They still want to shout
The Beatles covered their hit Twist and Shout, Jimi Hendrix and Elton John played in their backup band, and these days the Isley Brothers are sitting pretty on the charts and helping out R. Kelley.
By TONY GREEN
© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 1, 2001
The key to music-biz longevity, says guitarist Ernie Isley, is knowing your competition. Which, in the case of the Isley Brothers, isn't the usual roster of memory-lane retreads.
"Usher, Lil Bow Wow. Alicia Keys. Those are the people we're competing against," Isley said. "Our new album (Eternal) debuted at No. 3 in Billboard (in September), and those were the people who were on the charts then. Their goal should be to still be on the charts 20 years from now."
Or, as in the Isleys' case, 40. As the only pop group to have charted hits during four decades, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers are not just surviving, they're thriving.
They debuted with the album Shout in 1959. Through their 27-album career, they have rung up nearly 80 R&B and pop hits. At the same time, they have kept up with a dizzying range of pop and soul trends, traveling from roots R&B (Twist and Shout) to psychedelic funk and smooth soul balladry (Fight the Power, Voyage to Atlantis) to Eternal's glossy new-age soul. That disc features the hit single Contagious as well as a potpourri of contemporary singers and producers: Jill Scott, Raphael Saadiq, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and R. Kelly.
The group's hip-hop era resurgence has helped it weather departures from the original Isley ranks. Ronald, 60, and Ernie, 49 (he joined the group in 1966), are the only Isleys on tour. Kelly Isley suffered a fatal heart attack in 1986. Brother Rudolph joined the ministry in the mid '90s, while Marvin lost both his lower legs to diabetes in 1996. Pianist Chris Jasper, who powered many of the Isleys' '70s classics and was part of the spinoff trio Isley Jasper Isley, formed his own record label and left the group in 1988.
But instead of falling back on their old catalog, the Isleys moved forward, retooling their sound on their platinum 1996 release, Mission to Please.
"We have such a strong identity," said Ernie, "that we can work with present-day producers and artists and still sound like ourselves."
That's partly because so many of today's artists owe a lot of their sound to the Isleys. They are the bridge between the Beatles and Ice Cube, Jimi Hendrix and Elton John, R. Stewart and R. Kelly. The Beatles covered the Isleys' Twist and Shout, while Cube used their Footsteps in the Dark for his It Was a Good Day. Both Hendrix and John did time in the Isleys' backing bands. Ronald Isley dueted with Rod Stewart in his cover of the Isleys' This Old Heart of Mine and went bling-bling fabulous for his ongoing role as the dapper Mr. Biggs, a character first created for Kelly's On the Down Low video in 1996. The character -- a jealously possessive underworld lord -- became so deeply associated with Ronald Isley, he has added "aka Mr. Biggs" to his moniker.
"We were in the same studio in Miami with him," said Ernie. "And he had a song that he wanted me to play guitar on, and he wanted Ronald to sing on it. . . . That's one of the things about us; we have never been what somebody else said we should be. We don't let the industry put us in a cage. We are always doing the unexpected. That's why we are who we are."
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