THE HISTORY OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL – 1962 PART TWO

Posted: September 24, 2016 in Music, Rock n Roll Music 1962 Part 2
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JAMES BROWN AND THE MASHED POTATO – LITTLE EVA AND THE LOCO-MOTION – THE ORLONS AND THE WAH-WATUSI – DEE DEE SHARP – THE AMAZING ISLEY BROTHERS

by Robert Seoane

A new type of dance called the Twist swept the planet in 1960. It was the first touchless dance ever and was introduced to the world by the song of the same name. The original version of “The Twist” was written by Hank Ballard, recorded with his Midnighters in 1958 and released the following year to an indifferent public.

Two years later however, music entrepreneur Dick Clark took the song and recorded an identical version with sound-alike singer Chubby Checker. Thanks to the promotional help of Clark’s TV show American Bandstand, Chubby Checker’s “Twist” launched a dance craze that would spawn a tsunami of Sixties dances to come.

At first, befuddled parents shook their heads as they watched their teenaged children dancing in place opposite their partner without even holding each other’s hand, but the Twist fad soon spread throughout the world like wildfire. It was easy to do, even if you didn’t know how to dance, and anyone could do it regardless of age. Celebrities were seen twisting in posh clubs around the world. Teens twisted to every rock ‘n’ roll song on the radio. You could even twist by yourself at home.

Its popularity was buoyed by the steady stream of subsequent Twist singles that were released between 1960 and 1962. Checker released four more Twist singles in those two years: “Twistin’ U.S.A.”, ”Let’s Twist Again”, “Slow Twistin’”, and “Twistin’ ‘round the World”. Other classic Twist songs released during that time were Sam Cooke’s “Twisting the Night Away”, Joey Dee & The Starlighters’ “Peppermint Twist” and the Isley Brothers’ “Twist & Shout”, later recorded by the Beatles on February 11, 1963 as the closing number of their debut album “Please Please Me”.

Other dances were starting to evolve, all of them inspired by the Twist in that you could dance without having to hold your partner, like the Mashed Potato, the Watusi, the Loco-Motion, the Frug, the Swim, the Monkey, the Jerk, the Pony, the Alligator, the Fly, the Dog, Walking the Dog, the Chicken, the Funky Chicken, the Hitchhike, the Shake, the Yo-Yo …and on and on. Chris Kenner’s “Land of a Thousand Dances”, released in the summer of ‘63 listed many of these dance fads in its lyrics.

By 1962, two years after it first became a hit, the Twist still ruled as the mother of all dance fads. So much so that the Number One 1960 Chubby Checker hit made it to Number One a second time on January 13, 1962, and stayed there for two weeks, one week longer than its debut release. Other dance songs that became hits in 1962 were Little Eva’s “Loco-Motion”, “The Wah-Watusi” by a one hit wonder group called the Orlons and “Mashed Potato Time” by Dee Dee Sharp.

THE MASHED POTATO

The Mashed Potato was a dance that had been around as long as the Twist, In fact, the first Mashed Potato songs had already been recorded before Sharp’s 1962 version by the man who invented the dance, one of the most influential R&B artists of the rock ‘n’ roll era, called the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, nicknamed “The Godfather of Soul”, Mr. James Joseph Brown.

 

JAMES BROWN


Mr. Dynamite, James Brown

“(In 1960), I received a call from James Brown while he was in Miami with his new backup band, the J.B.’s. He informed me he was having a problem with Syd Nathan at King Records. Syd refused to let Brown record with the J.B.’s. Always believing in Brown and standing by him, I suggested we record him and his backup band under a pseudonym. I had seen Brown at Ernie Busker’s Palms of Hallandale nightclub doing a dance he called “The James Brown Mashed Potatoes.” At Criteria the next day we decided to cut an instrumental track and title it “(Do The) Mashed Potatoes.”
One of the repeated lines was for someone to shout “Mashed Potatoes” and Brown volunteered. At the last minute, I decided it was too risky using Brown’s very recognizable voice and turned to him and said, ‘You can’t do that! I can’t use your voice on this record because Nathan will be on our ass. We have to leave your voice off and strictly make this an instrumental.’ I still liked the idea of someone shouting “Mashed Potatoes”, but I had to use someone else. Brown agreed, so I contacted one of Miami’s top black radio DJ personalities by the name of Carlton “King” Coleman and dubbed his voice on top of the recording. If you listen to the record very carefully, you can still hear Brown’s voice in the background. I released the song through my own Dade label under the name of Nat Kendrick and The Swans. Kendrick was Brown’s drummer at the time and the J.B.’s temporarily became The Swans. The single became a smash hit after peaking at #8 on the national R&B charts while reaching #84 on the Billboard Hot 100.” –Henry Stone, Dade Records owner source: (henrystonemusic.com)

