The Isley Brothers have done it all – they were the pre-Motown, pre-Beatles vocal trio that recorded the first versions of Shout and Twist and Shout. They were the R&B band that introduced Jimmy James (but you know him better as Jimi Hendrix) and the funk band that finally hit the pop Top 5 with It’s Your Thing and Fight the Power.
They even crossed over into soul-flavored remakes of rock hits like Summer Breeze. And ever since their last R&B hit in 1989, the Isley Brothers have been hanging on in the “oldies but goodies” category. But if there’s anything that’s made the group legends, it’s the fact that they turned another group into the biggest band of all time. The Isley Brothers have been credited for bringing the Beatles out of Liverpool and to America.
They Started Out as a Quartet
The Isley Brothers formed in Ohio as a vocal trio consisting of three brothers: O’Kelly Jr., Rudolph and Ronald Isley. A fourth brother, Vernon, joined the band shortly before his tragic death from a hit-and-run accident. Their father, O’Kelly Sr., was a former US Navy sailor and vaudeville performer from North Carolina; their mother was their guide when they sang in church.
The brothers began performing together in 1954, styling themselves after groups like Billy Ward and His Dominoes and The Dixie Hummingbirds. They got their first break when they landed a spot on Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour, and won the competition. The prize? A watch.
The Fatal Accident That Disbanded Them
With Vernon as the lead vocals, the quartet started touring across the eastern US, performing mainly in churches. In 1955, when Vernon was 13, he was killed by a car that hit him as he was riding his bike in his neighborhood in Cincinnati. The brothers were devastated, and the trio disbanded… at least for a little while.
The remaining trio, however, decided to regroup in 1957, with Ronnie taking over as lead vocals. The brothers zeroed in on popular music and headed for New York (with their parents’ blessings). In New York, the brothers got in touch with Richard Barrett, who then got them in contact with record producers in the city.
Shout Was Based on a Club Performance
Their first recorded songs included Angels Cried and The Cow Jumped Over the Moon, but they were regional hits at best. By 1959, the trio scored themselves a recording deal with RCA Records, and later that year, they recorded their first composition together: Shout.
The future classic mixed their brand of gospel vocals and doo-wop harmonies. The song was actually derived from a club performance they did in Washington, DC, where they covered Jackie Wilson’s Lonely Teardrops. Shout peaked at no. 47 on the Billboard Hot 100 but never reached the R&B chart. Still, it sold more than one million copies and received a gold disc by the RIAA.
Twist and Shout Was a Lesson for Phil Spector
The group’s singles after Shout failed to chart and the brothers left RCA in 1961, signing with Scepter Records. The brothers scored their first top 40 hit in 1962 with a song by Bert Berns called Twist and Shout. It reached no.17 on the Hot 100 and no.2 on the R&B chart, staying there for 19 weeks.
Berns produced the single for the brothers in order to teach then-struggling producer Phil Spector how to create a hit. But the trio was struggling, too. They packed up and moved to New Jersey, where they formed T-Neck Records in 1964.
They Got the Beatles Out of Liverpool
“If it were not for the Isley Brothers, the Beatles would still be in Liverpool.”
That’s a direct quote from Sir Paul McCartney, and he said it to Ernie Isley (who joined the group in 1969 along with Marvin Isley and their brother-in-law Chris Jasper). When a Beatle tells you that it’s your band that brought them to America, and thus allowed you to conquer the world, it’s safe to say that you’ve succeeded.
The Beatles, of course, had covered the Brothers’ hits Twist and Shout and Shout early in their career. It was only in 2012 that McCartney told Isley the ever-powerful statement (when they met at the Apollo in the Hamptons benefit), but, hey, better late than never.
He Gave Him a Big Bear Hug
At the benefit, the Isleys had just finished performing Shout, and they went backstage to take selfies and sign autographs. Ernie described how “My wife Tracy said to me Paul McCartney’s over there, and I said, ‘Where?’ She points, and he was about four tables away.”
So, he squeezed his way through the tables, tapped the Beatle on the shoulder, and McCartney stood up and gave him a “bear hug that cut my wind off.” Since it was so loud, they had to resort to yelling in each other’s ears. Still, the sentiment was warm.
