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Ronald Isley talks Kendrick, McCartney and ‘Shout’ before St. Pete show

The 78-year-old funk and R&B legend brings the Isley Brothers back to the Mahaffey Theater next week.
Ronald Isley, right, and Ernie Isley of the Isley Brothers will perform at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg on Dec. 19. [Primary Wave]
Ronald Isley, right, and Ernie Isley of the Isley Brothers will perform at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg on Dec. 19. [Primary Wave]
Published Dec. 11, 2019
Updated Dec. 12, 2019

Imagine being Ronald Isley at a wedding. Imagine walking the room, saying hi to family and friends, congratulating the bride and groom … and then the DJ plays Shout.

“It’s awesome, man, it’s awesome,” the legendary singer said recently by phone from his home in St. Louis. “At the yacht club, if somebody was there and getting married at the same time, I’ve watched them — they didn’t even know I was there, and they played it. They were doing all those things that we used to sing about.”

Sixty years later, the Isley Brothers are still singing Shout, and fans are still kicking their heels up. Ronald, who co-wrote and sang Shout back in 1959, has been revered ever since, influencing everyone from the Beatles (the Isleys’ Twist and Shout inspired theirs) to the Notorious B.I.G. (Big Poppa samples 1983′s Between the Sheets) to Kendrick Lamar (Isley was featured on To Pimp a Butterfly).

A decade ago, the future of the Isley Brothers — now just Ronald and guitarist Ernie — was in question, as Ronald Isley was serving a three-year prison sentence for tax evasion. But since his release they’ve picked right up and kept going. They were booked to headline this summer’s Pitchfork Music Festival, alongside much younger acts like Haim and Charli XCX; and on Dec. 19, their latest tour will bring them to the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg.

“We’ve talked about doing it until we can’t do it no more,” said Isley, 78. “I can’t think of anything else I would rather do than what I’m doing now. It just gives you a great feeling and keeps me young to be in front of the audience, doing what I love to do.”

Before the show, Isley talked about working with Lamar, singing with Paul McCartney, writing Shout and more. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Do you remember the first time you performed in Florida?

I don’t remember the first time, but I remember during the ’70s, how successful we were coming there with Teddy Pendergrass, shows we put together on our own.

Are there singers from that era that you don’t think get the recognition they should?

At this point, I don’t know if they’re still performing. I’m speaking of great people like my best friend Aretha Franklin. The O’Jays are doing very well; we did a show with them in Detroit and Cleveland, and they were both sellouts. People like the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, they’re really very successful.

One of the things about being in this business as long as you have is that you end up meeting and losing so many creative people close to you, from Aretha to Bert Berns to Jimi Hendrix. Who’s somebody you would have loved to work with more, but never got the chance?

I wish we would have went to England more, spent some time with the Rolling Stones and all the people in England that loved us. It’s one of those things that you think, you’ll get to it sooner or later. We went to the Hamptons to do a show, and we were there with Paul McCartney, Bon Jovi and Usher, just a lot of people, and we went on stage and did Shout and Twist and Shout with Paul McCartney, and guys had tears in their eyes. It was just fantastic.

The Isley Brothers, Ronald and Ernie (with guitar), will perform at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg on Dec. 19. [Courtesy of Primary Wave]

Do you remember the first time you heard about sampling?

My mother lived across the street from Sylvia Robinson. We were there when she developed that song (Rapper’s Delight) with the Sugarhill Gang. We used to go out every day that we were in town to talk about music, who she was recording, what she was doing. Right there from the very beginning.

You have songwriting credit on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, on How Much a Dollar Cost and i, which samples That Lady.

I have two Grammy awards from that.

What stands out about putting that album together?

He came to St. Louis and sat down with me, and we talked about the experiences his mother had had with our records. I hooked up a studio out here in St. Louis. Him and his managers and all his friends were out here to record the sample of That Lady. We recorded it several types of ways. One of the ways, he put on his album that you heard. We made each other promises that we would do all kind of things together when we got the time to do it.

What do you remember about writing Shout?

All the people singing were doing the things that I wrote about: You know you make me wanna throw my hands up, kick my heels up. The producer at the time, who was producing Sam Cooke, asked us to bring some of the audience in the studio and do it: A little bit softer now, a little bit louder now, all the things that we saw the audience do. That’s what we did. When we look back at it, it was truly a gift from God.

How do the last few years of performing feel since you got out of jail? Does it feel like a continuation of where you were before, or does it feel like something different?

I wasn’t in no jail. I was alongside 150 people, no bars, no nothing, and treated like a king from day one. Treated like a king. I did some shows for them, two or three songs, and it was one of the best experiences of my life.

When you got out, did the shows feel any different?

They were bigger.

Isley Brothers

$35 and up. 7:30 p.m. Dec. 19. Mahaffey Theater, 400 First St. S, St. Petersburg. (727) 892-5767. themahaffey.com.

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