The Isley Brothers

The Isley Brothers


“It’s a combination of what’s real right now: classic R&B with a pop influence, and it’s a very sensual record. It’s what we’ve always done – only even better,” says Ronald Isley of Body Kiss, the new album from The Isley Brothers Featuring Ronald Isley AKA Mr. Biggs. (Mr. Biggs is the “mack daddy” alter ego Isley has developed over the course of five music videos – to many of the Isleys’ younger fans, Mr. Biggs is synonymous with Ronald Isley).
“We set out to make an album that would not only be a milestone for The Isley Brothers, but for the entire music community,” Isley continues. “We wanted this to be the kind of record people look to for inspiration. That’s what The Isley Brothers have always strived for.”
Still, the celebrated soul singer will concede other motives: “I’m competitive,” he says. “I like to sell records. I’m inspired by wanting to be on top. Conventional wisdom says that artists who were successful in the ‘50s are not going to have hit records in 2003, so you can imagine how much I’m loving this!”
What he’s loving is the 2003 hit record “What Would You Do?,” Body Kiss’ first radio track, which rose up the charts shortly after its introduction to the airwaves. The song was produced, written and arranged by longtime Isley Brothers collaborator R. Kelly (who also contributes additional vocals, as The Pied Piper). In fact, Kelly produced, wrote and arranged 11 of the 12 tracks on Body Kiss (due May 6, 2003, on DreamWorks Records).


“Something special happens when the Isleys and R. Kelly come together, something that is truly more than the sum of its parts,” says guitarist extraordinaire Ernie Isley. Adds Ronald: “R. Kelly and the Isleys have achieved success independent of each other and on songs together.” Perhaps most notable of the latter was “Contagious,” the first radio track off the Isleys’ 2001 album, Eternal. Kelly produced, wrote, arranged and appeared on the track, which hit #1 on Airplay Monitor’s Adult R&B chart. Ronald maintains: “Those experiences got us and Robert talking about doing an entire album together. We figured it was time to really outdo ourselves.”
Also helping The Isley Brothers reach new heights were producer-songwriter team Tim And Bob, who lent their expertise to the track “I Want That,” and performers JS (an up-and-coming female vocal duo), Snoop Dogg and Lil’ Kim.
Says Ronald of the song “I Like”: “That’s Mr. Biggs, R. Kelly and Snoop Dogg – big players – describing the things we like. It cuts through the BS, and it’s a real club song. We had a lot of fun with it.” Ernie confides: “We have such mutual admiration for Snoop, and we were so pleased to be able to work with him. He’s at the top of his game here.”
Ronald comments on the album’s title track: “‘Body Kiss’ is a duet between Mr. Biggs and Lil’ Kim, who we’ve known for a long time. It has all the flavors of what’s happening right now in music; there’s a little Neptunes style here, a little street flavor. It’s jellyrolling music, with sensual lyrics.” Notes Ernie: “Kim really has her own thing; she has a strong heart and personality. We wanted to work with her again after ‘Float On,’ and this was the perfect fit.” [“Float On” was a remix of “Floatin’ On Your Love,” from The Isley Brothers’ 1996 album, Mission To Please.]


Of course, Lil’ Kim, Snoop Dogg, JS and R. Kelly (who’s worked with the group since Mission To Please) are not just the Isleys’ creative peers. Nor are they simply passionate fans. What they’ve become are participants in one of America’s most storied artistic legacies.
The Isley Brothers have basked in the forefront of popular music for nearly 50 years. Their incredible career has seen dozens of #1 hits, both singles and albums; more than two dozen gold, platinum and multiplatinum singles and albums; countless awards; and the Brothers’ induction into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame (in 1992). What’s even more remarkable – and further indication of the Isleys’ lasting cultural significance – is how they’ve reinvented themselves with each passing year, thus consistently reaping a fresh crop of fans. They are a bridge between today’s most vital pop artists and the soul greats who brought the music out of the church and into mass consciousness.
Acknowledging their place in history, Ronald Isley says: “I knew Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson and The Temptations. I knew their intimate thoughts on music, and I knew them as friends. The Isley Brothers are in a unique place now because we possess that repository of knowledge, and we carry it on through our new material. Ernie and I understand what a tremendous opportunity and responsibility that is, how special that is. The Lord has truly blessed us, and we continue to be led to a greater place.”
Through this calling, the Isleys have influenced myriad artists. Contemporary R&B and hip-hop stars have frequently paid them tribute by sampling and covering their material. “We’re beyond old school,” Ernie jokes. “We’ve become an institution – I think we must be at the university level by now! The Beatles, Aaliyah, Biggie Smalls, Ice Cube, Whitney Houston, Public Enemy, Bone Thugs and all the other people who’ve mined our catalogue – they’ve come through Isley University. And we, in turn, embrace everyone who has recognized our work and honored us this way.”


