The Music of the Isley Brothers

By Daniel Garrett

The Isleys Live, Rhino, 1996
Brother, Brother, Brother, Sony, 1997
The Brothers: Isley, Sony, 1997

“For the Love of You” is a song by The Isley Brothers that never seems old.  The Isley Brothers, who wrote and produced most of their own music, is one of those groups one likes without giving that affection much thought.  On The Isleys Live, originally released in 1973 on their own label, T-Neck, and buttressed with bonus tracks from another 1969 T-Neck live recording, this 1996 Rhino release contains versions of “Love the One You’re With,” “Lay Lady Lay,” and “Ohio” and has album notes by David Nathan, who says that passion marked the live recording, noting Ronald Isley’s “emotive vocal stylings.”  The song “It’s Your Thing,” with its echoes of James Brown and Wilson Pickett and even Stevie Wonder, and its affirmation of sexual independence, are also featured.  The group performs Neil Young’s “Ohio,” about the murder of student anti-war protestors, in a medley with Jimi Hendrix’s very descriptive “Machine Gun,” resulting in a very dramatic reading.

The Isley Brothers, featuring Ronnie, Rudy, and Marvin Isley, with support from Ernie Isley and Chris Jasper, recorded Brother, Brother, Brother, an album in which three of the eight songs were written by Carole King, whose record-breaking Tapestry album had man an impression on many performers of the time.   Brother was released in 1972 by T-Neck, and re-released in 1997 by Sony.  The collection, with notes by poet Nikki Giovanni about Cincinnati and Lincoln Heights (which she shared with the Isleys), contains “Work to Do,” a song written by the Isleys about the sacrifices (and understanding) required to accomplish a task, a song radio still plays.  The Isleys give Carole King’s “It’s Too Late” a ten-minute workout: slowed-down, anguished, with mournful piano and screaming guitar.  On the cover packaging for the recording The Brothers: Isley, released in 1969 on T-Neck (re-released in 1997 by Sony), Ronnie, Rudy, and Marvin wear reddish monks’ robes but many of the songs are about sex and love (perhaps they anticipate Marvin Gaye’s idea of sexual healing).  There are nine songs on the album.  David Ritz, who wrote the album notes for the re-release, says that he was a graduate student looking for truth in the English romantic poets but found it in this recording.  The song “I Got to Get Myself Together” contains an unusually direct acknowledgement of the need for self-criticism and improvement.  “Was It Good to You?” is an interrogation of a straying lover, and “The Blacker the Berrie (Black Berries)” is a remembrance of childhood—of berry-picking, favorite foods, and childhood habits—and it’s also a metaphor for temptation, and “Get Down Off the Train” is the beseeching of a lover—please, don’t go.  “Feels Like the World” is a song of despair and isolation from the view of an abandoned lover.  The album could be said to chart the excitement and deterioration of a relationship.  Much of the work of the Isley Brothers offers a complete vision; and it’s strange to think that there can be artists such as these whose work can go unexplored, unrepresented, in the most publicized formal histories of their art forms.  How different culture would like if the Isleys were considered central artists?  Or if Earth, Wind and Fire, a band producing jazzily uptempo orchestral dance music and ballads with visionary lyrics and whose discography includes Open Your Eyes, That’s the Way of the World, Gratitude, All ‘n’ All, and I Am, were widely considered essential?  The Isley Brothers’ Super Hits (Sony, 1999) includes “It’s Your Thing,” “Fight the Power,” “Summer Breeze,” and “Caravan of Love,” and Best of Isley Brothers (Curb Records, 1999) includes “This Old Heart of Mine,” “Twist and Shout,” “Who’s That Lady,” “Stagger Lee,” and “Long Tall Sally.”

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader.  Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. 

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