By Cate Cianci Staff Writer
Each week of Black History Month, we open the 88.9 Vault of Soul, profiles of iconic soul pioneers.
Early Beginnings in the 50s
The Isley Brothers started out as a 1950s gospel group singing in Cincinnati Ohio. The group was formed by brothers Ronald, Rudolf, O’Kelly Jr., and Vernon Isley. The group was heavily encouraged by their parents. Their mother was a pianist and their father was a professional vocalist, so making music ran in the family.
In 1955 the youngest member of the band, Vernon, passed away tragically at the age of 13 in a bike accident. After the passing of their brother, the Isley’s momentum began to fade. This was a huge setback. The Isleys didn't let this get them down for long though, as they began to search for a label the next year.
The Brothers began to experiment with new sounds, leaving behind gospel music for blues. The brothers traveled to New York City and after a few years of moderate success, they had their first hit with RCA Records with Shout. Audiences were struck by the contagious energy of the group. The Brothers were blending elements of gospel into their performances, which made the crowds want to get up and celebrate.
After Shout, however, the Isleys had trouble breaking back onto the scene. The group was dropped by RCA after only two years but then signed to Atlantic Records. Here the brothers finally got a taste of topping the charts with the hit “Twist and Shout” which would go on to be covered, most famously, by The Beatles.
Never Settling Down
It seemed The Isley Brothers were switching labels constantly. Going from Atlantic to their own label (T-Neck), to Motown, The Isley Brothers never settled. Eventually, they found their way back to their own label and started taking off. Under their own label, they hired new bandmates, most notably Jimmy James (who would go on to perform as Jimi Hendrix). The Isleys started moving towards R&B as their primary genre and even took home the Grammy in 1970 for best R&B vocal performance with “It’s Your Thing”.
The band began to expand in the 80s, adding Ernie and Marvin Isley and their brother-in-law Chris Jasper. Still not settling, the band moved towards adding a more romantic flair to their music. They released iconic hits such as “Between the Sheets” during this era. However, in 1986 O’Kelly Isley died of a heart attack. The band officially disbanded in 1989, but regrouped in 2001 and recently released Make Me Say it Again, Girl in 2022.
Who They Influenced
The Isley Brothers are one of the most influential acts of our century. The official Isley Brothers Website sums it up perfectly, "Only The Isley Brothers could influence artists from The Beatles to Ice Cube". The impact The Isley Brothers have had on every scene is immense, but their impact on the rap scene of today is unquestionable. Artists from Jay-z, Notorious B.I.G., and Kendrick Lamar have all sampled various Isley Brothers hits. Their influence is unmistakable.
You might recognize some of their samples in your favorite hip-hop tracks. The most “notorious” might be their “Between the Sheets” sample in The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa”. Other notable classics that sample The Isley Brothers include Ice Cube’s “It Was A Good Day,” J Dilla’s “So Far to Go,” and Kendrick Lamar’s “i” (I Love Myself).
Who They Were Influenced By
The Isley Brothers were most notably influenced by gospel and blues music of the 1950s. Though the group was never one to be tied down by genre, in their love performances the gospel roots were unmistakable. The group possessed an ability to bring audiences to their feet and make them feel the music, similar to gospel music in Black churches.
- B.E.T. Lifetime Achievement Award (2004)
- Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2014)
- Grammy Best R&B Performance Duo or Group (1970)
- NAACP Hall of Fame (1998)
A doo-wop/blues track that clearly defines the Isley Brother’s early work. It’s upbeat and energetic. The Isley Brothers were inspired to add their own melody, response lyrics and spiritual element to a 1959 Jackie Wilson song, “Lonely Teardrops”. As its lyrics state, it makes you want to “shout” and dance around the room. Pull this one out during your next party and everyone will be on their feet.
That Lady, Pts. 1 & 2 (1973)
A psychedelic track that can always lift you out of a funk. The guitar is absolutely electrifying. Topped with the catchy falsetto “who’s that lady” the song just makes you want to boogie. Upon release, this type of sound was new for The Isley Brothers, but they made it work like never before. The instrumentals on this song are absolutely insane. The guitar solo is arguably the best part of the song. The track also features an organ break, which lends itself to the funk style incredibly well.
Between the Sheets (1983)
Perhaps one of The Isley Brothers's most sampled songs “Between the Sheets” is a classic slow jam. The sensual funk track features incredibly sex positive lyrics. It even features rhythmic grunts in the latter half of the song. The bass is truly the highlight of this track. Bouncy and full it encloses you in the sound. This track sounds how silk sheets feel.