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The history of R&B in a box

How the Isley Brothers were pioneers of pop culture

David Bennun | August 10th 2015

This month’s release of a mammoth 23-disc box set of Isley Brothers recordings, taking us from 1959 to 1983, brings home just how extraordinary their career has been. Ronald, O’Kelly and Rudolph, three siblings born in Cincinnati, Ohio, have been doo-woppers, rock’n’roll hitmakers, Motown men, a hard-edged funk group, makers of extravagant Seventies soul, slick crooners and disco groovers. The new box set, titled “The RCA Victor and T-Neck Album Masters”, is remarkable not only for its breadth and scope, but also in how closely it tracks the history of R&B over that period. If the Isleys’ own story wasn’t quite synonymous with that history, it was always a bellwether for it.

Identify a major trend in black American music during those 25 years and chances are the Isleys were in the thick of it. As with so many black performers of their era – Sam Cooke, the Womack Brothers, the Staple Singers – church was their first music school and stage, giving their early work the urgency and fervour of gospel. They moved to New York in 1957, where they made little headway in the doo-wop style, popularised by groups like Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. But when R&B replaced the initial flourish of rock’n’roll as young white America’s party music of choice, they were on the spot with their first (albeit minor) hit, “Shout” (1959), better known to British listeners in a 1965 cover version by Lulu.

Like so many pioneers, the Isleys showed a remarkable aptitude for being in the right place too soon. They prefigured a pattern that would characterise the early Sixties: records by black performers proving more successful for white artists. The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout”, from 1963, is a great recording; it is also a straight take on the Isleys’ version from 1962. (These things are seldom entirely black and white: the Isleys’ track was itself a radical reworking of “Shake It Up, Baby”, a 1961 single recorded by a white group, the Top Notes.) “Shout”, “Twist and Shout” and another single, “Nobody But Me”, all led by Ronald’s much-copied grainy howl, would underpin the thumping beats and chanting vocals of the frat-rock style of the Sixties. They were constantly trying out new ideas, and everything they did turned to gold – for somebody else.

The Beatles and Bob Dylan would soon establish the idea that rock and folk artists should take creative control of their own work, but most black artists were obliged to work to formulae imposed by their record labels. Frustrated by these constraints, the Isleys started their own label, T-Neck, in 1964. They recruited to their backing band a guitarist named Jimmy James, who by 1967, as Jimi Hendrix, would be redefining the instrument, although at the time he was more of an adept hired hand. A year later, Hendrix was gone, and lacking the clout to market their own product the Isleys signed to Tamla Motown. A culture clash was inevitable: the group prided themselves on their independence and the record company, run by a purported control freak, Berry Gordy, had its own house band, writers, producers and finishing school.

A lesser band, or less determined one, would have resigned themselves to nearly-men status. Not the Isley Brothers. They left the label in 1968, revived T-Neck, and at last made the moment their own. The exhilarating, muscular funk of “It’s Your Thing” – not just a song title but effectively a group manifesto – gave them a huge hit and an opportunity for another change of direction. At a time when R&B was expanding its horizons to include rock, jazz and folk, the older Isleys brought into their band new members reared on the music of the moment: younger brothers Marvin and Ernie on bass and lead guitar, and Rudolph’s brother-in-law, Chris Jasper, on keyboards.

The younger musicians were rock enthusiasts. Ernie had, almost literally, learned at the feet of Hendrix, developing a wild, incendiary style. This was the line-up which would make their 1973 masterpiece, “3+3” (not to be confused with their 1985 album “Masterpiece”, which is anything but). It fused funk, soul, rock and folk, and includes “Summer Breeze” and “That Lady, Pts 1 & 2”, a vehicle for Ernie’s molten firestorm of lead guitar and a dazzling illustration of how it could light up a soul tune. Their next two albums, “Live It Up” (1974) and “The Heat Is On” (1975), were scarcely less exciting.

Ronald now sang in a honeyed high tenor, which was well suited to the lovely folk-soul hit “Harvest For The World” (1976), and the slow, drippy ballads in which the band would come to specialise. Again, they exemplified R&B acts in the mid-to-late Seventies, but no longer in the most positive way. The lush “Philly sound” developed by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff – writers, producers and the dominant force in mid-Seventies R&B – was a natural fit for them, but as it evolved into disco they started to lose their way. Disco was not just a strongly black (and Latino) musical form, but a distinctly gay one, and it presented a cultural and commercial challenge to the previous generation of staunchly hetero R&B artists.

More black artists tried to join disco than beat it, and “It’s a Disco Night” (1979), while by no means a bad record, bears the unmistakable sound of former pace-setters trying and failing to keep up. It wasn’t that they couldn’t do disco, just that they had no great feeling for it. For the first time since their doo-wop days, the Isleys were behind rather than ahead of the game, as the clumsy shoehorning of the word “disco” into the title suggests. Their dalliance with disco was brief, and thereafter they fell in line with the glossy, hollow, tepid sound of older soul acts (and often older rock acts, too) out of time in the Eighties.

It’s all on this vast box set: the thrilling, the miraculous, the indifferent, the dreary. When the Isleys were great, they were truly great, and it is hard to think of another single band who represent such a span of pop history as they do.

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