Ron & Ernie Isley - photo by Michael Sherer
The Isley Brothers are one of the most legendary and important groups in R & B and music period. Among other distinctions, they have a major one of being the only group to have been in the top 50 of the Hot 100 charts during the ‘50’s, ‘60’s, ‘70’s, ‘80’s, ‘90’s and 2000’s.
Founded as kids in ‘54 in Cincinnati Ohio, they consisted of brothers Ronald, O’Kelly, Rudolph and Vernon Isley. They were initially a gospel singing group until Vernon’s death a few years into their existence after he was tragically hit by a car at the age of thirteen while riding his bike in their neighborhood. This devastated the remaining three brothers and they temporally disbanded out of major grief. It wouldn’t be until ‘59, and after having relocated to Englewood, New Jersey that the young men found formidable success, as their first big hit song that year, “Shout,” went on to sell over a staggering million copies. After bouncing around between a few record labels, including Motown, they would find their true calling with a more funky, hybrid and sophisticated sound in the late ‘60’s. By then they were on their own resurrected label, T-Neck, which had previously been distributed by Atlantic Records a few years prior. It was shut down after some time when Atlantic dropped them and they tried their luck on Motown. Seeking much more artistic and overall control, they resurrected T-Neck in ‘68 with Buddah Records now distributing it. (That would change again to the much more powerful Epic in ‘73.)
Named after the city in New Jersey they were then living, (Teaneck) their golden and most productive era of the late ‘60’s/early ‘70’s began, which was kicked off by their hit “It’s Your Thing” in ‘69. This more mature, funky classic was played here at BB King’s by the two remaining brothers of the whole clan that are partaking and alive to do so. Ron, now 75, and guitarist/composer Ernie, 64. Ernie officially joined the group in ‘73. There was a trio of effective and glamorous female backing singers and several exotically dressed, sexy female dancers to round out the sound and visual presentation. There was also an backing guitarist, a bassist and drummer of course, as well as a keyboardist.
Ron, who has an excellent and unique voice, sounded very good, although not quite up to the level he was at the group’s prime in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s. Very few singers can sound as good as they did in their 20’s and 30’s forty to fifty years on, so no surprise there. Ernie sounded great and to his credit has written some of the groups best and memorable songs, with several being played here. They included the song they opened with, “Fight The Power.” Other favorites by Ernie performed were “Journey To Atlantis,” ” (At Your Best) You Are Love,” “Footsteps In The Dark,” (a personal fave of mine) “That Lady,” (co writer) “Between The Sheets” and “Choosy Lover.”
The group has covered some fantastic and well chosen songs by other artists, such as “Ohio” (their home state) by Crosby, Still & Nash, released in ‘70. Two other best and most known covers are Todd Rundgren’s ‘72 hit “Hello It’s Me,” and Seals & Crofts’ number one hit “Summer Breeze,” also released in ‘72. Both of the latter two were performed here tonight, and they sounded excellent. Ernie’s dramatic guitar solo in “Summer Breeze” uplifts it to another level. When it comes to flair and drama in guitar playing, Jimi Hendrix was a huge influence on the then ten year old Ernie as he was around Hendrix at very close range when Hendrix both played and lived the Isleys from ‘63 through ‘65. Ernie’s playing, dress and Fender Stratocaster guitars are all an homage to Hendrix.
The Isleys are very much their own musical institution though, and still going over sixty years since they formed in their original incarnation. They’re a treasure, and it was a great night for all there to take them in. If you’ve never caught them, I suggest you do so while they’re still glimmering up on that stage.
Fight The Power
Who’s That Lady
Between The Sheets
Footsteps In The Dark
For The Love Of You
It’s Your Thing
Twist And Shout
Groove With You
Hello It’s Me
You’re All I Need
At Your Best
Yes Jesus Loves Me (Tribute to Whitney Houston)
Journey To Atlantis
New School Melody