Recognizing and honoring the Isleys last time around were Kelly, Raphael Saadiq, Jill Scott and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, among others. They all contributed to 2001’s Eternal, which debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop chart (#3 on the Billboard 200) and quickly went platinum. Upon the release of that disc’s “Contagious,” the Brothers became the only act in history to have songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 for 41 years.
The Isleys have won innumerable awards over the decades. Eternal upped their take with two Soul Train Music Awards and a Billboard Music Video Award and generated nominations for a Grammy Award, an American Music Award and an NAACP Image Award. Moreover, The Isley Brothers received The Quincy Jones Award for outstanding career achievement at the 2001 Soul Train Awards.
“Eternal is that rare thing: an album that renders generational divides irrelevant,” said the New York Times (Sept. 14, 2001), and People declared: “The title may not be an exaggeration: These Brothers are here to stay…. Bottom Line: The Isleys still have it” (Sept. 17, 2001).
Indeed, Ronald Isley’s voice – which, for many, is soul music – is as supple today as when the Brothers recorded “Twist And Shout,” their first #1 hit, in 1962. Ernie Isley, meanwhile, remains one of the most distinctive, accomplished guitar players ever to wield the instrument (on Body Kiss, it’s a custom-built, one-of-a-kind Fender).


The Isley Brothers of 2003 clearly relish their role as pop legends and the sage status that imparts. Explains Ronald: “I was given the nickname Mr. Biggs because I live up to this reputation of being ‘The Don.’ I talk to people in the industry every day, especially the younger generation. They seek me out, and I offer an opinion or give them advice. I love being able to share my experience.”
R. Kelly, to be sure, is a major beneficiary of this wisdom. “That’s how my relationship with Robert goes,” Ronald confirms. “He’s like a son to me. He never knew his own father, and I’ve taken on that role; he calls me Dad and that’s the way we roll. His mother brought our music into the house when he was a kid, so he grew up listening to us and has an uncanny understanding of our sound.”
Kelly is also integral to the mythology of Mr. Biggs, repeatedly playing his romantic rival in music videos. Though Mr. Biggs is wealthy and powerful, a king of the streets, he nonetheless suffers more than his share of drama when it comes to love. Still, Ernie opines: “Mr. Biggs is a great character. I think all the young guys aspire to be Mr. Biggs when they grow up.”
Mr. Biggs fans will recall that the first installment of his story was R. Kelly’s “Down Low (Nobody Has To Know)” video (1996). It was directed by Hype Williams, as was the second episode, for Kelly Price’s “Friend Of Mine” clip (1998). Bille Woodruff was the mastermind behind the third and fourth chapters, for “Contagious” and “Secret Lover,” the second radio track off Eternal (both 2001). He was also on hand for the “What Would You Do?” video. The director describes Mr. Biggs as “an original gangsta,” adding, “His look reflects that – he wears incredible suits, fur coats, expensive watches and top hats, and he carries a walking stick.”
“The cane is an antique heirloom that was once owned by a king,” Isley elaborates. “It’s 22-carat gold and over 100 years old. It’s worth a great deal of money. It was given to me as a birthday present by my brother Rudolph, and it’s been on the cover of every Isley Brothers album since 3 + 3 [1973]. It came before Mr. Biggs.”
Ronald Isley is doubtless a man of many personae. Aside from being Mr. Biggs and vocalist for The Isley Brothers, he can boast a flourishing career as a much sought-after creative partner, having collaborated as a solo artist with musicians of varying genres and generations. He is also a player behind the scenes, serving as manager for Body Kiss guests JS (Kandy and Kim Johnson, formerly known as The Johnson Sisters), who laced Eternal with background vocals and who will release their debut album, Ice Cream, in the summer of 2003 on DreamWorks Records. “R. Kelly produced much of the JS album and it’s some of his best work,” Isley informs. “I’m just glad to be a part of it – the girls are an incredible talent.” They can be heard on the Body Kiss track “Busted.”


