The Isleys remain bizarrely underrated by mainstream media outlets, but they’ve never been forgotten by music fans.
By Noah Schaffer
He may be a key member of one of the most important and popular R&B groups of all time, but Ernie Isley finds himself still explaining to people what the Isley Brothers have done.
“People come up and say all the time ‘I didn’t know you did “Shout” and “Twist and Shout.” I didn’t know Jimi Hendrix was in your band for two years. I didn’t know you were in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,’’’ he laughs from his St. Louis home.
The Isleys remain bizarrely underrated by mainstream media outlets, but they’ve never been forgotten by music fans. The band were already consistent hit-makers thanks to the aforementioned songs when Ernie joined in 1966, just in time to play bass on “It’s Your Thing.” But after hearing José Feliciano, Ernie switched over to the guitar. And it was as a guitarist and songwriter that he really made his mark, especially after the Isleys’ radical change of sound resulted in the psychedelic soul of 1973’s “That Lady.” Ernie would be up-front for the following decade as the band reworked the corny soft rock of “Summer Breeze” into a rock masterpiece and became slow jam kings with “Voyage to Atlantis” and “Between the Sheets.”
In the mid-80’s he was part of the side project Isley-Jasper-Isley before releasing the rock-blues album High Wire in 1990. In recent years, Ernie and Ron Isley have kept the group alive despite the passing of brothers Marvin and O’Kelly and the retirement of Rudolph. 2001’s “Contagious” collaboration with R. Kelly put them back on the charts, and they remain a top touring attraction, with a show at The Wilbur on January 18. It’ll be Ernie’s first time back in the city since the Berklee College of Music gave him an honorary doctorate in 2016 and the Isleys released Power of Peace, their 2017 collaboration LP with Carlos Santana.
Isley recently spoke to The Arts Fuse about his career.
Arts Fuse: When you first played with your brothers they were already a highly established group. Was it hard for them to make you a part of the band?
Ernie Isley: Well, it didn’t really go like that. I first played drums live with them when I was 14. I played on “It’s Your Thing” when I was 16. I’d gotten my first guitar in September of 1968 — the band’s career just went the way it went. There was no road map, no script or anything. We were in pursuit of the music and it was like a journey, which we’re still on. When it turned into the different records and styles there was a sense of surprise and discovery and celebration on our part.
AF: A few years back you were part of the Experience Hendrix Tour. When Hendrix first played with the Isleys, had he developed his signature style, or was his playing more straightforward R&B guitar?
EI: All I can say is that that, wow, two years in somebody’s house is a long time! Whenever he was there he was playing a guitar. The idea of him being a so-called R&B guitarist — he is the kind of musician who you can’t put in a category. Singularly so. I don’t think James Jamerson was an R&B bass player. Just a dynamic musician and player. I was 11 years ago, but I never heard anybody play a guitar like that. Nobody ever told him what to play, so when you listen to a record like “Move Over and Let Me Dance” [which featured the Isleys and Hendrix], that’s not R&B. You can say there are R&B elements, but “That Lady” is not R&B either. The first time I heard “Purple Haze,” well, I knew it was him because he was playing like that in 1963. When the Isleys played live he would play a blistering solo on “Twist and Shout” you don’t hear on the record.
When the Beatles played on Ed Sullivan, I was watching it on the couch with Marvin on the left and Jimi in the middle. You wouldn’t have heard a clap of thunder over our house, but there was a genuine continental shift. A few days later we had a meeting; my oldest brother Kelly took the floor and said “Well, this English group has changed everything, and I don’t know what the future is going to be. But we’ll be alright because they do ‘Shout’ and ‘Twist and Shout.’ They have two guitar players but we’ve got Jimi.” . . . And you know, Paul McCartney came to one of our shows recently, and he said to me afterwards, “If it wasn’t for the Isley Brothers the Beatles would still be in Liverpool.”
Now you might hear a good guitarist, but would you hire the guy and put him in your house and buy him a brand new guitar? That was what my family did. We gave him a brand new guitar the first day and a room in our mother’s house. Because you could pick up that Hendrix was so harmless, you could trust him.
AF: You mentioned “That Lady” being far from standard R&B fare. Was such a radical departure for a very established group a hard thing for either your fans or the music business to accept?
EI: The very first time we played it for CBS [Records] they said, “It doesn’t sound like ‘It’s Your Thing.’ There are horns but we like it and it’s got a lot of elements to it—dance, R&B, the guitar tone, it’s quite dynamic but we don’t know how we should market it.” And our response was, “Just put it out! Let it go everywhere.” And it came out and it went everywhere. People picked up that it didn’t sound like what was on the radio at the time and they liked it. It was my senior year of college and I had an AM/FM radio, and I could go on the AM side and hear “That Lady” up and down the dial and also hear “Summer Breeze” on the FM side. So the audience will embrace you.
AF: Speaking of “Summer Breeze,” you really turned around a song that started as a very soft Seals and Croft pop song into a blazing guitar jam.
EI: It was a great song originally! You could take your 12-string and sit under a tree and take your shoes off. It had nice chords. And really it came to Kelly and Ronald and Rudolph suggesting we do the song, and they said, “Ernie you play guitar on it.” We did what I thought was just a first take and then I said “I’m ready to really play it,” and they said “we’ve got it” — it was done in one take. “That Lady” was done in two takes. The first take was really dynamic — regarding my performance, it was like one foot was on earth and one was on Mount Olympus and I was Zeus. But they didn’t like the vocals so they used the second take. I wasn’t really pleased with the second one, but that stuff happens.
AF: Is that first take sitting in the vaults somewhere?
EI: No, it was lost because at the time they told me to do it again and reel it in a little bit for the sake of the vocals. They were limited in the studio back then and couldn’t bother to save a guitar track. Same with “Twist and Shout” — they only got one take. We left the studio and weren’t too pleased, but that was the one that went out!
AF: You and the likes of Eddie Hazel really kept the guitar prominent in funk and R&B throughout the ’70s. After Prince, some have argued that the guitar has taken a bit of a back seat in R&B and in pop in general. Do you think it will still play a role in the future?
EI: Of course it’s going to play a role. As long as the Lord is willing, I’ll be playing it as long as I’m around. We just did a CD with Carlos Santana. As long as someone wants to play the guitar, it’s not going to have a problem. Somebody will just have to pick one up and get something out of it.
Over the past 15 years Noah Schaffer has written about otherwise unheralded musicians from the worlds of gospel, jazz, blues, Latin, African, reggae, Middle Eastern music, klezmer, polka and far beyond. He has won over ten awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association.