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The Isley Brothers are a music group from Cincinnati, Ohio, who hold the record for being the longest-running charted group in music history. Starting in 1954 and lasting into the new millennium, the group has spanned decades, two generations of members and music genres as diverse as gospel, doo-wop, R&B, soul, funk, rock, adult contemporary and even hip-hop. Their early hits, "Shout!", "Twist & Shout" and "Nobody But Me", laid the groundwork for 1960s rock acts and became soul standards in the process. They also pioneered the ground for other artists and bands to form their own labels forming T-Neck Records in the mid-1960s. They also helped pave the way for self-contained funk bands after Sly & the Family Stone with the release of their groundbreaking 1969 single, "It's Your Thing".
Founded in 1954, the original members were brothers O'Kelly, Jr., Rudolph, Ronald and Vernon Isley, singing just gospel until Vernon's death from a car accident in 1955. After a brief split, the three older brothers reformed as a trio. In 1973, they added younger brothers Ernie and Marvin and brother-in-law Chris Jasper, reinventing the vocal group as a band with the moniker 3 + 3. The younger half broke off from the group in 1984, making the group a vocal trio again, until 1986 when oldest brother O'Kelly, Jr., suddenly died of a heart attack. After one album as a duo, Rudolph retired to become a minister and Ronald carried on with a solo career until he, Ernie and Marvin reformed the Isley Brothers in 1991.
After Marvin left due to his battle with diabetes in 1997, Ronald and Ernie carried on into the new millennium. In the process, Ronald's new alter ego, the gangster and R. Kelly video villain 'Mr. Biggs', helped bring newfound success to the group.
The Isley Brothers all began singing in church under the tutelage of their parents, who were also musicians. In 1954, the four eldest of Sally and O'Kelly Isley, Sr.'s six sons formed the group as a gospel quartet. They toured all over their area of Ohio and other areas in the Midwestern and Eastern side of the United States until Vernon was killed in bicycle accident in 1955, at the age of 13. Shaken over the tragedy, the brothers decided to disband the group until their parents' coaxing got them back into music in 1956, when they were looking to branch out of gospel. In 1957, with their parents' blessing, the trio left Ohio for New York and began recording doo-wop for small labels with little success.
By 1959, the Isley Brothers were two years deep into their professional career and were without a hit. Often finding themselves opening for obscure acts in venues across the country, they finally got a boost when Jackie Wilson allowed the brothers to open for his show. During an inspired rendition of Wilson's classic, "Lonely Teardrops", Ronald went into a gospel routine and with his older brothers tagging along yelled out "you know you make me wanna shout!" A scout for RCA Records was at the audience and was so impressed that he helped them get signed to the label where they went into the studio to record what they had created on stage that night. Penned solely by the brothers, the song, "Shout!", became a breakthrough for the trio. Its mixture of gospel call and response vocals, bluesy lyrics and rock angst helped the boys score their first charted hit. Peaking at number forty-seven on the Billboard Hot 100, it proved to be an even bigger hit when it was covered by several rock acts both from America and Great Britain, and provided the brothers their first million-selling hit. Subsequent releases, however, failed to generate similar success and by 1962, the group had left RCA for Specter/Wand Records, where they would score another hit single with their rendition of the Topnotes' "Twist & Shout". It peaked at number seventeen on the Billboard Hot 100 and number two on the Billboard R&B Singles chart and would eventually become an even bigger hit thanks to The Beatles, which took the record straight to number two on the pop chart upon its release in late-1963.
T-Neck and the early emergence of Jimi Hendrix:
By 1964, however, the Isleys had yet to follow up with another hit, having modest success with the similar "Twistin' With Linda". After their original version of "Who's That Lady" failed to generate buzz, the group decided to form their own label, which they called T-Neck Records. Within a year, the Isleys cut their first independent singles in the label, two of which ("Testify" and "Move On Over & Let Me Dance") featured a Seattle guitarist going by the name of Jimmy James. James was also the leading guitarist in the brothers' touring band. After leaving, he changed his name back to Jimi Hendrix and became a sensation soon afterwards. The brothers also reportedly hired a teenage Elton John as a touring pianist during a UK tour around this time.