Yelling Sweet Sentiments in His Ear
“I said something like, ‘Paul, you and Ringo, George and John were wonderful.’ He said, ‘Ernie, if it weren’t for the Isley Brothers, the Beatles would still be in Liverpool.'” But the night wasn’t over at that moment – there was more rock ‘n’ roll to come that night.
Ernie and Ron Isley were then joined on stage by McCartney, Jon Bon Jovi, Richie Sambora, Usher and Jennifer Hudson to sing Twist and Shout. It was the only time the Isley Brothers and a Beatle ever performed the song live. Ernie stated, “It was great.”
Ringo Told Him the Same Thing
McCartney repeated his appreciation for the Isleys from the stage, too, this time for everyone to hear. A few years later, in 2015, Ringo Starr also told Ernie of the group’s influence on the Beatles at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“Ernie, it’s because of the Isley Brothers that we were able to hit our stride,” Ringo stated. It’s no wonder that both Shout and Twist and Shout are two of the most influential tracks in rock ‘n’ roll history. The Beatles changed some of the original lyrics, though.
The Brothers Didn’t Think the Original Was Good Enough
Ernie said the Beatles changed the 1962 session for Twist and Shout, which was before he even joined the band. According to Ernie, in that session, the Isleys had just one take on the record when they got to the “ahh, ahh, ahh, shake it up baby!” part.
“Ron’s voice cracked a little bit,” Ernie said. “He hated it, but he kept going, and they wanted to do a second take, but it was decided that the time was up and that was good enough.” They left the studio feeling a “little discouraged,” but that very version turned out to be the record that so many have copied.
More Than Just the Beatles
In 1965, the Beatles opened their revolutionary concert at Shea Stadium with Twist and Shout. But it’s clear that the Isley Brothers legacy goes way beyond just Beatles covers. They are on the front line of R&B, funk, hip-hop, Afro-punk and more.
Ernie’s guitar on the single That Lady is considered one of the greatest lead guitars in rock music. He probably picked up a few pointers from Hendrix back when Hendrix was a member of the band and lived with the brothers at the Isley home in the early ’60s.
Enter Jimmy James, AKA Jimi Hendrix
In 1964, Jimi Hendrix joined the band as lead guitar. But he didn’t go by that name in those days. To the Isley Brothers, he was a guy named Jimmy James. After being discharged from the Army for a medical injury, Hendrix found himself in Tennessee with just a few bucks in his pocket.
All he had was his guitar and his talent. So, he started playing in cafes, clubs and on the streets. It was a rough road for the guitar hero, who had to sleep wherever he could and had to steal when he was hungry.
One Day in Harlem
Hendrix connected with the musician Gorgeous George and joined him on tour. Hendrix admitted that he would join and quit groups often, and he eventually made his way to Buffalo, New York. By the time he was in New York City, he had met the Isley Brothers in Harlem.
Hendrix won first place at Apollo’s amateur contest and decided to stick around. Hendrix wrote in his book, Starting at Zero: His Own Story, that one day, one of the Isley Brothers heard him playing in a club, and they told him they had a spot open for him.
They Let Him Do His Own Thing
Hendrix played with the Isley Brothers for a while, “and they used to make me do my thing (play with my teeth, etc.),” Hendrix wrote, “because it made them more bucks or something.” They weren’t like the other groups he played with, who didn’t let him do his “own thing.”
He rocked with the group for a few months, recording and performing live around the country. With James in the studio, they recorded the song Testify, and later he contributed to another of their singles, Move on Over and Let Me Dance.
He Quit and Went Back to the Streets
Both songs failed to chart, though, and James left the band for good in 1965. “I quit the Isley Brothers in Nashville. I got tired of playing in the key of F all the time, so I turned in my white mohair silk suit and patent leather shoes and began playing on street corners again,” he wrote.
Ronald and Ernie Isley have consistently praised Hendrix and his talent in multiple interviews. They revealed that he stayed at their mom’s house for two years while he was in need of a place to stay. The brothers once bought him a brand new, left-handed guitar.
