Jun 192020

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

While The Isley Brothers are commonly filed under Soul or R&B, that categorization only partially reflects what they have delivered soundwise since the release of their first album way back in 1959. We all know how this works: basically, whatever genre your biggest hits fall into will then by default define who you are to the world forevermore. And because their most popular songs are of the soul shouter-disco/funk-quiet storm variety, they have been conveniently stuffed into the singular genre of Soul/R&B. But in the case of the Isleys, this cut-and-dried categorization is exceptionally misleading. Which is to say, while their ’60s hits “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You) and “Shout Pts. & 2” remain their highest ranking tracks in terms of Spotify plays, they are hardly reflective of the true, signature Isley sound, a perfect melding of topical Rock & Soul that remains unmatched to this day. Make no mistake (and with all due respect to their former Motown label mates, The Temptations and The Four Tops), The Isley Brothers were a proper band. Like The Beatles or The Stones. A classic old school, turn the amp up to 11, self-contained, smokin’, genre-defying band.

This is just a roundabout way of saying  if you want to know what the Isleys are really about sonically and philosophically, it’s best to avoid the greatest hits playlists and head straight for the string of positively seminal studio albums the band released from 1971-1976. There were 6 in total over that time, beginning with Givin’ It Back and running on through to 1976’s Harvest For The World. It is there you will meet O’Kelly, Rudolph, Ronald, Ernie, Marvin and Chris Jasper, the real Isley Brothers.

As the ’60s rolled into ’70s, the health and future of the world felt desperately unsettled. The Vietnam War, the still-recent assassinations of MLK and Robert Kennedy, the Kent State massacre, the growing idealogical divide between old and young – all contributed to a justifiable and overarching frustration throughout the country. And the power structure meant to hold everything together showed itself to be fatally out of step, foregoing the concepts of equality and empathy in favor of maintaining the status quo at all costs. Now artists began chiming in and using their respective platforms as a means of bringing attention to the myriad of social injustices, attempting to both rouse and inspire. And just like that, the Isleys’ days of recording songs like “Vacuum Cleaner” (“My love is like a vacuum cleaner, it keeps pulling’ me in”) were well and truly done. Things were about to get real.

The band waded tentatively into the world of politically charged pop on 1971’s Givin’ It Back, an album of then contemporary covers of hits by James Taylor, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young, amongst others. While the latter’s incendiary “Ohio” is the album’s most definitively political song, it’s the big picture here that is most noteworthy: five of the album’s seven tracks were originally performed by white artists. Even without every song being overtly political, the album at its core was a powerful statement, with the Isleys acting as musical envoys, connecting and acknowledging all sides of the counterculture (with the added bonus of sounding incredible).

Over their next few LP’s, the Isleys served up even more ridiculously fine cover versions. As grand and sweeping as it may sound, you would be hard pressed to find any band that has ever married Rock to Soul as fluently and convincingly the Isleys have throughout their career. Check out some of their finest covers below!

Love the One You’re With (Stephen Stills cover)

Ah yes, “there’s a rose in a fisted glove.” Love it or hate it, Stephen Stills’ 1970 #1, the eternal, evergreen, interminably infectious, free-lovin’ hippie anthem “Love the One You’re With” is here to stay. Let’s face it, as long as there is life on earth, the song’s sentiment will never become outdated or implausible, never mind that the chorus is virtually impossible to evict once it’s infiltrated your mind. But if at this point you are weary of the overanxious bounce of the original and want something a little dirtier and chewier, then you might want to bend an ear to the Isley-fied version. The brothers take a less frenetic ’70s Pepsi commercial approach opting for a significantly funkier and laid-back tempo. With a sweet Marvin Isley bass line as its foundation, plus some smooth churchy keys from Chris Jasper, this thing is practically airborne.

Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight (James Taylor cover)

That James Taylor’s songs lend themselves exceptionally well to the cover treatment is no secret. Beyond their consistent lyrical eloquence, their melodic simplicity means things are roomy enough to insert a personal stamp should you feel so inclined. Ronald Isley felt so inclined in the band’s cover of 1972 Taylor track “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” filling the “aw shucks I’m lonely” ballad with a large dollop of heartbroken hysteria and scenery chewing. Listen rapturously as Ron pleads for attention, shouts defiantly but fools no one (he really does care) then crashes back down to lonely old earth, all in the space of four glorious minutes.

Ohio/Machine Gun (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young/Jimi Hendrix cover)

In 1964, a young guitarist by the name of Jimi Hendrix auditioned to be part of the Isley Brothers backing band. Needless to say he got the job and immediately joined them on tour. Though his tenure with the band lasted less than a year, in a perfect storm of destiny, it did allow him enough time to make the acquaintance of a then-12-year-old, fledgling guitar player named Ernie Isley who, not so coincidentally, went on to become a pretty virtuosic axeman himself.