“I would be telling a lie if I said I would be a world star without the help of men like Mr. Nathan. He was the first one willing to take a chance on me.” -James Brown


King Records owner, Syd Nathan

Syd Nathan did not like James Brown. He thought he was a terrible singer. In 1956, talent scout Ralph Bass signed Brown and his group the Famous Flames to Nathan’s Federal label, a subsidiary to his main label, King Records. Bass recorded James Brown and the Famous Flames’ debut single, “Please, Please, Please”. When Syd Nathan heard it, he reacted in his usual manner: yelling and screaming at Bass for being stupid enough to sign this group.

“That’s the worse piece of crap I’ve heard in my life. It’s someone stuttering on a record only saying one word …”. –Syd Nathan


James Brown and the Famous Flames debut studio album, “Please, Please, Please” (1959)

“Please, Please, Please” certainly didn’t sound like anything being heard on the radio at the time, but to Nathan’s surprise, the record found an audience, particularly because James Brown already had a fan following that went wild for his stage performances. During “Please, Please, Please”, he would suddenly get on his knees, engulfed in musical rapture. One of the Flames would then come to his side to pat him on the back and help him up, while another Flame draped a cape over him. Both of them would then attempt to escort Brown offstage, only to have Brown shrug off the cape in a resurgence of uncontrolled ecstasy, slowly return to the mic, screaming his heart out, and fall to his knees once again to repeat the process all over… as many as four more times.

“Please, Please, Please” only made it to Number 105 on the Billboard Pop chart but it reached Number Six in Billboard’s R&B chart. That gave Nathan brief pause, but he still didn’t think this James Brown fella would ever amount to anything, even after his next five single releases through Federal Records all made it into the charts, with one song “Try Me”, reaching Number 48 Billboard Pop, and Number One R&B, and “Think” breaking the Billboard Top Forty at Number 33 and climbing to Number Seven R&B.

James Brown and the Famous Flames also released their first two studio albums in 1959, each named after their first two singles. Curiously, the albums did not feature the group on the cover. Nathan chose instead to use white models, apparently to mask the color of the group so he could market the music to a more mainstream public.


James Brown and the Famous Flames’ second studio album “Try Me!” (1959), was a collection of singles b-sides and outtakes from their debut album.

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When Syd Nathan first formed King Records in 1943, he only released Country & Western music, but Nathan soon realized that African-American teenagers danced to their own, totally different soundtrack comprised of African-American artists. Nathan referred to the genre he discovered as race records.

“We saw a need. Why should we go into all those towns and only sell to the hillbilly accounts? Why can’t we sell a few more while we’re there? So we got in the race business.” –Syd Nathan

Nathan was as stubborn as a mule and ran his company in a dictatorial manner, but despite his total inability to recognize original talent like James Brown, he was unwittingly influential in the development of rock ‘n roll music by integrating C&W with R&B. Once he had a good number of both R&B and C&W musical artists signed to his labels, Nathan would give his country artists R&B songs to record and country songs for the R&B artists to record. This inadvertent cross-pollination of genres wasn’t as much a grand musical experiment of his as it was a way of maximizing the revenue of his song publishing.

When Nathan found out that Brown was recording for Dade, he wisely relented and moved Brown to the main label, King Records, allowing him to record more instrumentals like “(Do The) Mashed Potatoes” and gradually taking James Brown’s ability to sell records more seriously. In response, seeing that he hit a dance nerve with his fans, Brown recorded a sequel called “Mashed Potatoes USA.”

The lyrics to “Mashed Potatoes USA” were similar to an earlier single of Brown’s called “Night Train”, in that it was essentially a promotion of his current tour. In “Mashed Potatoes USA,” James Brown claims his intention to bring the dance to the entire country, with shout outs to the cities he would be performing in the rest of the year.

Here I am and I’m back again, I’m doing mashed potatoes, I’m gonna start by going to New York City with your number one, I’m going to Boston, ow… I’m going to Buffalo straight down the road, gonna stop in Cleveland, Ohio…” “Mashed Potatoes U.S.A.” – James Brown & the Famous Flames

It got to Number 82 Pop and barely missed the R&B Top Twenty at Number 21 in 1962, but by then it had fulfilled its purpose as the Mashed Potato dance fad spread around the world.