Still unsatisfied and unimpressed by the slow progress, the brothers folded the label and signed on with Motown Records in 1965. A year later, they would score their biggest hit to date when the Holland-Dozier-Holland-produced "This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You)" went to number twelve on the Billboard Hot 100 and number six R&B in 1966. But as with "Shout" and "Twist & Shout" before it, the group was unable to follow up with a successor. By 1968, they were complaining of feeling like a second-tier act in the label that was home to top groups The Temptations & The Supremes. Inspired by their success in the UK, where "This Old Heart of Mine" reached number three on the pop singles chart, and fed up with Motown founder Berry Gordy's direction with them, they left the label, reformed T-Neck and signed with New York-based Buddah Records.
The Buddah Years:
Through Buddah and their newfound faith in their careers, the Isley Brothers changed their image, sound and lineup. Though they weren't made members yet, younger brothers guitarist/drummer Ernie and bassist Marvin eventually joined the lineup. In February of 1969, the Isleys hit pay dirt with the funk anthem "It's Your Thing". It was their biggest hit to date, reaching number one on the Black Singles chart and number two on the Pop Singles chart, winning them their first and only Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group and selling over five million copies. Through this early period with Buddah, the brothers' input went from a gritty funk-soul sound like that of James Brown, The JB's, and Sly & the Family Stone, to a funk/rock sound that integrated the worlds of James Brown's instrumental funk and Jimi Hendrix's syncopating hard rock, thanks to the searing guitar licks by brother Ernie (who was a multi-instrumentalist). With the inclusion of brother-in-law and keyboardist Chris Jasper in 1970, the group would hit strides with songs like 1969's "I Turned You On", 1970s "Keep On Doin'" and "Freedom", their inspired 1971 covers of Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay", War and Eric Burdon's "Spill the Wine" and Stephen Stills' "Love the One You're With", and 1972's self-penned "Lay-Away", "Work to Do" and "Pop That Thang". Critics have praised this early period of the Isleys' coming-of-age and many of their fans have considered their 1972 album, Brother, Brother, Brother, their best album.
The 3 + 3 Years:
After their contract with Buddha expired in 1973, the Isleys were offered a long-term contract with Epic Records. Taking their T-Neck imprint with them, the brothers quickly went into the studio but this time as a sextet. That year, original members O'Kelly, Jr., Rudolph and Ronald decided to put Ernie, Marvin and Jasper into the forefront turning the original vocal trio into a band. The result of this transformation resulted in their groundbreaking album that year, 3 + 3, which featured their Top 10 pop smash "That Lady, Pt. 1 & 2", their top five R&B follow-up, "What It Comes Down To" and their seminal cover of Seals & Crofts' "Summer Breeze". Certified platinum, it was the brothers' first of a string of gold and platinum records the band would score throughout a ten-year tenure. Along the way, they not only did funk anthems and rock covers but also quiet storm slow songs and disco club hits.
In 1975, their album, The Heat Is On, became the brothers' first #1 album on the Billboard pop album charts. The album rode the success of their political anthem "Fight the Power Pts. 1 & 2", which was controversial for using the word "bullshit." Radio stations still play the song but censored the word. It would pave the way for a similar anthem by rap group Public Enemy in 1989. A second single, "For the Love of You Pts. 1 & 2", was also a memorable hit based on its smooth jazz-inspired production and soulful harmonies, another song remade many times by artists such as Boyz ll Men and Joss Stone. In 1977, their album, Go For Your Guns, featured the hits, "The Pride, Pt. 1 & 2," their quiet storm classic, "Voyage to Atlantis," and their psycadelica opus "Hope You Feel Better". Another song from the album, "Footsteps in the Dark", would become a radio hit though it never charted. At the end of the decade, they scored another #1 R&B hit with the disco gem, "I Wanna Be With You, Pt. 1 & 2". Their 1980 quiet storm gem, "Don't Say Goodnight (It's Time For Love)", would become their last big hit on both the pop and R&B charts, reaching number thirty nine on the former, and would be their eleventh Top 40 pop record. At that point, the brothers' 3 + 3 sound had died out by 1980, and although they still scored gold albums into 1983, they were replaced by funk bands such as Midnight Star, The Gap Band and Cameo as one of the top groups of the genre. To further complicate matters, members of the group were having arguments over the group's direction. In 1983, they scored platinum again with their Between The Sheets album, which included the hugely sampled title track and "Choosey Lover". In 1984, Ernie, Marvin and Chris left the Isley Brothers and formed their own group, Isley-Jasper-Isley, scoring the number-one hit, "Caravan of Love" in 1985.