The Isley Brothers began singing together as youngsters in 1950. Ronald, Rudolph, Kelly [originally O’Kelly] and Vernon started out as a gospel group, performing in churches and other venues throughout their hometown of Cincinnati. But in 1955, Vernon Isley was killed in a bicycle accident. The traumatized siblings would not reform the ensemble until 1956, the year they moved to New York. Still, Ronald Isley says they did not consider themselves a professional unit until 1959, when the trio logged their first hit, “Shout.” Ernie Isley joined the family business in 1969, which opened the door to his now-famous bass work on “It’s Your Thing.”
The Isley Brothers later expanded to include Marvin Isley and brother-in-law Chris Jasper; the title of their 3 + 3 album was a reference to original members Rudolph, Ronald and Kelly teaming with the new guard of Ernie, Marvin and Jasper. The 3 + 3 roster persisted until 1983, by which time the lineup had racked up a raft of hits that many consider a keystone of modern urban pop.
Ernie, Marvin and Jasper later formed Isley/Jasper/Isley, scoring a #1 Billboard R&B hit with “Caravan Of Love” in 1985. And as the 21st century dawned, the Isley Brothers mantle was carried by Ronald and Ernie. (Kelly Isley passed away in 1986.) With Eternal, the outfit became known as The Isley Brothers Featuring Ronald Isley AKA Mr. Biggs.
After The Isley Brothers left their initial mark on R&B charts in 1959 with “Shout” – which would sell a million copies and become a standard – they scored the #1 R&B hit “Twist And Shout” (both songs were subsequently covered by The Beatles), in 1962. But it was 1969’s “It’s Your Thing” that cemented their fame, shooting to #1 on the Billboard R&B chart and ultimately selling more than five million copies. The song also earned a Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance.
Ensuing #1 hits included the Billboard R&B chart-toppers “Fight The Power (Part 1),” from 1975, and “Don’t Say Goodnight (It’s Time For Love),” from 1980, as well as the songs “That Lady (Part 1)” (1973), “The Heat Is On” (1975), “The Pride” (1977), “Take Me To The Next Phase” (1978), “Showdown” (1978), “I Wanna Be With You” (1979), “Smooth Sailin’ Tonight” (1987) and “Spend The Night” (1989).
Among their best-selling albums are 3 + 3 (1973), The Heat Is On (1975), Harvest For The World (1976), Go For Your Guns (1977), Showdown (1978), Winner Take All (1979), Go All The Way (1980), Grand Slam (1981), Between The Sheets (1983) and Mission To Please (1996).
The Isleys also enjoy a variety of hits by association – their catalogue is reportedly the most sampled in the history of hip-hop, and many R&B and pop performers have borrowed from the Isleys as well. Ernie notes that “Fight The Power (Part I),” “That Lady (Part I),” “Between The Sheets” and “Footsteps In The Dark” – all recorded between 1973 and 1983 – have been used regularly as the basis for hit songs.
Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s #1 1996 Billboard Hot 100 hit “Tha Crossroads” sampled the Isleys’ “Make Me Say It Again Girl” (1975). Ice Cube used “Footsteps In The Dark” (1977) for his 1993 #1 Billboard Hot Rap hit “It Was A Good Day.” Aaliyah recorded “At Your Best (You Are Love)” (1976), scoring a #1 Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Recurrent hit in 1995. The Notorious B.I.G.’s 1995 Billboard #1 Hot Rap hit “Big Poppa/Warning” sampled “Between The Sheets” (1983). Public Enemy used “Fight The Power (Part 1)” to powerful effect with a #1 Billboard Hot Rap hit by the same name in 1989. Whitney Houston sampled “Between The Sheets” for her 2003 hit “One Of These Days” and in 1987 covered “For The Love Of You” (1975).
But The Isley Brothers’ significance cannot be expressed by chart statistics alone. In addition to their many other contributions to American popular music, the Brothers brought a virtually unknown guitarist by the name of Jimi Hendrix on their maiden tour of England, in 1964 (Hendrix made his first recordings with the Isleys and many have noted the influence of Ernie Isley on his playing). On the European leg of that outing, their keyboardist was a young man named Elton John.
Ultimately, though, it’s the Isleys’ relationship to each other and not to their fellow performers – no matter how renowned – that defines them. Ernie accounts for their enduring success: “The Isley Brothers are a family and support group in addition to being a musical group. Right now, there are two of us physically, but when you say ‘The Isley Brothers,’ all the brothers are with us in spirit. What we have is unique, beyond classification, and we are extremely grateful for it.”
“I refer to Body Kiss as ‘this year’s model,’” he concludes. “It’s what we want to share this time around. So roll down the windows, lift the hood and take this baby for a spin – we think you’re gonna like it.”

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