The Isley Brothers’ new math was magical

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1973 was arguably a very important year for Rhythm & Blues music. The first disco-flavored hits from Philadelphia International were racing up the charts, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder released albums that would long be considered among their best and a Earthy group that originated in Chicago had finally found their sound.

It also marked the beginning of a decade-long run from one R&B band/group in particular that honestly doesn’t get as much love as it should, and that’s the “3+3“ run of The Isley Brothers. From 1973 to 1983, the 3+3 lineup scored 12 top 20 R&B albums with six reaching the Pop Top 10 and putting their own unique stamp on the most competitive era for Black music bands/groups ever.

The “3+3“ designation comes from the fact that three new members of group – guitarist Ernie Isley, bassist Marvin Isley and keyboard player-songwriter Chris Jasper, an in-law of the Isley family – formally joined the ranks after 1972‘s Brother, Brother, Brother. These three younger brothers of Ron, O’Kelly and Rudolph added a new element to the Isley Brothers sound and it was immediately noticeable on their first album together titled – what else? – 3+3.

Ernie Isley’s scorching guitar solos on the Seals & Croft tune “Summer Breeze” really set the standard, as did Chris Jasper’s keyboard wizardry on an updated version of “That Lady.” 3+3 was the Isleys’ first platinum album and it began a run that was matched by very few of their peers during that time.

This was an era of bands that made it their business to not sound like the other and while Parliament and Funkadelic had impressive R&B and Funk/Rock alter-egos and Earth Wind & Fire was a jazzier, horn-driven unit, the Isley Brothers created their own lane with acoustic guitar, synthesizer programming by Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil (who’d worked with Stevie Wonder) and their own understated but eloquent songwriting abilities.

While the Isley Brothers had upbeat records (“That Lady,” “Fight The Power” and “Take me to the next phase” come to mind), they had mastered the art of making at least one memorable Quiet Storm, slow jam-type song each album. Just randomly, here are some examples:

1981‘s Grand Slam“I once had your love [and I can’t let go]”
1978‘s Showdown“Groove with you”
1979‘s Winner Takes All“Let’s fall in love”
1982‘s The Real Deal“All in my lover’s eyes”

And we’re not even talking about the three-album greatness of The heat is on (1975), Harvest for the world (1976) and Go for your guns (1977). The Isley Brothers’ mastery of the slow jam is one of the reasons the Quiet Storm genre became a viable asset to urban radio in the late 1970s.

Ron Isley’s voice was/is a combination of confident masculinity and vulnerable desire and it comes through on some very well written songs, most notably “Voyage To Atlantis,” “Make Me Say It Again Girl,” “For the love of you” and the criminally underrated “Sensuality.”

Even as synthesizers and drum programming machines completely took over the R&B scene in the early 1980s, the Isley Brothers were still able to connect on the charts right down their last album with the 3+3 lineup, 1983‘s Between The Sheets.  The title track is in my R&B slow jam top five of the entire decade – other folks may feel differently, but there’s no denying the hypnotic sound that caused a population boom in that decade.

The 3+3 lineup would splinter off into two separate groups, with the younger brothers creating Isley-Jasper-Isley and the older brothers remaining as the Isley Brothers until O’Kelly passed away in 1986 and Rudolph retired to the ministry in the early ‘90s.  The Isley Brothers experienced a renaissance in the middle of the decade when R. Kelly introduced a new generation of R&B fans to Ron Isley as Mr. Biggs, sparking interest among the younger set in the Isley Brothers’ catalog which we all soon discovered was jam-packed with hits.

As this month marks the 40th anniversary of the first 3+3 lineup album, the Isley Brothers’ 10-year run of dominance and great music should be remembered as one of the great eras in R&B history. They had a sound unlike other bands, as they took their songwriting as seriously as their instrumentation and the results were nothing short of classic.

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