In the annals of music history, The Isley Brothers hold a unique place. Ever since the sibling quartet of O’Kelly, Rudolph, Ronald and Vernon started out as a gospel-turned-doo wop outfit back in 1954, the Isleys have followed a path that’s served as a mirror to the changes contemporary rhythm and blues has experienced right up until the present day. What other group can claim that they’ve been covered by The Beatles, acted as a proving ground for Jimi Hendrix, been at the forefront of 1970s funk and served as a major touchstone for hip-hop heavyweights like The Notorious B.I.G. and Ice Cube?
Ronald and younger brother Ernie Isley are the two remaining siblings out on the road as The Isley Brothers. The group is still creatively viable thanks to Tower of Peace, an upcoming project recorded with longtime admirer Carlos Santana that’s set to drop in the spring. It’s an experience Ernie Isley enjoyed quite a bit.
“It was great. Carlos Santana is a fan of our music and we’re fans of his. He was being played in all the dormitories when I was in college, so to have a chance to play with him in the studio and watch him play [was great],” he said.
Santana was equally excited about this opportunity, particularly after getting Ron Isley to sing on a couple of songs from last year’s Santana IV.
“Just to be in the same room as Ronnie Isley is like everything. He did ‘Twist and Shout’ before The Beatles arrived and did it on The Ed Sullivan Show and he did the real ‘Twist and Shout,’” Santana explained. “My wife [drummer Cindy Blackmon] and I recorded 15 songs in four days with [The Isley Brothers]—which is going to be the next album that comes out after [Santana IV], which is going to be called Tower of Peace. When you hear these songs, it’s going to freak you out.”
With O’Kelly, Rudolph and Ronald proving to be the foundation for the group, (Vernon was killed after getting hit by a car when he was 13), the Isley Brothers were 1960s pop/R&B heavyweights thanks to hits like “Shout,” “Twist and Shout” and “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You).”
Once younger brothers Marvin and Ernie joined the group along with brother-in-law Chris Jasper, the Isley Brothers moved in a harder funk direction that found them reinterpreting songs by non-R&B artists like Seals & Croft (“Summer Breeze”) and Stephen Stills (“Love the One You’re With”) and coming up with their own classic hits (“That Lady,” “Live It Up,” “Fight the Power,” “Harvest for the World”). It was this kind of creative malleability that’s enabled the Isleys to stay relevant to the point that the band was sampled by rapper Kendrick Lamar for 2015’s critically acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly.
It’s a facet of the group that Ernie Isley is rightfully proud of, particularly when he fondly recalls Hendrix’s stint in the band from March 1963 to November 1965.
“It’s great to have Isley on the Hendrix resume in terms of his life and journey and it’s also great to have Hendrix on the Isley resume in terms of where our career musically wound up going,” Isley explained. “‘Shout’ is a record that sounds one way. ‘Twist and Shout’ sounds a different way. ‘This Old Heart of Mine’ released by Motown sounds a different way. ‘It’s Your Thing’ sounds a different way, but it’s the same group. And then you have ‘That Lady,’—‘That Lady?’…that’s the same group. We were able to musically chase and capture what we were after. It’s crossed generations and musical boundaries. In that way, it’s been our gift.”
The Isley Brothers will appear on Jan. 14 at B.B. King Blues Club and Grill, 237 West 42nd St. NYC. For more information, visit www.bbkingblues.com or call 212-997-4144.
They will also be at NYCB Theatre @ Westbury, 960 Brush Hollow Rd., Westbury on Jan. 15. For more information, visit www.livenation.com or call 877-598-8497.