In Brown’s earlier single, “Night Train”, all he does is yell out cities up and down the Eastern Coast, from Miami to Washington, DC.

“And don’t forget New Orleans, the home of the Blues…” “Night Train” – James Brown

“Night Train” managed to crack the Billboard Pop Top Forty at Number 35 and was the Famous Flames’ biggest R&B hit of 1962, reaching Number Five. It’s a song with a history, originally recorded as a 12 bar instrumental standard in 1951 by Jimmy Forrest, who took the instrumental’s opening riff from Duke Ellington’s “Happy-go-Lucky Local” when Forrest played in the band. Brown took the song, added his lyrics and funked it up before anyone knew what funk even was.

Besides his success with the Mashed Potato dance and “Night Train”, James Brown’s musical output between 1960 and 1962 was on the rise both creatively and popularly, despite his continuing battles with Nathan. Once they had been moved to King Records, James Brown and the Famous Flames began recording their third studio album for Nathan. Neither Brown nor the group as a whole were showcased on this cover either. This time around, Nathan put a white baby on the cover in a pose that made the infant look like he was deep in thought.

Although most of the tracks on the Famous Flames’ first three albums were either written or co-written by Brown, for the most part, they were an assortment of Fifties-style compositions with strong similarities to Little Richard, along with a respectable collection of heartfelt blues wails. Brown’s passion was evident, especially when he was onstage, but he was still a few years away from developing the Funk R&B genre he invented. His singing style offered a rougher, more passionate version of the soul music that was first popularized by Sam Cooke’s contrasting smooth vocal. Brown’s unique voice would ultimately earn him the “Godfather of Soul” moniker.

His dancing style had developed much earlier. Original and totally his own, James Brown’s moves were like nothing ever seen before. Bathed in sweat and screaming his heart out is the epitome of Funk, and funnily enough, the word itself is derived from the strong odor one emanates after an intense performance.

The only other dancer of the rock ‘n’ roll era who could keep up with James Brown in dancing skills was Michael Jackson, who confessed more than once that James Brown was a deep influence in his dance style. You can see future Jackson moves in Brown’s performances.

THINK – JAMES BROWN

“Think” was the first single released from the 1960 “Think!” album in May of that year, and was also the first James Brown song that sounded like a true pre-cursor of the Funk that was to come. Coincidentally enough, Brown didn’t write it. The composition was originally recorded by the Five Royales in 1957. When comparing the two recordings, the difference is like day and night. Brown’s musical arrangement is totally different and much more dynamic, belting out the words with his own unique passion. The Royales’ version boasts a nice electric guitar and a brief sax solo but remains rooted in Fifties doo-wop.

James Brown released eight more singles with the Famous Flames after “Think” during 1960 and 1961. Five of those made it into the Billboard R&B Top Ten but none of them cracked the Pop Top Forty. Looking for a hit, Brown wanted to capture his live events on record, since it was his stage performances that were making him a star. He felt a studio recording wasn’t doing his work justice because he wasn’t getting the insane audience reaction he received when he was onstage. He approached Syd Nathan with the idea, and in his usual negative manner, Nathan steadfastly refused, claiming that live albums never made money. Stubborn as always when it came to his musical instincts, Brown decided to fund a recording of an upcoming event at the Apollo Theater in Harlem on October 15, 1962, with his own money. Nathan scoffed, saying that every track on the live recording had already been released as a studio single, but Brown persisted and Nathan finally relented. “Live at the Apollo” turned out to be the album that put James Brown on the map. Released the following June, it became a million seller and reached Number Two on the Billboard Top LP chart. In 1963, Brown’s career would take off.

 

DEE DEE SHARP

Also in 1962, sixteen-year-old Dione LaRue scored a Billboard Number Three Pop hit with Chubby Checker called “Slow Twistin’”, although she wasn’t credited. Thanks to that song’s success, LaRue was given the opportunity to record another single as a solo artist, so she changed her name to Dee Dee Sharp.

MASHED POTATO TIME – DEE DEE SHARP

“Mashed Potato Time”, based on James Brown’s dance, made it to the Number Two position on Billboard’s Pop chart on May 5, 1962. Part of its success, besides riding on the coattails of the dance fad, was the fact that it sounded a lot like an earlier Number One hit from a few months earlier, “Please Mr. Postman”, and Sharp sounded very much like the Marvellettes’ lead singer Gladys Horton. The song even alludes to the earlier Motown hit in its lyrics.

