Then and now, The Isley Brothers find the groove; Soul singers adapt, endure; latest album soars on chart

Male soul singers make blessed sounds but often live unlucky lives. Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye all died before earning 50 candles on their birthday cakes. And right now, Barry White, 58, and Luther Vandross, 52, are lying in hospital beds after suffering strokes.

These events cast a melancholy tint over Black Music Month, which begins today. 

But even in these sad, watchful days, there has been some good news for soul music fans. Last month, the legendary Isley Brothers, led by 62-year-old vocalist Ronald Isley, scored their first No. 1 pop album ever, knocking uber-popular rapper 50 Cent from the top spot.

The album, “Body Kiss,” fell to No. 10 the following week. But sales remain strong. Jim Riel, manager of Tower Records in Buckhead, says the album has moved a consistent number of copies for the past three weeks.

The success of this latest Isley effort, produced largely by current hit maker R. Kelly, marks another milestone for an act that has been performing in various incarnations since 1950. The group, now scaled down to a duo with Ronald and his guitarist brother Ernie, has persevered through a combination of resilience and mutability.

“If you think about it, no one has changed with the times as long as we have,” Ernie Isley wrote in the liner notes to the 1999 box set “It’s Your Thing: The Story of the Isley Brothers.” He added: ” ‘Shout’ is part of the early canon of rock and roll. We influenced the Beatles. We had hits for Motown. Jimi Hendrix was in our band before Monterey Pop. We had hits during the funk and disco eras. Rappers sample us. You can hear our music in the movies, in stadiums, on commercials. No one has that kind of resume.”

The story of this family act began in the late 1940s and early ’50s in Lincoln Heights, Ohio, a mostly black town near Cincinnati. Brothers O’Kelly, Rudolph, Ronald and Vernon would use almost any opportunity to show off their soulful harmonies. They’d sing on the street corners selling war bonds and raise the spirit at the First Baptist Church, where their mother played organ and led the choir.

They gained a local reputation because of their rousing vocals. But younger brother Vernon also was known for the way he moved, proving especially proficient at the popular dance “the itch.”

“Vernon would stand onstage and reach around and swizzle his hips and the amateur night audience would be on their feet,” remembered poet Nikki Giovanni, who grew up with the Isleys, in an essay she wrote for the box set.

These singing and dancing brothers were the young princes of Lincoln Heights, seemingly destined to put the proud black city on the national map. But tragedy hit in 1954, when a car struck and killed Vernon as he rode his bicycle.

The other three brothers wanted to quit singing, but their parents refused to let them. And five years later, they scored a smash hit with that secular blast of gospel fervor, “Shout.”

“We were all happy,” wrote Giovanni of hometown reaction to the group’s breakthrough. “Though nobody does the itch anymore since that’s what Vernon did.”

The 1960s brought a string of influential hits such as “Twist and Shout” and “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You),” which were covered by the Beatles and Rod Stewart, respectively. During that decade, the Isleys also nurtured some considerable talents in their band, including guitar maestro Hendrix and a piano-playing English guy who would come to be known as Elton John.

In the 1970s, two younger siblings, Ernie and Marvin, and a brother-in-law, Chris Jasper, took on a more prominent role in the outfit, updating the sound to incorporate elements of hard rock, psychedelia and funk. The group, now six strong, churned out hot, soulful stompers (“That Lady”), drastically reinterpreted cover versions (Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze”) and sinewy ballads (“For the Love of You”).

Through the 1980s and ’90s, tensions within the group and the general unpredictability of life led to several changes in the lineup. The three younger members splintered off into a trio called Isley, Jasper, Isley. O’Kelly died in his sleep in 1985. And shortly thereafter, Rudolph retired from the pop music world and became a minister.

Ronald has been the primary force behind the group for the past decade, and he has remained true to the dynamic, ever-changing spirit that has always guided the Isleys. In 1996, he paired with rhythm-and-blues superstar Kelly for the ballad “Down Low.” In the video, Ronald played a gangster-ish character called Mr. Biggs.

This persona fuels many cuts on the new album, including the musical soap operas of deception and betrayal “Showdown” and “Busted” (with girl group JS, who have their own Kelly-produced album coming later this year). For some old-time fans, the image of Ronald Isley decked out in pimplike furs, jewels and fedoras is ludicrous. But then there has always been a sort of absurdity and incongruity to the group’s look.

A 1969 album found them in pink monastic robes. And they spent most of the 1970s in sparkly, form-fitting bodysuits, looking like lost members of the Village People. Comparatively, Ronald’s new mack-daddy get-ups seem tame.

But what makes “Body Kiss” such an achievement isn’t Ronald’s look but his sound. His voice, which is like a falsetto caress, is masterfully matched to Kelly’s thick, tailor-made grooves.

The songs showcase Kelly’s best talents as a songwriter and producer. While he’s laughable as a lyricist (the song “Lucky Charm” actually references the similarly named breakfast cereal), Kelly has a remarkable ability to make tracks that exude an easy eroticism. (Indeed, it’s rather amazing that someone with such a troubled sexual life — Kelly currently awaits trial on child pornography charges — can make desire sound so uncomplicated.)

Some longtime fans of the Isleys have carped that most of Kelly’s sleek tracks don’t include Ernie’s guitar work. But this seems to be just another example of how open the brothers are to change, and not bound by any one idea of who they are or what they should sound like.

Adaptability is the key to evolution. And the Isley Brothers have made the idea of the “soul survivor” less a cliche than a lived reality.


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