There’s no doubt that Neil Young’s scathing and magnificent “Ohio,” written in the aftermath of the 1970 Kent State shootings and recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, rings as powerfully and affectingly as it did upon its initial release. As such it’s only fitting that it also inspired not only the greatest of all Isley covers, but arguably one of the best covers of all time (or at least in the Top 20). Clocking in at nearly 10 minutes, “Ohio” is transformed into a raw and angry sermon featuring some unbelievable ad-libbing from Ronald and sublime shredding courtesy of Ernie. The interpolation of Isley Brother-in-spirit Jimi Hendrix’s own “Machine Gun” into the song adds an extra poignancy to the proceedings, and you’ll be forgiven if you need to sit down and take a breather after it’s all over.

Also make sure to check out the live version, recorded at The Bitter End in NYC in 1972, which is 14 minutes of absolute fire. Ronald introduces the song explaining that he’s hoarse and not sure if he can do it justice vocally… but of course even on his hoarsest, most vocally incapacitated day, Ronald is still better than 99 % of all singers on the planet (okay, maybe 100%). You can probably guess how it all turns out.

Summer Breeze (Seals & Crofts cover)

“Well, I guess the song is all yours now” said the congratulatory telegram to Ronald Isley from archetypal ’70s troubadours Seals & Crofts when the band’s cover of the duo’s “Summer Breeze” hit the R & B Top Ten in 1974. While it must have felt exceptionally flattering that the Isleys had chosen to cover the quintessential soft rock anthem of loved-up, carefree livin’ in the first place, the fact that they seemed to slide in and inhabit the duo’s signature tune with such ease and skill had to have taken them aback a tiny bit. Fact is, as covers go, it’s pretty perfect. That’s all, we’ll just let Ernie’s immaculate guitar line take it from here.

Hello It’s Me (Todd Rundgren cover)

The sole cover on 1974’s Live It Up album, the Isley version of Todd Rundgren’s eternally gorgeous ballad is less plush than the original, but exudes an undeniable warmth and assertiveness not evident in the beauteous blueprint. This is primarily down to Ronald Isley’s drawn out, pleadingly sexy vocal stylings (he can’t help it). And the languorous, sustained notes from Ernie on guitar don’t hurt either.

Fire And Rain (James Taylor cover)

While the ’70s pop charts marked a new era of certifiably insane and gloriously frivolous fluff, it also marked the entry of the confessional singer-songwriter in the the pop idiom. The finest of them all was this gangly, handsome, seemingly laid-back guy named James Taylor, who it turned out had an extraordinarily complex backstory that belied his gentle acoustic songs and deep mellifluous vocal style. The song that came to define him, “Fire and Rain,” was disconcertingly dark, but despite its references to suicide, addiction and depression, it possessed an undeniable, almost antithetical singalong quality.

At this point in humanity, it’s impossible to estimate how many covers there actually are of “Fire And Rain,” for while at least 200 “official” ones exist, there are even more unsanctioned ones residing on YouTube. Alas, all the effort is in vain, because the absolute finest cover of the track was recorded nearly 50 years ago… by the Isleys.

Their arrangement is inventive and adventurous straight out of the gate. It begins with a line from the as yet unheard chorus being eerily chanted in the background while Ronald’s haunted voice echoes over the top. Things churn ominously for an entire minute and a half then BOOM, like a train suddenly emerging from a dark tunnel into bright daylight, Ronald belts out “I always thought!” and the song is revealed in its familiar form. It’s a work of pure cover version art, stunningly powerful and absolutely gorgeous.

Spill The Wine (Eric Burdon & War Cover)

The infectious and patently ridiculous “Spill the Wine” was a #1 hit  for The Animals’ former lead singer Eric Burdon and SoCal funksters War in 1970. What is the song about, you ask? Well, that’s entirely up to you (head over to song meanings.com if you dare for some uninhibited interpretations crazy bananas). But no matter, for here are the Isleys knocking it out of the park with their straight-faced take (in other words, Ronald has too much dignity to refer to himself as a “overfed, long-haired leaping gnome ” as Burden did in the original). It struts in a most upright fashion, is infinitely less silly than the original, and exudes extreme coolness from its every pore.

If any of this has piqued your curiosity, please make sure to check out the aforementioned Isley albums Givin’ It Back and Brother, Brother, Brother for more fine covers, including songs by Carole King, Jackie DeShannon and the man himself, Bob Dylan.

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  One Response to “In The Spotlight: The Isley Brothers”

Comments (1)
  1. Always loved the brothers.They can zing

    The Isley brothers can sing anything.I their rearrangements the best. But their Atlantis is haunting.

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