As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
August 13, 2004
For 40 years or so the songs of The Isley Brothers have popped up unexpectedly on the soundtrack of the collective consciousness of America.
The highlights of the Isleys’ lengthy career can be found on the new two-disc collection The Essential Isley Brothers.
Back in 1958 there was that primal "Shout," in which the three oldest brothers Ronald, O’Kelly and Rudolph followed the Ray Charles gospel/soul road to a joyful destination.
A few years later during one of those teen dance craze phases, they reemerged with "Twist and Shout," inspiring a certain British quartet whose later version became more famous.
There was a brief fling with Motown, producing a minor hit "This Old Heart of Mine," that sounds a whole lot like the Four Tops. There was a period where they had a young guitarist sideman who would later become famous as Jimi Hendrix.
Then in the late ‘60s The Isleys reemerged with a new crop of younger brothers, guitarist Ernie and bassist Marvin and Isley in-law Chris Jasper on keyboards.
With the cool and funky "It’s Your Thing," the group showed that they weren’t some nostalgia act.
By the mid ‘70s the Isleys had completely reinvented themselves as the funkiest of the funky. Their album covers and publicity photos of that era show that they were right up there with Parliament and Earth, Wind & Fire in the wild multi-color Afrosheen, Superfly/Superpimp/Superhero fashion stratosphere.
But more importantly their music also was in the same league as the funksters whose music remains timeless.
With 1973‘s "Who’s That Lady," Ernie Isley established himself as a guitarist for the ages.
And if you think Public Enemy came up with the concept of "Fight the Power," think again. The brothers’ 2-part, 5-minute gurgling soul workout from 1975 was an unusual call-to-arms during the relatively sedate Gerald Ford era. Even though the lyrics of the song protest people who complain about Ronald playing his music too loud, the rebelliousness is refreshing.
The above listed tunes are on The Essential Isley Brothers, as is the relatively obscure -- an, actualy inconsequential -- "Move Over and Let Me Dance," an early ‘60s track featuring Hendrix on guitar.)
There are plenty of lesser-known Isley cuts here. "Keep On Doin’ " and, especially "Freedom," both from 1969, are great examples of the Isleys transforming from the soul shouters of their earliest incarnation to the Funkytown champs of their later years.
And one thing I’ve always loved about the Isley Brothers is their incredible knack of taking lightweight pop and turning it into burning soul. Carol King’s "Brother Brother" and Seals & Crofts’ "Summer Breeze," are prime examples here.
As strong as the music is on this collection, I’ve still got a few quibbles with the compilation.
First of all, there’s the whole issue of rampant repackaging that grips the music industry. The mighty Sony Empire released a fine 3-disc Isley retrospective It’s Your Thing just a few years ago. I guess the new Essential package is for the benefit of those who can afford a two-disc set but can’t afford a three-disc set.
Secondly, this collection is extremely skimpy on early Isley material. There’s just a handful of pre-1969 songs. While it’s certainly true that the funky early ‘70s were the Isley Brothers’ greatest period, more from their formative years would have given more context. (It also would have helped had the selections been in at least a rough chronological order.)
And finally, from the you-can’t-please-everyone department, there are a few missed gems that should have been in this collection.
An obvious omission is the Isleys’ cover of Curtis Mayfield’s "I’m So Proud," which is one of their most gorgeous tunes.
And an obscurity that I’d have loved to have seen here is the group’s cover of Crosby, Still, Nash & Young’s "Ohio," the song about the Kent State killings, which appeared on the Isleys‘ 1971 Givin‘ It Back, done as a 9-minute medley with Hendrix‘s "Machine Gun."
At the time they were criticized because they deviated from the original opening line, "Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming," instead singing "Tin soldiers with guns they’re coming."
It’s not clear why they changed it. Some assumed they didn’t want to offend Republican Isley fans, but if that was the case, why do that song in the first place?
Perhaps they wanted to make the song more timeless. Even without the image of Dick Nixon, the Isley version of Ohio is a bone-chiller. While Neil Young captured the rage and anger in the original, the Isleys captured the fear of watching a government violently turn against its own people.
*Live It Up by The Isley Brothers. Two of the eight tracks of this recently re-released 1974 record appear on The Essential Isley Brothers.
But this one’s worth it if only for their gut-wrenching, Isaac Hayes-inspired cover of Todd Rundgren’s signature song "Hello, It’s Me."
Not only that, there’s a bonus cut -- a version of the title song as performed on The Dinah Shore Show in 1974. Yes, the Isleys in the kitchen with Dinah. When the hostess proclaims, "I really felt that!" at the end, you know it had to be true.
Hear some Isleys this week on Terrell’s Sound World, 10 p.m. Sunday on KSFR, 90.7 FM -- now web casting on http://www.ksfr.org/. And don’t forget The Santa Fe Opry -- same time, same station Friday.
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