BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
The Isley Brothers did OK with "Twist and Shout," but the
Beatles made it a monster hit. Same story throughout the
'60s with "Respectable" (the Yardbirds, the Outsiders),
"Nobody But Me" (the Human Beinz) and "Shout" (Lulu). These
other groups copied the Isleys' blueprint pretty closely
and somehow scored bigger hits with the same songs.
The Isleys eventually got their due — with R&B hits such
as the shimmering "This Old Heart of Mine," "It's Your Thing"
and "Who's That Lady?" — and they look back on those early
days not as struggles but as a time when their influence
helped direct the flow of modern music.
"The Isley Brothers have always been there as some sort
of reference point," said Ernie Isley in an interview this
week. "We're in the fine print, in the details of rock 'n'
roll. Our name may not be called out first, but you always
see us in connection with many of the greats. People talk
about Hendrix blah blah blah — and the Isleys are there.
People talk about the Beatles blah blah blah — and the
Isleys are there ... Now with rap and hip-hop, we're the
most sampled of anybody. We're still in the mix."
Indeed, the Isley Brothers have been there from the
beginning, when the first trio of Isley siblings — Ronald,
Rudolph and O'Kelly — traveled from Cincinnati to New York
City to record a string of doo-wop singles in the '50s.
These first songs didn't take the group far at all, but
during a 1959 performance in Washington, D.C., they added a
line to their spirited cover of "Lonely Teardrops." The ad
lib: "You know you make me want to shout." The audience went
An RCA executive saw the show, and when he signed the
Isleys soon after, he told them to build their first RCA
single around that catch phrase. The song "Shout" was born,
and though the Isleys' debut of it never cracked the Top
40, "Shout" would become an oft-covered classic, becoming a
hit all over again with Lloyd Williams' version in the 1978
movie "Animal House."
"We show up in movies all the time," Ernie said. "That
movie 'Out of Sight' with George Clooney uses (Public
Enemy's Isley-sampling hit) 'Fight the Power' and 'It's
Your Thing' running throughout. I didn't know that when I
went to see the movie. I felt proud and humbled at the same
time. I thought, 'Lord, have mercy. Did we do this music
that keeps pushing these buttons?' "
Ernie Isley joined his older brothers in the family
business just as the group was hitting it big. His first
job was playing bass on the Isleys' No. 2 1969 hit, "It's
Your Thing." He backed up his brothers with bass, guitar and
vocals until he and two other family members — brother
Marvin and brother-in-law Chris Jasper — joined the older
three on 1973's "3 + 3" album, featuring the next huge Isleys
hit, "Who's That Lady?"
"That was my official coming-out party," Ernie said.
The inclusion of Ernie added a new dimension to the
Isleys' lite funk. Trained originally as a drummer, Ernie
found his way to guitar, largely inspired by Jose
Feliciano's cover of the Doors' "Light My Fire."
Not that he didn't have one of the greatest living
guitarists living in his house. During the Isleys' 1964
tour, they recruited a young guitarist from Seattle named
Jimmy James. He played on "Testify," the Isleys' first single
for their independent record label, T-Neck. A couple of
years later, at the Monterrey Pop Festival, the world was
introduced to this guitarist under a modified name: Jimi
"I was 12 years old when Jimmy came around," Ernie
recalled. "All I saw was a very talented musician. I
couldn't understand why he practiced all the time, because
he was already so good. But the thing I saw was more real
than the thing everybody else saw. I saw the unsimonized,
unhyped, real, living, breathing person living in my house.
My brothers bought him his first Stratocaster.
"People used to have conversations where they'd ask,
'Who's the better guitarist: Clapton or Hendrix?' I was
never popular, because I'd say Jose Feliciano. I mean, he
took this song by the Doors and showed how melodious it is --
and he was playing acoustic, and he was blind. I thought
Hendrix was great, too, but not because of 'Purple Haze' or
'Foxey Lady' but because of what I heard him play without
an amp. Nobody wanted to hear that, though."
The Isley Brothers and Jimi Hendrix both were inducted
into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. During the
ceremony, Ernie joined the all-star band to sing "Purple
Haze," even playing the guitar behind his back.
The Isleys have found new life in the era of hip-hop,
too. As Ernie mentioned, more rappers sample Isley Brothers
songs than even James Brown.
"It started with Public Enemy doing 'Fight the Power.'
That was one of the first samples. That was before there
were any ground rules as to how the songwriters and
publishers were going to deal with this. After that, it
seemed we started getting about a dozen requests for
different songs out of our catalogs on a daily basis. We
The current Isley Brothers lineup includes Ronald, Ernie
and Marvin, the same trio that recorded the group's latest
album in 1996, "Mission to Please." That record was the
group's first gold album since 1983's "Between the Sheets."
"We're working on another CD," Ernie said. "We gotta keep
going. This Isley Brothers banner has been flying for more
than 40 years, and I get the feeling there are some people
who are just now starting to pay attention. I mean, what
these guys do seems to dictate which way the wind is going
to blow against the flag. You know, people know what
Britney Spears is doing and what the Backstreet Boys are
doing. But what are the Isleys doing?"
The Isley Brothers
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Brady Theater, 105 W. Brady
Tickets: $40.50 on the
floor, $36.50 in the balcony, available at the Brady
box office and all Dillard's outlets
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.