“Now everybody is doin’ fine, they dance alone or in a big boss line, and they discovered it’s the most, man the day they did it to Please Mr. Postman. Mashed Potato, wait a minute, wait a minute, Mashed Potato, deliver de letter…” Mashed Potato Time – Dee Dee Sharp

GRAVY (FOR MY MASHED POTATOES) – DEE DEE SHARP

Sharp’s next single would continue to ride the surf of the Mashed Potato’s popularity simply by adding gravy. Similar in style to her prior hit, “Gravy…” managed to crack the Billboard Pop Top Ten at Number Nine on July 14, 1962.

 

THE WATUSI

“Watusi” is the name of a 1959 adventure film that served as a sequel to a popular 1950 movie called “King Solomon’s Mines” and is also loosely based on the novel of the same name. In the film, the African tribe known as the Tutsi tribe, also called Watusis and known for their spectacular solo dances, are the backdrop for a Fifties action adventure film where two Americans travel to Africa in search of King Solomon’s treasure, killing African people and animal wildlife during the whole film in order to find it.

Two years after the movie’s release, the Watusi dance had its own record, thanks to a group called the Vibrations, who scored minor hits throughout their career in the late Fifties and early Sixties. Their version of “The Watusi” reached Number 25 Billboard Pop in 1961.

The most popular record of the Watusi, however, was recorded by a group called the Orlons called “The Wah-Watusi”. It reached Number Two on Billboard’s Pop chart during the summer of 1962, and was re-recorded the following year by groups such as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Chubby Checker, Annette Funicello and the Isley Brothers.

The Watusi dance fad had nothing to do with any of the dances of the actual Watusi tribe. The name for the dance was chosen instead only because it was in the public consciousness thanks to the film. The dance was embraced by the Establishment because it was relatively tame, and was even showcased on an old fogey’s program of the time called the Lawrence Welk Show.

 

THE LOCO-MOTION

Eva Narcissus Boyd was Carole King and husband Gerry Goffin’s sixteen-year-old babysitter when they discovered her singing talent. They grew to like Eva very much, inquiring about her life and amused by the way she danced when listening to one of the many great pop songs on the radio at the time, some of whom her employers actually wrote. Inspired by her dancing, King and Goffin wrote a song that would become a Number One smash hit in 1962 and give birth to yet another Sixties dance fad.

King and Goffin’s boss Don Kirshner liked “The Loco-Motion” and released it. The single managed to sell over one million copies, reaching the Number One Billboard chart position on August 25, 1962.

Little Eva never had a bigger hit than “The Loco-Motion”, but she did have a singing career that spanned the rest of her life until she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and died in 2003 at age 59.

Twelve years later, a rock group called Grand Funk was struggling for a hit after they dropped “Railroad” from their name. They re-made “The Loco-Motion” and the song returned to the top of the Pop charts on May 2nd, 1974.

Despite the ever growing list of dance fads and their accompanying songs, the song that carries the distinction of being the most enduring twist song of all time as well as one of the most famous songs in rock ‘n’ roll history is “Twist and Shout”. It’s a song that’s mostly associated with the Beatles, but it was actually written in 1961 by two songwriters named Phil Medley and Bill Berns. From there, it was recorded by a group called the Top Notes, then by the Isley Brothers before the Beatles took it and made it their own.

 

TWIST AND SHOUT

The Top Notes played it much faster than the Isley Brothers did on their recording. The TN’s version was a frantic rock ‘n’ roll song with an equally frantic sax solo played by the legendary King Curtis. This first version of “Twist & Shout” was produced by Phil Spector on February 23, 1961, when he worked for Atlantic Records, years before he invented his “Wall of Sound” recording technique. The original recording is almost unrecognizable from the known version, arranged by the Isley Brothers and then copied almost exactly by the Beatles.

The Top Notes’ single didn’t break the Billboard charts but the Isley Brothers’ version did, reaching Number 17 Billboard Pop on August 11, 1962. When adapting the tune, the brothers used the same musical arrangement but slowed-down for their version of “Twist and Shout” that Ritchie Valens used in 1958 for his adaptation of a traditional Mexican mariachi tune called “La Bamba” into a rock ‘n’ roll song.

The Isley Brothers’ version replaces the Top Notes’ sax solo with a horn section that repeats as a rising crescendo of “aaahhhs” overtake it, then bringing it back to the main part. The Beatles’ version mimics the Isley Brothers intact, but they replace the horns for their guitars and deliver rock ‘n’ roll screams that are essentially a blueprint for myriad joyful rock ‘n’ roll screams to come.