Meanwhile, back at Square One...:
The original trio joined Warner Bros. Records and carried on releasing 1985's Masterpiece, which included the R&B hits, "May I?" and "Colder Are My Nights". But as suddenly as the group settled into new territory, oldest brother O'Kelly, Jr., died of a cancer-related heart attack on March 31, 1986 at the age of only 48. His brothers Rudolph and Ronald dedicated the Angela Winbush-produced Smooth Sailin' to O'Kelly, Jr., where they score their last Top 10 R&B hit, "Smooth Sailin' Tonight" before Rudolph announced that he was leaving the music industry to become a minister. Around the same time, the younger half had also split up to form their own careers, Jasper's being the most successful scoring a #1 R&B hit with "Super Bad". By 1989, all surviving members of the Isleys were solo artists. Ronald released the album, Spend the Night as an Isley Brothers album though Rudolph had retired from the music business before the album's release. In 1991, after Ronald scored a Top 10 cover on the pop charts with "This Old Heart of Mine" the previous year with fellow rock singer Rod Stewart, he released the Isleys' next record, Tracks of Life bringing in back Ernie and Marvin as members.
Introducing Mr. Biggs:
By 1995, the Isleys hadn't scored a big hit in more than a decade when contemporary R&B superstar R. Kelly approached two of the brothers, Ronald and Ernie, to appear on his self-titled third album. What followed was the group's appearance on the Top 40 pop charts for the first time since 1980s "Don't Say Goodnight" peaked at number thirty-nine with a 1996 duet with Kelly titled "Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)", which was a Top 10 pop and number-one R&B single. Much of the success was thanks to Ronald Isley's new image, created by Kelly in the video to the song. Re-introduced to a younger audience as the smooth gangster, Mr. Biggs, it helped bring a newer audience to the Isley Brothers, now approaching 40 years in the music business. In 1996, their album, Mission to Please, was released and, thanks to the singles, "Float on Your Love" and the Babyface-helmed ballad, "Tears", they scored their first platinum album since 1983's Between The Sheets.
After a deal with Island Black Music, where Ronald took control of bringing in singer Kelly Price, went dry in 2000 and after an initial battle with the IRS for tax evasion that led to Isley's bankruptcy, the Isleys signed with Dreamworks Records and released the Eternal album in 2001. On the album, their smash, the R. Kelly-produced "Contagious", was the brothers' biggest pop hit as a leading act since "Don't Say Goodnight", eventually becoming a Top 20 pop and number three R&B single. The song was later certified gold by the RIAA and helped Eternal debut at number three on the Billboard chart. The album went on to be certified multi-platinum with sales of 2.5 million copies sold. Two years later, in 2003, the brothers returned with Body Kiss, which was the first album in their long career to debut at #1 on the Billboard Top 200. Yielding the chart hits, "What Would You Do?" and "Busted", the album would be certified gold. In 2004, the Isleys scored a Top 40 R&B hit with Patti LaBelle with the song, "I Gotta Go Solo". That same year, a remix album which celebrated the group's 3 + 3 days titled after their 1978 hit, "Take Me to the Next Phase", was released and the brothers, now just consisting of Ronald and Ernie, left DreamWorks to become one of the first signees to the Def Soul Classics label.
Around the time, however, Ronald Isley suffered several blows. One of these included suffering a minor stroke while in London for a tour. Another resulted in trouble again with the IRS, when Isley was charged for tax evasion. Isley had allegedly concealed income by demanding cash during group performances, paid his musicians with cash to make it difficult for those to report how much he retained for himself, and cashed royalty checks issued to his late brother O'Kelly, Jr. He had been using the money to support his lifestyle which included buying fur coats, homes in St. Louis and Los Angeles, a yacht and cars. A trial took place a few months later, and in mid-October 2005, Isley was convicted of the charges. In October of 2006, Isley was convicted to 37 months in prison but despite the conviction the singer and his attorneys currently are appealing the decision. In the meantime, Isley and his wife, Kandy Johnson, welcomed the birth of Ronald's first son, Ronald, Jr.
Meanwhile, Rudolph, who reunited with the group for one night when the brothers were given an honor by BET, is still a minister at his church in California. Marvin has had his legs amputated due to diabetes and now uses an electric wheelchair. Chris Jasper still continues to do solo work, occasionally gospel music. Along with their inductions to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Vocal Group Hall of Fame, the group's classic songs, "Shout" and "It's Your Thing" have been played in several commercials.
