Last night, the Soul Train Awards honored two of R&B’s greatest vocal talents, Anita Baker and a fresh-out-of-the-bing Ronald Isley. While Anita’s tribute was classy as can be, Ron, who looked every bit the old player with a young kid (seriously, he’s 69 and has a three-year old son with his wife Candi), had a hand in the ratchet insanity that was the STAs last night.
Yet and still, he and his brothers’ impact on the music world can’t be slighted. While Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder were lauded for gaining creative control at Motown (and becoming the Gods of R&B/Soul in the 1970s), Ron, O’Kelly and Rudolph broke free from Berry Gordy and began their own label, becoming one of just a few talented acts (Gladys Knight and the Pips and the Spinners chief among them) that flourished once they broke free of the cookie-cutter “Motown Sound.” Adding Ernie on lead guitar, Marvin on bass and bro-in-law Chris Jasper on the keyboards, they became one of the game’s greatest groups in the 70s, with hits from the dance floor that most assuredly would lead to the bedroom.
Even as they wore down in the 1980s, Ron and Ernie gained a resurgence from aligning with superstar R. Kelly and introduced Ron’s unique brand of cool to a younger audience as “Mr. Biggs.”
Even with his current popularity, I prefer to remember Ron as the head of probably the greatest Soul band in a decade of brilliant bands, and with that in mind, here are what I feel are 10 definitive Isley Brothers songs worth acquainting yourselves with:
“Voyage To Atlantis,” From Go For Your Guns, 1977 – Trying to pick the best Ernie Isley solo is eventually like trying to chose which one of your children you like best – and I don’t have any kids. This is a pretty good starting point as he sets the tone for a Quiet Storm Classic.
“Sensuality,” From The Heat Is On, 1975 -One thing the Isley Brothers had over many other acts at the time was their ability to create songs in length that could survive more than 3 minutes, which of course isn’t nearly enough time to set the mood. Sensuality comes in at just under 7 minutes of seduction, wanting, expressing, needing, feeling – and in this era of all digital everything, perfect for grown folks’ playlists.
“Fight The Power,” also from The Heat Is On – almost 15 years before Chuck D’s baritone took it to the streets, Ron decided he was tired of all the “Bullshit goin’ down.” This record caused a bit of a ruckus because of the use of a *gasp* bad word. It was released as a single with “bullshit” edited out and hit Number One on the R&B (known then as Black Soul) charts in the summer of 1975.
“Summer Breeze,” from 3+3, 1973 – After their first hit way back in the late ’50’s (“Shout”) became a cover delight, the Brothers tried their hand at a Seals & Croft cut that features more guitar acrobatics from Ernie that seem more power ballad than soulful cover.
“I once had your love (and I can’t let go) ,” From Grand Slam, 1981 – While this came from an album during their less than successful period in the late 70s and early 80s, This song stands one of the Isley’s smoothest grooves.
“It’s Your Thing,” From It’s Our Thing, 1969 – The beginning of the Isley Brothers as we know them came with this jam that not only encouraged sexual freedom, but also as a rallying cry for the group, finally freed from second-class status at Motown. It spent a few weeks in the winter and spring of 1969 as the Number One R&B song in the country and helped the Brothers explode on the national scene.
“Let Me Down Easy,” From Harvest for the World, 1976 – Another one of the extended-play power ballads that helped their baby-making music reputation. Now I’m sure you think Ron Isley sang all of the leads for the group and it sure sounds like him here – but it’s actually O’Kelly carrying this song about a man who hopes his woman will leave him as gently as she can if their love ever goes awry.
“Between The Sheets,” from the album of the same name, 1983 – Known to my generation and younger as the basis for The Notorious B.I.G’s player persona anthem, the actual song is another one of those songs that if it doesn’t make you want to get close to someone, you should check your pulse – especially at the break – Chris Jasper’s keyboard play and Ron telling his lady that he “likes the way you receive me and release me.”
“Groove With You,” From Showdown, 1978 – When our elders lament about how their favorite artists talked about sex without actually saying it, they point to this song as evidence of that. One listen to the first verse and chorus, it’s clear that Ron is ready to go there with this woman and she feels the same way.
“Lay Lady Lay,” From Givin’ It Back, 1971 – The Brothers actually did an album full of covers as a response to “Shout” being one of the most copied songs of the day. This 10 1/2-minute cover of a Bob Dylan classic is THE highlight of that album.