The Isley Brothers began singing together as youngsters in 1950. Ronald, Rudolph, Kelly [originally O’Kelly] and Vernon started out as a gospel group, performing in churches and other venues throughout their hometown of Cincinnati. But in 1955, Vernon Isley was killed in a bicycle accident. The traumatized siblings would not reform the ensemble until 1956, the year they moved to New York. Still, Ronald Isley says they did not consider themselves a professional unit until 1959, when the trio logged their first hit, “Shout.” Ernie Isley joined the family business in 1969, which opened the door to his now-famous bass work on “It’s Your Thing.”
The Isley Brothers later expanded to include Marvin Isley and brother-in-law Chris Jasper; the title of their 3 + 3 album was a reference to original members Rudolph, Ronald and Kelly teaming with the new guard of Ernie, Marvin and Jasper. The 3 + 3 roster persisted until 1983, by which time the lineup had racked up a raft of hits that many consider a keystone of modern urban pop.
Ernie, Marvin and Jasper later formed Isley/Jasper/Isley, scoring a #1 Billboard R&B hit with “Caravan Of Love” in 1985. And as the 21st century dawned, the Isley Brothers mantle was carried by Ronald and Ernie. (Kelly Isley passed away in 1986.) With Eternal, the outfit became known as The Isley Brothers Featuring Ronald Isley AKA Mr. Biggs.
After The Isley Brothers left their initial mark on R&B charts in 1959 with “Shout” – which would sell a million copies and become a standard – they scored the #1 R&B hit “Twist And Shout” (both songs were subsequently covered by The Beatles), in 1962. But it was 1969’s “It’s Your Thing” that cemented their fame, shooting to #1 on the Billboard R&B chart and ultimately selling more than five million copies. The song also earned a Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance.
Ensuing #1 hits included the Billboard R&B chart-toppers “Fight The Power (Part 1),” from 1975, and “Don’t Say Goodnight (It’s Time For Love),” from 1980, as well as the songs “That Lady (Part 1)” (1973), “The Heat Is On” (1975), “The Pride” (1977), “Take Me To The Next Phase” (1978), “Showdown” (1978), “I Wanna Be With You” (1979), “Smooth Sailin’ Tonight” (1987) and “Spend The Night” (1989).
Among their best-selling albums are 3 + 3 (1973), The Heat Is On (1975), Harvest For The World (1976), Go For Your Guns (1977), Showdown (1978), Winner Take All (1979), Go All The Way (1980), Grand Slam (1981), Between The Sheets (1983) and Mission To Please (1996).
The Isleys also enjoy a variety of hits by association – their catalogue is reportedly the most sampled in the history of hip-hop, and many R&B and pop performers have borrowed from the Isleys as well. Ernie notes that “Fight The Power (Part I),” “That Lady (Part I),” “Between The Sheets” and “Footsteps In The Dark” – all recorded between 1973 and 1983 – have been used regularly as the basis for hit songs.
Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s #1 1996 Billboard Hot 100 hit “Tha Crossroads” sampled the Isleys’ “Make Me Say It Again Girl” (1975). Ice Cube used “Footsteps In The Dark” (1977) for his 1993 #1 Billboard Hot Rap hit “It Was A Good Day.” Aaliyah recorded “At Your Best (You Are Love)” (1976), scoring a #1 Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Recurrent hit in 1995. The Notorious B.I.G.’s 1995 Billboard #1 Hot Rap hit “Big Poppa/Warning” sampled “Between The Sheets” (1983). Public Enemy used “Fight The Power (Part 1)” to powerful effect with a #1 Billboard Hot Rap hit by the same name in 1989. Whitney Houston sampled “Between The Sheets” for her 2003 hit “One Of These Days” and in 1987 covered “For The Love Of You” (1975).
But The Isley Brothers’ significance cannot be expressed by chart statistics alone. In addition to their many other contributions to American popular music, the Brothers brought a virtually unknown guitarist by the name of Jimi Hendrix on their maiden tour of England, in 1964 (Hendrix made his first recordings with the Isleys and many have noted the influence of Ernie Isley on his playing). On the European leg of that outing, their keyboardist was a young man named Elton John.
Ultimately, though, it’s the Isleys’ relationship to each other and not to their fellow performers – no matter how renowned – that defines them. Ernie accounts for their enduring success: “The Isley Brothers are a family and support group in addition to being a musical group. Right now, there are two of us physically, but when you say ‘The Isley Brothers,’ all the brothers are with us in spirit. What we have is unique, beyond classification, and we are extremely grateful for it.”
“I refer to Body Kiss as ‘this year’s model,’” he concludes. “It’s what we want to share this time around. So roll down the windows, lift the hood and take this baby for a spin – we think you’re gonna like it.”