The Isleys released their first album for Def Jam's Def Soul Classics imprint on May 9, 2006 titled Baby Makin' Music, featuring collaborations with producers like Tim & Bob and Jermaine Dupri. The first single, the Gordon Chambers-produced "Just Came Here to Chill", added to their long string of R&B hits. They have toured for the album since.now they have been getting funds from the Jani family from Zimbabwe and have performed a live concert on Willard Jani's 30th birthday. According to Billboard, the Isleys are working on a mostly self-penned and produced album set for a possible fall release.
Legacy and accomplishments:
Unlike most R&B groups who came around the same time they did, the Isley Brothers had survived every changing trend in the music business from the arrival of The Beatles in the 1960s to the domination of hip-hop in this generation. Also, overall, the group scored a rare feat by having a song chart on the Billboard chart in six decades since their influential rock classic, "Shout!", charted in 1959. They're also the only group to have a top 40 hit in five decades since "Twist & Shout" peaked at number seventeen on the pop chart in 1962. Their last Top 40 pop hit, "Contagious", charted at number nineteen in 2001.
Like many black artists in the 1950s and 1960s, most of the Isley Brothers' famed early material was covered to a great deal by white rock and blue-eyed soul acts ranging from The Beatles (who covered "Shout" in performance only and "Twist & Shout" on record, taking their version to number two on the pop singles chart in 1964) to Scottish singer Lulu (who took "Shout" to the top ten pop charts in her native United Kingdom that same year). Other songs the Isleys wrote and recorded, such as "Nobody But Me" and "Respectable", were also covered by white rock acts, including The Human Beinz, The Yardbirds, and The Outsiders. Other performers who covered their material either on record or live include The Who, Rod Stewart, and Michael Bolton, who unsuccessfully tried to buy the Isley Brothers' catalogue after the Isleys won a lawsuit alleging that Bolton's song "Love Is a Wonderful Thing" plagiarized their 1966 Motown track of the same title.
But it wasn't only white acts who covered the Isleys' material. R&B singers such as Ann Peebles, The Supremes, and Vanessa L. Williams covered Isleys tunes in various periods. Allegedly, James Brown's backing group The JBs covered the Isleys' 1970 funk charter, "Keep On Doin'", for their famous instrumental, "The Grunt". Much of the Isleys material has also been covered a great deal in commercials, much particularly, "Shout" and most recently, "It's Your Thing" - songs that the group wrote - have been played in several commercials to this day. The Isleys have gotten much love from the hip-hop community who sampled several Isleys songs for their own material such as Tupac Shakur, The Notorious B.I.G., Da Brat, Aaliyah, The Beastie Boys and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Most famously, rappers Ice Cube and The Notorious B.I.G. scored their biggest hits sampling Isleys material with their respective hit songs "It Was a Good Day" (covering "Footsteps in the Dark") and "Big Poppa" (covering "Between the Sheets") and R&B singer Aaliyah covered the Isleys' "At Your Best" and took it to the top forty on pop radio in 1994. More recently, former No Doubt frontwoman Gwen Stefani sampled "Between the Sheets" on the track "Luxurious" from her 2004 solo debut "Love. Angel. Music. Baby."
The Isley Brothers were also instrumental in the careers of Elton John and Jimi Hendrix enlisting the future music legends into their touring bands for a time and, at one point, allowing Hendrix to live at the family home after he told them he didn't have a home to stay in. In turn, the group allowed Hendrix to play solos on the brothers' first records for their T-Neck Records imprint. The Isleys recruited Elton when he was known as Reginald Dwight, in 1964, for their England tour. Much notably, they were able to bridge the gap between black and white music first covering rock tunes as shown on their 1971 album, Givin' It Back and later making their own soulful seminal versions of some of those rock tunes such as "Summer Breeze", "Love the One You're With" and "Hello It's Me". Among the bands they influenced along the way when their matured funk was making them a commercial staple in the 1970s include Earth, Wind & Fire, The Commodores, The Bar-Kays, Cameo, The Ohio Players and Kool & the Gang. Their music also influenced the careers of solo artists such as Michael Jackson, Lenny Kravitz, R. Kelly and Babyface
The Isleys were inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 and to the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2003. In 2004 they were inducted to Hollywood's Rock Walk. Other honors include the Soul Train Music Award for the Quincy Jones Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002 and the BET Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2004.
In October 2004 "Between The Sheets" appeared in popular videogame Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, playing on Funk radio station Bounce FM.