Leaving Motown in 1968
After Hendrix left, the brothers signed with Motown Records. The next year, they released their second Top 40 hit, This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You), but they were still struggling to score a follow-up Top 40 hit with the Motown.
The brothers left Motown in 1968, and, finally, the group started to reap the rewards of their hard work. In 1969, their next single, It’s Your Thing, was distinctly funk. It reached no.2 on the pop chart – their highest peak – and no.1 on the R&B singles chart— finally, a major success at last.
Embracing Disco in the ’70s
1969 was when younger brothers Ernie and Marvin joined the group, as well as Chris Jasper, their brother-in-law, and Everett Collins, a family friend. They all served as backup musicians. Entering the 1970s, the Isley Brothers made more hits and embraced the new disco trend.
The songs that charted in that decade included Pop That Thang, That Lady, Fight the Power, and Livin’ in the Life. Once the ’80s rolled around, they were still popular. But Jasper, Ernie and Marvin left in 1984 to form their own group: Isley Jasper Isley.
And Then There Were Two…
Two years later, O’Kelly suffered a fatal heart attack. In 1989, Rudolph left the group, retiring from the music industry for good to answer his calling – being a minister. Come 1991, Ron, Ernie and Marvin revived the group, releasing another album, Mission to Please.
There was yet another blow to the family group when Marvin was diagnosed with diabetes – a condition that left him with no choice but to amputate both of his legs. As a result, Ron and Ernie carried on The Isley Brothers’ name as a duo. And then there were two…
Ice Cube and Other Rappers Sampled Their Music
The Isleys are the only group in history to have had a proven influence on both the Beatles and Ice Cube, who rapped over the Isleys’ Footsteps in the Dark, Pts. 1 & 2 on Cube’s It Was a Good Day. Footsteps in the Dark didn’t chart on the pop singles chart, but it was popular in the rap community.
The first rapper to sample it was Compton’s Most Wanted on the track Can I Kill It? The song was again sampled by Black Milk on the track Call Me, and Hip-Hop producer J Dilla reworked it into the song Won’t Do.
From Biggie to Gwen Stefani
Ice Cube wasn’t the only big name in rap who took a song of theirs and ran with it. In 1994, the song Between the Sheets was sampled by The Notorious BIG for his major hit Big Poppa. Also in 1994, R&B singer Aaliyah did a cover version of (At Your Best) You Are Love on her debut album.
Eventually, non-rap artists joined the Isely Brothers’ cover game, such as Gwen Stefani when she made Luxurious, the fifth single from her 2004 multi-platinum solo debut Love. Angel. Music. Baby, which also benefited from a sample of Between the Sheets.
Going Funk and Changing Direction
Fans of the Isley Brothers consider their 1977 album Go for Your Guns as their best. And it might be because it was a transitional album for the group. With this album, they cemented their status as a funk group, which also marked the beginning of the second half of their career.
By the end of the ’70s, they went full disco with 1979’s Winner Takes All, before slowing it down to make a great “quiet storm” album – 1983’s Between The Sheets. When the ’90s came, they transitioned yet again to “baby-making jams” with 1996’s Mission to Please.
The Halfway Mark
Go for Your Guns was the band’s halfway point in their 30-original-album catalog, and it shows just how much the group hopped across genres. It also made it possible for the group to continue on for another 30-plus years and create music that has been sampled, played at dance parties, and cherished to this day.
The album before Go for Your Guns, which came out a year prior, was Harvest for the World. The 1976 album is also one of their finest, engineered by the Stevie Wonder collaborator and synthesizer pioneer Malcolm Cecil.
It Was “Like a Police State”
It turns out that the making of the album was “like a police state,” despite the group being a bunch of wealthy superstars still rehearsing in their mom’s basement. “There was no fooling around or running in the studio to speak of,” recalled Robert Margouleff, who worked with the group from 1973 to ’75 (on the 3+3 album to The Heat Is On).
He also remembers the guys dressing “to the nines every day;” there was never a day when someone came into the studio wearing a pair of jeans. Harvest for the World made its way to the charts with the help of Malcolm Cecil and his crisp sound.
