Born Rudolph Bernard Isley, 1 April 1939, Cincinnati, Ohio Three brothers, O'Kelly, Rudolph and Ronald Isley began singing gospel in their hometown of Cincinnati, USA, in the early '50s, accompanied by their brother Vernon, who died in a car crash around 1957. Moving to New York the following year, the trio issued one-shot singles before being signed by the RCA Records production team, Hugo & Luigi. The Isleys had already developed a tight vocal unit, with Rudolph and O'Kelly supporting Ronald's strident tenor leads in a call-and-response style taken directly from the church. The self-composed "Shout" - with a chorus based on an ad-libbed refrain which had won an enthusiastic response in concert-epitomised this approach, building to a frantic crescendo as the brothers screamed out to each other across the simple chord changes. "Shout" sold heavily in the black market, and has since become an R&B standard, but RCA's attempts to concoct a suitable follow-up were unsuccessful. The group switched labels to Wand in 1962, where they scored a major hit with an equally dynamic cover of the Top Notes' "Twist And Shout", an arrangement that was subsequently copied by the Beatles. In the fashion of the times, the Isleys were forced to spend the next two years recording increasingly contrived rewrites of this hit, both on Wand and at United Artists. A brief spell with Atlantic in 1964 produced a classic R&B record, "Who's That Lady?", but with little success. Tired of the lack of control over their recordings, the Isleys formed their own company, T-Neck Records, in 1964 - an unprecedented step for black performers. The first release on the label, "Testify", showcased their young lead guitarist, Jimi Hendrix, and allowed him free rein to display his virtuosity and range of sonic effects. But the record's experimental sound went unnoticed at the time, and the Isleys were forced to abandon both T-Neck and Hendrix, and sign a deal with Motown. They were allowed little involvement in the production of their records and the group were teamed with the Holland-Dozier-Holland partner- ship, who effectively treated them as an extension of the Four Tops, and fashioned songs for them accordingly. This combination reached its zenith with "This Old Heart Of Mine" in 1966, a major hit in the USA (# 12), and a belated chart success in Britain in 1968. UK listeners also reacted favourably to "Behind A Painted Smile" and "I Guess I'll Always Love You" when they were reissued at the end of the '60s. Such singles were definitive Motown: a driving beat, an immaculate houseband and several impassioned voices. But although the Isleys' records always boasted a tougher edge than those by their stablemates, little of their work for Motown exploited their gospel and R&B heritage to the full. Tired of the formula and company power games, the Isley's reactivated T-Neck in 1969 along with a change of image from the regulation mohair suits to a freer, funkier 'west coast' image, reflected in their choice of repertoire. At this point too, they became a sextet, adding two younger brothers, Ernie (born 1952; guitar) and Marvin (bass) as well as a cousin, Chris Jasper (keyboards). While their mid-'60s recordings were enjoying overdue success in Britain, the Isleys were scoring enormous US hits with their new releases, notably "It's Your Thing" (their biggest hit, # 2 pop in 1969) and "I Turned You On". These records sported a stripped-down funk sound, inspired by James Brown And The JBs, and topped with the brothers' soaring vocal harmonies. They issued a succession of ambitious albums in this vein between 1969 and 1972, among them a live double set which featured extended versions of their recent hits, and "In The Beginning", a collection of their 1964 recordings with Jimi Hendrix. In the early '70s, the Isleys incorporated a variety of rock material by composers like Bob Dylan, Stephen Stills and Carole King into their repertoire. Their dual role as composers and interpreters reached a peak in 1973 on 3 + 3, the first album issued via a distribution deal with CBS Records. The record's title reflected the current make-up of the group, with the three original vocalists supported by a new generation of the family, Ernie (guitar/drums), Marvin and Chris Jasper. Ernie Isley's powerful, sustained guitarwork, strongly influenced by Jimi Hendrix, became a vital ingredient in the Isleys' sound, and was featured heavily on the album's lead single, "That Lady" (# 6), a revamped version of their unheralded 1964 single on Atlantic. 3 + 3 also contained soft soul interpretations of material by Seals & Crofts, James Taylor and the Doobie Brothers. An important key track was the Isleys' own "Highway Of My Life", which demonstrated Ronald's increasing mastery of the romantic ballad form. Having established a winning formula, the Isleys retained it through the rest of the '70s, issuing a succession of slick, impressive soul albums which were divided between startlingly tough funk numbers and subdued Ronald Isley ballads. "The Heat Is On" in 1975 represented the pinnacle of both genres: the angry lyrics of "Fight The Power", a US # 4 single, contrasted sharply with the suite of love songs on the album's second side, aptly summarised by the title of one of the tracks, "Sensuality". "Harvest For The World" (1976) proved to be one of the Isleys' most popular recordings in Britain, with its stunning blend of dance rhythm, melody and social awareness. This song hit the charts in 1988 with the Christians. In the late '70s, the increasing polarization of the rock and disco markets ensured that while the Isleys continued to impress black record buyers, their work went largely unheard in the white mainstream. "The Pride", "Take Me To The Next Phase", "I Wanna Be With You" and "Don't Say Goodnight" all topped the specialist black music charts without registering in the US Top 30, and the group responded in kind, concentrating on dance-flavoured material to the exclusion of their ballads. "It's A Disco Night", a UK hit in 1980, demonstrated their command of the idiom, but a growing sense of self-parody infected the Isleys' music in the early '80s. Conscious of this decline, Ernie and Marvin Isley and Chris Jasper left the group in 1984 to form the successful Isley Jasper Isley combination. The original trio soldiered on, but the sudden death of O'Kelly Isley from a heart attack on 31 March 1986 brought their 30-year partnership to an end. Ronald and Rudolph dedicated their next release, "Smooth Sailin'", to him, and the album produced another black hit in Angela Wimbush's ballad, "Smooth Sailin' Tonight". Wimbush now assumed virtual artistic control over the group, and she wrote and produced their 1989 release "Spend The Night", which was effectively a Ronald Isley solo album. In 1986 the Housemartins had a UK number 1 hit with "Caravan Of Love". When Rudolph Isley retired from music to become a minister in the late 1980s, it appeared that the Isley Brothers were finished. However, in 1990 the Isleys re-formed with a new lineup that featured Ronald, Marvin and Ernie Isley. In 2002 they scored a comeback hit with "Contagious". The Isley Brothers represented the apogee of gospel-inspired soul on their early hits; pioneered the ownership of record labels by black artists; and invented a new funk genre with their blend of dance rhythms and rock instrumentation in the early '70s. Their series of US hits from the '50s to the '90s is one of the major legacies of black American music. (Adapted from the Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music) For recommendations (CD, websites) see my (much shorter) post on Ronald Isley:

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