Isley Brothers do their thing and so do others

Published Jun. 22, 1996|Updated Sept. 16, 2005

Think of the Isley Brothers, and it's likely that two things will immediately come to mind: Ronald Isley's silky, supple, R&B-loveman vocals and brother Ernie's slashing, phase-shifter-fed guitar sound.

It's the classic one-two sonic punch that powered Isley Brothers hits ranging from 1973's That Lady (Part 1) to 1978's Take Me to the Next Phase.

But don't spend a lot of time looking for that guitar sound on the Isley's latest album, Mission to Please. Crafted with help from such New Jack R&B stars as Keith Sweat, R. Kelly and Babyface, this record sticks Ernie's patented bursts of Hendrix-style solo licks between layers of keyboards and vocal licks _ something the guitar-man himself has few problems with.

"In many ways, the climate musically is what it is . . . you have to go with the flow," the 44-year-old guitarist said. "There's a lot of guitar on the record. If the marketplace wanted to hear more . . . they'll let us know when the record comes out."

It seems a remarkably selfless attitude for Ernie, who was often the focal point of the group in the '70s, cranking out sheets of incendiary licks to match classic Isley jams like Footsteps in the Dark and Voyage to Atlantis.

But a look at this group's remarkable musical resume reveals they have always known what it takes to make hit records _ somehow finding an engaging, original sound to match every shift in black music trends.

These days, the group is riding high on its association with R. Kelly, who got Ronald to sing and appear in the video for his own hit single Down Low (Nobody Has To Know). Between that exposure and the dozens of artists who have sampled old Isley hits for new songs, it seems they have never left the R&B radio dial.

"A song like Between The Sheets would be sampled by one rapper, go to No. 1, then before it cools off, somebody else is using it," Ernie says, laughing. "We started looking at each other saying, "These guys are making us look like Nostradamus.' "

During their origins in the mid-'50s, the group (founded by Ernie's older brothers Rudolph, O'Kelly and Ronald) seemed destined to create songs other artists would make famous, cobbling together classic R&B jams like Shout, Twist and Shout and This Old Heart of Mine _ later to become hits for Joey Dee and the Starlighters, the Beatles and Rod Stewart, among others.

Later, after nuturing talents like a young Jimi Hendrix in their backing band, the Isleys got their younger brothers involved, with Ernie playing bass on the landmark 1969 hit It's Your Thing.

Alternating hit cover tunes like Summer Breeze and Lay Lady Lay with original successes like Fight The Power, the Isleys kept their winning streak through the '70s. As disco's popularity grew, they turned to midtempo grooves and ballads like Choosy Lover and Between the Sheets.

In honor of their 40-plus years in the industry, VIBE magazine will present the group today with its first VIBE PROPS Legend Award.

"Without the Isley Brothers, there would be no R. Kelly, Annie Lennox or Teddy Riley," said VIBE president Keith Clinkscales. "Pop music would be . . . something much less compelling."

Immodest as it may sound, Ernie Isley agrees. "There's not another group whose resume starts with early rock, goes through the twist, the British Invasion, psychedelic stuff, soul, funk disco and rap eras," he says.

At a glance

The Isley Brothers headline the VIBE magazine Black Music Month Celebration tonight at Pleasure Island. Tickets to Pleasure Island, at Disney Village Marketplace, are $16.95 each. Showtime: 7 p.m. (407) 934-7781.