a duo until 1989 when Rudolph announced his retirement from the music business to become a preacher. 48-year-old Ronald was left to carry the torch alone, while the Isley-Jasper-Isley group broke up also, leaving the Isleys to carry on with solo projects.

In 1991, after scoring a Top 10 hit with rocker Rod Stewart on a cover of "This Old Heart of Mine" the year before, Ronald reformed the Isley Brothers with Ernie and Marvin. The group released two records together under the name The Isley Brothers featuring Ronald Isley. Their 1992 album, Tracks of Life, featured productions from Ronald's future wife and soul singer-songwriter Angela Winbush and was the group's brief stint in the new jack swing sound before returning to a more contemporary R&B setting with their 1996 gold album, Mission to Please, which featured the hits, "Floatin' On Your Love", "Mission to Please You" and "Tears". Among the album's producers included R&B singer-songwriter R. Kelly, who had given the Isleys their first Top 10 record in years with their duet of "Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)". The video to the song helped matters introducing audiences and newbies to the Isleys' sound to Ronald's alter-ego, the gangster "Mr. Biggs". Before adopting the gangster image, ironically, Ronald and his brothers' now-timeless music was not only covered but were also sampled by several hip-hop artists, including LL Cool J, Ice Cube, 2Pac, and The Notorious B.I.G.

After a tour to support Mission to Please, Marvin contracted diabetes and retired from performing. He is now sequestered in a wheelchair after having both legs amputated. Chris Jasper now records just gospel music and hides away from the spotlight while Rudolph occasionally records gospel music and is still a minister at his church. Meanwhile Ronald and Ernie continued to perform under the Isley Brothers moniker and in 2001, they scored their biggest success in years with the R. Kelly-produced mini-soap opera, "Contagious". The record reached #3 on the R&B singles chart and #19 on the pop singles chart and went gold. The song helped their 2001 album, Eternal, reached #3 on the Pop album charts, a monumental feat for a band whose recording career went as far back as 1957. They achieved similar success with 2003's Body Kiss album, which featured the singles, "What Would You Do?" and "Busted" and became their first album since 1975's "The Heat Is On" to hit #1 on the pop albums chart. With those achievements, the Isley Brothers became the first and only group to score a hit record in six consecutive decades in a row. Respect was finally granted when they were inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2003.

The group still records and tours to this day. The group scored a modest hit in early 2005 with their duet with fellow soul legend Patti Labelle, "Gotta Go Solo". Ronald and Ernie are planning to start a U.S. tour this summer while also recording a new album again with R. Kelly and other notables.




The Isley Brothers

  • 1959: Shout!
  • 1962: Twisting & Shouting with the Isley Brothers
  • 1964: Take Some Time Out with the Isley Brothers
  • 1966: This Old Heart of Mine Is Weak For You
  • 1967: Soul on the Rocks
  • 1969: It's Our Thing
  • 1969: Live at Yankee Stadium
  • 1969: The Brothers: Isley
  • 1970: Get Into Something
  • 1971: Givin' It Back
  • 1972: Brother, Brother, Brother
  • 1972: The Isleys Live
  • 1973: 3+3
  • 1974: Live It Up
  • 1975: The Heat Is On
  • 1976: Harvest for the World
  • 1977: Go For Your Guns
  • 1978: Showdown
  • 1979: Winner Takes All
  • 1980: Go All The Way
  • 1981: Inside You
  • 1981: Grand Slam
  • 1982: The Real Deal
  • 1983: Between the Sheets
  • 1985: Masterpiece
  • 1987: Smooth Sailin'
  • 1989: Spend the Night

The Isley Brothers featuring Ronald Isley

  • 1991: Tracks of Life
  • 1994: Live!
  • 1996: Mission to Please

The Isley Brothers featuring Ronald Isley a/k/a Mr. Biggs

  • 2001: Eternal
  • 2003: Body Kiss
  • 2004: Taken to the Next Phase

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