Mrs. Isley’s Basement
Chris Jasper, the band’s songwriter and keyboardist, said they were writing at Mrs. Isleys’ house in Englewood, New Jersey. All of their equipment was set up in the basement, making it a tight squeeze, but they managed.
It was where the group did a lot of their rehearsing and writing. Ernie bought a Guild 12-string guitar and tried it out for the first time in that basement. That’s when he came up with the lines, “All babies together/Everyone a seed/Half of us are satisfied/Half of us in need…” Jasper remembers his bandmate singing those lyrics.
While they wrote and rehearsed in Mama Isley’s basement, they did the actual recording in California. “When we got an idea, we would always put it down on the four-track and work with it that way… When we went to California, we were well-rehearsed with all our parts,” Jasper said.
The main reason they went out there was that Cecil had this Tonto synthesizer that he had built. Stevie Wonder had already used it (on Music of My Mind), and they wanted in on the action, too, particularly Jasper, who called Cecil a “kind of a genius with electronics.”
A Song for the Times
The lyrics to the song Harvest for the World “are what made the song timeless,” according to Ernie. He also said that a number of high schools asked them for permission to reprint the lyrics for their yearbooks. The lyrics were also special in that they resonated with the people of the time.
As Jasper recalled, it was when Vietnam had just ended, many were still missing in action, and the economy was in ruins. “That’s kind of what this song is talking about, asking a rhetorical question,” Jasper explained. “When will there be a harvest for the world?” For Cecil, his main mission was to get people to do “socially conscious” songs, which is why Harvest was so “gratifying” to him.
The Rough and Tough Early Days
Robert Margouleff, the band’s former engineer, spoke in an interview about what it was like for an all-Black band to be on the road (when the Isleys began). Back then, the Black musicians had to enter venues through the kitchen, whereas the white artists went through the front door.
“Those guys toured pretty hard places and paid a lot of dues, and it’s to their credit that they kept it in the family,” Margouleff acclaimed. To him, they got it from their gospel and R&B roots. They had a sense of where they came from as well as an extremely strong sense of family.
O’Kelly Was the Boss; Rudy Had the Guns
According to Cecil, it was O’Kelly who held everything together. He was the one who set up all the dates, who signed all the work orders. In other words, O’Kelly was the boss (he was the eldest brother, after all).
Rudy wanted to be the lead singer, but he didn’t have the voice and power that Ron had. Rudy was pretty flamboyant, which is why he wanted to be front and center, doing his thing. He was also the one who collected the money at the end of their gigs, which is why he carried a gun around.
He Ran the Group Like a Military Operation
Cecil recalled that Rudy had to qualify to carry the Magnum around as a concealed weapon. “It was surreal,” he said. The only place that he could qualify was at the FBI shooting range. Rudy might have had the gun, but it was O’Kelly who ran the group like a military operation, at least according to Margouleff.
If one of the guys was late to the studio, Margouleff revealed, “they knew about it!” Margouleff is the one who described the group as “a police state.” But he noted that the brothers took care of them promptly.
A Briefcase Full of Cash
After they finished one of their albums, O’Kelly and Marvin came into Margouleff’s office with a briefcase, opened it up and revealed hundreds of dollars, neatly stacked. They asked him, “How much do we owe you?”
For Margouleff, it felt like a scene straight out of a James Bond film. He recalled the job being somewhere around $20,000, and so they got paid in cash. “It was the one and only time I’ve ever been paid like that,” he said, “I’ll never forget it.” Not a bad paycheck for an album, and this was decades ago!
Ernie Was a Musicoholic (if You Will)
The brothers made the song Harvest in one afternoon. Ernie was on the drums, Jasper on the keyboard, and Marvin on the bass. In the studio, Ernie said he never took a break. “I didn’t sit back and have a chocolate malt and a burger,” he asserted.
He would get right back out there and play. Margouleff remembers Ernie “jumping all over the place,” adding that he was “a total musician,” which he attributed to getting good coaching from Jimi Hendrix. Cecil attested to the fact that Hendrix was a big influence on Ernie.
