An Isley Brothers Primer

On July 25th 2019 » By Morgan Enos

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The Isley Brothers may forever be tied to 1959’s “Shout!”, their rambunctious, gospel-style hit that’s been steeping in pop culture for decades. From National Lampoon’s Animal House to The Wonder Years to an oldies station near you, “Shout!” is still shouting at us. If you don’t have a strong feeling about the song in the 21st century, you’ve got company — the Isleys themselves.

“I-IV-V chord changes and three guys jumping up and down, screaming and shouting ‘Wooo’ just isn’t where we’re at,” multi-instrumentalist Ernie Isley said in a 2015 interview with The Guardian. “Our music is so much more now.” Chris Jasper, the Isleys’ brother-in-law and keyboardist, agreed. “We want our music to expand peoples’ consciousness and take them to a higher musical plane,” he said.

Over five decades and 30 albums, the Isley Brothers — Ronald, Rudolph, O’Kelly, Marvin, and Ernie — developed into a cross-genre juggernaut, using a sound that combined rock, soul, funk, gospel and R&B to deliver their message of spiritual enlightenment and racial harmony. And six decades after “Shout!”, they’re still improbably grinding it out. On July 20, they headlined Pitchfork Fest for their 60th anniversary — and Vinyl Me, Please is releasing a newly remastered edition of Go For Your Guns as July 2019’s Vinyl Me, Please Classics release.

The Isleys began as a slightly garden-variety Motown act, but after they left the label in 1968, they released a string of sophisticated 1970s gems: The Heat is On, Harvest for the World, and Go For Your Guns. Even as they floundered commercially later on, they delivered 1983’s Masterpiece, a slinky, polished gem with a quiet storm tint. If you’re interested in what the Isleys could do beyond “Shout!”, here’s their 10 most essential albums.

This Old Heart of Mine (1966)

The Isley Brothers began as part of the Motown machine, mostly as a vessel for material by their in-house writing team, Holland-Dozier-Holland. This both put them on the map and stifled them as artists; they’d make one more album for them before leaving the nest. That said, This Old Heart of Mine is the place to start in this era, even if it’s padded by songs made hits by other Motown acts, like “Nowhere to Run” (Martha & the Vandellas) and “Stop! In the Name of Love” (The Supremes).

It’s Our Thing (1969)

Wanting to make music to-order rather than buffet-style, the Isleys beat their retreat from Motown for their own label, T-Bone, in 1968. For their first T-Bone album, It’s Our Thing, there wasn’t a cover in the bunch; every song was credited to Rudolph, O’Kelly, and Ronald Isley. And from the exuberant, swinging first seconds of “I Know Who You Been Socking It To,” it’s clear the brothers are toasting to their newfound independence. Their lyrical POV is stretching, too, from calls for rescue (“Save Me”) to feminist appeals (“Give The Women What They Want”). It’s Our Thing is the Isleys’ Rubber Soul; boys becoming men.

Get Into Something (1970)

The band dug deeper into funk on Get Into Something, a stripped-down, rhythm-first album that’s perfect for the dancefloor. While lacking the obvious highlights of It’s Our Thing, Get Into Something nicely opens up on Side B with the romantic ballads “I Need You So,” “I Got to Find Me One,” and “Beautiful.” The results show the Isleys could flip from slow jams to high-octane burners without breaking a sweat.

Givin’ It Back (1971)

A heel-turn from their kinetic R&B sound, the Isleys got downbeat and socially conscious on Givin’ It Back. The covers are back, but chosen from a different angle: mostly then-recent rock hits by Eric Burdon (“Spill the Wine”), Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young (“Ohio / Machine Gun”), and others. On the sepia-toned cover, the brothers all wear haunted expressions, an acoustic guitar in each of their laps. While this pivot to “serious” comes off as a slightly obvious grab for folkie cred, most of these Vietnam-era songs remain urgent and commanding, and their interpretations are tasteful and well-done.

Brother, Brother, Brother (1972)

After going moody on Givin’ It Back, the Isleys went mellower and more commercial on Brother, Brother, Brother to winning results. By now, all their disparate moods — the ballads, the rockers and the funk rave-ups — had comfortably settled into a sound, and it’s pleasing from start to finish. “It’s Too Late,” a Carole King cover stretched to a 10-minute vamp, is an anomaly, but it adds to the soothing, twilit mood.

3 + 3 (1973)

After years of being distributed through Buddah Records, the Isleys made the jump to Epic Records and doubled their lineup, promoting Ernie Isley, Marvin Isley, and Chris Jasper from sidemen to core members. The expansions only threw fuel on the Isleys’ fire; 3 + 3 is all gyrations and hip-shakes. They also continued to sniff around rock radio for inspiration: Their covers of the Doobie Brothers’ “Listen to the Music” and Seals and Crofts’ “Summer Breeze” are irresistible fun.

The Heat is On (1975)

The six-piece Isley Brothers continued their wild tear with The Heat is On, a disco-adjacent album for the dancefloor. The production is slicker, the arrangements leaner, and the black-brotherhood message even fiercer, as on the Public Enemy-predicting “Fight the Power.” It’s hard to go wrong with the Isleys’ 1970s run, but The Heat is On is a fat-free consolidation of all they could do.

Harvest for the World (1976)

“All babies together, everyone’s a seed / Half of us are satisfied, half of us in need.” So begins the title track to Harvest for the World, which doesn’t quite update their sound as much as it notches up their spirit; in our rancorous political era, its borderline Christian theme of togetherness feels ever more tender. Elsewhere, “Let Me Down Easy” and “At Your Best (You Are Love)” are two of their best ballads, given autumnal shades via acoustic guitars. The wise, sophisticated Harvest for the World may be the best album the Isleys released in the 1970s — or ever.

Go For Your Guns (1977)

No big twists or diversions: If you love The Heat is On or Harvest for the World, Go For Your Guns is more of the Isleys in their prime. That said, there’s a heavier, harder vibe going on here, with a gruffer approach from Ronald Isley and fuzz guitar rattling in the background of “Tell Me When You Need It Again” and “Climbin’ Up the Ladder.” If your tastes lie more on the latter end of funk-rock, you can’t go wrong with Go For Your Guns.

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Masterpiece (1985)

Like most of their peers, the Isley Brothers weren’t immune to a fallow 1980s, when proto-digital machines and gated sounds took over. While it’s slim pickings in their discography after Go For Your Guns, Masterpiece wears its high thread-count production well. If you really miss the Force MDs, New Edition or Milli Vanilli, “May I?”, “Stay Gold” and “Colder Than My Nights” are the quiet storm jams for you. The band that taught the world to “Shout!” could be just as mellow.

Morgan Enos author pic

Morgan Enos

Morgan Enos is a music journalist specializing in classic rock, with bylines in Billboard, TIDAL, The Recording Academy, Discogs, Vinyl Me, Please, and more. He lives in Hackensack, New Jersey and can be found at his website.

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