Since 1959, when the Isley Brothers began their long string of hits with “Shout,” they’ve been a reliable R&B institution. They’re one of the few acts to break the top 50 on the pop charts at least once per decade from the 50s though the 90s—not even James Brown could make that claim, and he was at least as prolific. And during the period from 1969 till ’83, the Isleys really seemed to hit their stride. They had revived their T-Neck label (previously used for just three singles in the mid-60s) and rejuvenated their sound, alternating between hard funk and smooth ballads destined for the Baby Making Hall of Fame.
- “Get Into Something” came out in 1970, shortly before Ernie Isley joined the band on guitar.
However, one side of the Isley Brothers’ career during this era consistently gets swept under the rug: their status as a hard-rock band. How often do you hear Isley songs on classic-rock radio? And “This Old Heart of Mine” on Motown Monday doesn’t count.
The Isley Brothers
Sat 7/20, 8:30-9:50 PM, Green Stage
When guitarist Ernie Isley joined the band in 1973, his atomic solos gave their music extra rock power. (In ’84, Ernie left to cofound Isley-Jasper-Isley, while lead singer Ron continued on as “the Isley Brothers featuring Ron Isley.” Ron and Ernie, the heart of the current lineup, reunited in 1991.) However, even prior to his arrival, the Isleys had used albums such as Get Into Something (1970) and Givin’ It Back (1971), coupled with gigs at the Bitter End, the Fillmore East, and other New York City venues, to signal that they were making serious moves toward the rock market. After all, these were the guys who’d helped give Jimi Hendrix his start in 1964. They were definitely “giving back” to rock, with their own distinct twist. The cover of their landmark 1975 album, The Heat Is On, shows them posing in a cloudbank of steam or smoke, a wall of amplifiers clearly visible in the background. Tunes such as “That Lady” and “Live It Up” were clearly meant to give Led Zeppelin and the other big guns of rock some competition.
- The Isley Brothers perform “That Lady” live on Soul Train in 1974, through Ernie’s guitar is unfortunately low in the mix.
So why aren’t the Isley Brothers recognized as rock titans? These are multimillion-selling albums that would’ve sounded good on FM rock stations between Bad Company and Robin Trower. And it’s not just current-day classic-rock outlets that have neglected the Isleys: to hear the band tell it, even back in the day rock radio didn’t show them much love. In 1978, the late O’Kelly Isley complained to Rolling Stone that Fleetwood Mac and Boston “had a better shot at” rock fame because “they’re played constantly, once an hour and everywhere on 50,000-watt stations.” The Isleys themselves might’ve been in that same rotation, he speculated, “if the color of the skin was different.”
- This 1974 stomper showcases Ernie Isley’s searing soloing.
In that same interview, Ernie, long underrated as a hard-rock guitar genius, confirmed that the band’s shift to a rock-influenced sound was intentional: “Minus horns. Minus strings. Rock ‘n’ roll.” However, what worked for Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder (and later for Prince) somehow didn’t pan out for the Isleys. Their 1975 hit “Fight the Power,” with its reference to “all this bullshit going down,” was their answer to the music-industry thinking that kept the Isleys on the sidelines of the rock market. The “disco sucks” backlash that began in the late 70s hurt even rock-oriented Black artists, and the Isleys never did break down the barriers on FM rock stations. But they earned widespread respect regardless, and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. Their career, now in its seventh decade, includes a solid comeback in the 2000s, and I’d like to think an up-tempo Isleys track would still liven up any classic-rock playlist. In the 1970s, the Isley Brothers made heavy metal you could dance to. v