From the Fifties onward, the Isley Brothers have been a musical institution whose prolific career has explored the musical intersection of gospel, R&B, rock, soul, funk and disco. Having been a family-based group since their inception, the Isley Brothers originated with four gospel-singing brothers: Ronald, o’Kelly, Rudolph and Vernon (the last of whom was killed in a bike accident in 1955). The three surviving brothers left their hometown of Cincinnati in 1957 for New York City, where they recorded several songs for small labels. Their breakthrough came with their fervent recording of “Shout,” an original inspired by a line from Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops” and shot through with raucous, gospel-style testifying.
The period 1959-1962 was a creatively fruitful one for the Isleys that yielded such staples of the rock and soul canon as “Respectable” (later a hit for the Outsiders), “Nobody But Me” (recut in a Top 10 version by the Human Beinz) and “Twist and Shout” (an enduring R&B classic recorded by the Beatles and played by countless cover bands). Throughout the Sixties, the Isleys recorded for a variety of labels, including RCA, Atlantic, Scepter/Wand, United Artists, their own T-Neck and Motown’s Tamla subsidiary. Their brief stay at the latter yielded the melodic soul classic “This Old Heart of Mine,” written and produced by the Motown production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland. As a historical footnote, a pre-psychedelic Jimi Hendrix played guitar for the Isley Brothers in 1964, and his style can be heard in the playing of younger brother Ernie Isley, who joined the group at the end of the decade.
The Isley Brothers took business matters into their own hands in 1969 by re-establishing their own label, T-Neck (named for their home base of Teaneck, New Jersey). The group also expanded its lineup with the addition of three younger family members: brothers Ernie and Marvin and cousin Chris Jasper. The new arrangement immediately yielded the biggest hit of their career, “It’s Your Thing,” which won a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance. This marked the start of a period in which they dominated the black-music realm, placing a staggering 50 singles on the R&B chart between 1969 and 1988.
Throughout the Seventies, the Isley Brothers’ rock-disco fusion – driven by a propulsive beat, Ernie Isley’s snaky funk guitar lines and the smooth, sinuous vocal blend of the three elder Isleys – generated considerable crossover appeal. The Isleys took the novel approach of giving a hardcore R&B treatment to rock songs such as Seals and Crofts’ “Summer Breeze” and Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With.” The group also connected with originals such as the unrelenting, funky “Fight the Power,” “The Pride,” “Take Me to the Next Phase” and “I Wanna Be With You” – all of them Number One R&B hits. On the quieter side, the Isleys recorded a number of sexy, seductive ballads such as “Don’t Say Goodnight (It’s Time for Love)” and “Between the Sheets.”
The mid-Eighties brought changes to the Isley Brothers’ platinum empire. The younger band members struck out on their own as Isley-Jasper-Isley in 1984. Two years later, o'Kelly suffered a fatal heart attack. Remaining members Ronald and Rudolph Isley continued as a duo. In 1990, Ronald Isley returned to the charts in a Top 10 remake of “This Old Heart of Mine,” sung as a duet with Rod Stewart.”
In 1991, Ernie Isley and Marvin Isley reunited and recorded the album Tracks of Life, which was released in 1992. That same year, the Isley Brothers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Little Richard. In 1996, they recorded Mission to Please, which became the group’s first million-selling album in 13 years, and in 2001, Ronald and Ernie recorded Eternal, which sold 2 million copies.
On June 6, 2010, Marvin Isley died of complications from his diabetes. Ronald and Ernie have continued to perform together.