Ron’s Vocals Blew Everyone Away
Hendrix once told Ernie: “I’ll show you what I’m doing because one of these days you’ll be playing guitar with your brothers!” Talk about a prophetic message. Ron, however, was the more understated brother in the studio.
As Cecil recalls, Ron would just appear when it was time to do a lead vocal. He would come in and blow everybody’s minds. He was that good. Ron was the guy who sang on almost everything by The Isley Brothers – Twist and Shout, This Old Heart of Mine, It’s Your Thing, Love the One You’re With and Harvest for the World.
A Sense of Intimacy
According to Margouleff, what he and Cecil brought to The Isley Brothers was a “sense of intimacy,” meaning they put the musicians “in the same room as the listener.” They wanted the music to sound very close – everything tightly recorded – with no reverbs or effects.
It was something that worked wonders for Stevie (pun intended), and it worked just as well for the Isleys. When it came to Harvest for the World (Prelude), it was done on the spot in the studio within half an hour. “We felt really good about it when we finished,” Jasper recalled. “It’s one of my favorites.”
In an R. Kelly Music Video
Once the trio became a duo in the late ’80s, Ron initiated a brief hiatus while he focused on recording solo material. But he revived the group in 1991, when Ernie and Marvin came back. It was that year that they released the album, Tracks of Life.
Five years later, Ron gained popularity on his accord as the video villain Frank Biggs (aka Mr. Biggs) in the R. Kelly’s music video for his hit Down Low (Nobody Has to Know), in which the Isley Brothers were featured artists. Thanks to the success of that song, the brothers’ 1996 album Mission to Please reached platinum.
Reaching the Top in All Decades
The group became a duo again after Marvin lost his legs. In 2001, they released their first best-selling album in a long time, called Eternal, which sold more than two million copies and featured the top 20 hit single Contagious.
With that, the group became the only act to reach the Hot 100 during the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s. Two years later, the album Body Kiss peaked at no.1 on the Billboard 200 album chart. But their music-making in the ’00s was interrupted by Ron’s three-year prison sentence for tax evasion.
Welcome Back, Ron; RIP Marvin
Ron was released in 2010, and in June of that year, the youngest brother Marvin died in Chicago, after a long struggle with diabetes. During the necessary hiatus, Ernie went on the road as part of the Experience Hendrix concert festival.
Meanwhile, Ron released his first solo album, Mr. I, that year. Ron and Ernie reunited a year later and continue to perform on the road. In 2013, Jasper released Inspired: By Love, By Life, By the Spirit – a compilation of love songs and spiritual tracks. In 2016, he released Share With Me, and in 2018, he released his 15th solo album Dance With You.
A Little More About Ernie
The 69-year-old lives in St. Louis, Missouri and started playing the drums at 12. His first live gig with his brothers was in 1966 at 14 years old. Ernie is a self-taught musician and a prolific songwriter. In 2020, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame as one of the Isley Brothers.
He’s currently touring domestically and internationally with Ron on The Isley Brothers 60th Anniversary Tour. He’s also a musical mentor in schools and community music programs. He’s married with a daughter, Alexandra Isley, who is also an R&B artist.
A Bit About Ron
The 80-year-old is the third-born of the six, and like most of his siblings, he began his career in the church. In fact, he started singing at the age of two and won a $25 war bond for singing at a spiritual contest at the Union Baptist Church.
At the age of seven, Isley was already singing on stage at the Regal Theater in Chicago. He was regularly singing with his brothers by his early teens. He’s been married three times, divorced twice, has a daughter named Tia and a son named Ronald Jr.
That Whole Tax Evasion Thing
Ron lives in St. Louis and suffered a mild stroke in London in 2004, which put an immediate end to their tour. In 2007, it was reported that he was suffering from kidney problems. What was his tax evasion sentence all about? Well, he was convicted in 2006 and sentenced to three years and one month in prison.
He was imprisoned at the Federal Correctional Institution in Indiana and then moved to a halfway house in St. Louis. Ron is listed as one of California’s “most delinquent taxpayers,” with a $303,411.43 debt filed in 2002.