Many people have always believed that the Beatles had written “Twist and Shout”. It closes their 1963 debut album “Please Please Me”, but that album was basically a recording of the Beatles’ setlist when they played at the Cavern Club in their hometown of Liverpool back then, along with Beatle-written songs peppered throughout the album.

The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” showcases John Lennon’s voice, by then hoarse from having recorded the entire album with the other three in one 13-hour period. It was a vocal style he would successfully emulate during their live performances, and it was this unique performance captured on record that takes the song to the heights of rock ‘n’ roll legend.

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THE ISLEY BROTHERS

When looking back at musical groups that are comprised of family members, artists like the Everly Brothers,the Beach Boys, the Jackson Five and the Bee Gees immediately come to mind. But not many people realize that a group of five brothers called Isley surpassed all the aforementioned legendary musical acts in sheer staying power, as well as in the enduring influence they had in the changing sounds of popular music, particularly during the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies.

The Isley Brothers are one of the most underrated and influential musical groups of the rock ‘n’ roll era. They’re the only musical act in history to chart in Billboard’s Pop Top Fifty during the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, with their last album “Body Kiss” to hit Number One on Billboard’s Top Pop Albums as recently as 2003. For a group that formed in 1954, that’s a pretty long track record and a feat that hasn’t been duplicated by anyone since.

Considering their amazing staying power, they didn’t have consistent chart success. Their unplanned modus operandi consisted of coming out with a hit song for their just signed record label, then following it up with flop after flop, only to come back years later with another trendsetting hit song for another label. In all, they scored only three Top Ten singles and nine Top Ten albums during their entire fifty-year recording career, from 1957 through 2007. But their influence in the development of the pop sound runs deep.

Their impact wasn’t just limited to chart hits either. A keen eye for talent, in 1963 they hired a 21-year old lead guitarist calling himself Jimmy James, who left in 1965 for solo pursuits as Jimi Hendrix.

The Isley Brothers went on to contribute to the development of late Sixties funk at the same time that James Brown and Sly & The Family Stone were spearheading the sound, and the Isleys did it with just one song, called “It’s Your Thing”. It was one of the first funk songs to make it into the Top Ten and almost immediately became a template for future funk grooves. Then, in 1975, they released one of their most influential and popular albums, containing a track that’s a precursor to disco music called “Fight the Power”. The song was a strong commentary on equality that communicated the frustration of the downtrodden, even singing “bullshit” during one of the stanzas, one of the first pop songs to include a curse word. Eighties Rap supergroup Public Enemy then took the Isley’s lyrical hook “You’ve got to fight the powers that be”, and turned it into their own mega-hit in 1989.


The Isley Brothers; from left, O’Kelly, Ronald and Rudolph

Vernon, O’Kelly, Rudolph, Ronald, Ernie and Marvin Isley were six brothers born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. Their parents O’Kelly Sr. and Sallye had all boys, and they encouraged the four oldest, Vernon, O’Kelly, Rudolph and Ronald, to sing gospel every week in their local church. By 1954, the four brothers began to perform gospel music as a group live with mostly Vernon taking the lead vocal. One thing led to another and they managed to land a spot on a popular TV show of the day, “Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour”, where they won first place. From there, the brothers toured churches throughout the southeastern United States. Things were going very well until tragedy hit one afternoon in 1955. Thirteen-year-old Vernon was struck and killed in a traffic accident while riding his bicycle. The family was devastated and the Isley Brothers disbanded.

By 1957 however, the group decided to regroup with their parents’ blessing, making brother Ronald the lead vocalist. The three brothers, O’Kelly, Rudolph and Ronald, moved to New York and in time was able to capture the attention of a few record producers who recorded them and released some singles regionally to modest local success. Things remained status quo that way until their break came in 1959 when RCA Records heard and signed them.

SHOUT – ISLEY BROTHERS

Their first release with the label was their self-written “Shout” which came about during one of their live performances in Washington, D.C. as a call-and-response answer song to Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops”. The song didn’t crack the Top Forty, falling short at Number 47 Billboard Pop, but despite its poor showing, “Shout” sold a million copies and earned the Isley Brothers their first gold record.

Although the brothers’ version didn’t catch fire, it was re-recorded many times by other artists, the most popular being by Joey Dee & The Starliters who took it to Number Six Pop on May 5, 1962, and just doesn’t compare to the vastly superior Isley version. Other artists who’ve recorded or performed it include Sixties pop star Lulu, the Shangri-Las, the Kingsmen, Tommy James & the Shondells and the Ronettes.

“Shout” was revived sixteen years later when a movie band called Otis Day & The Knights performed it in the classic college comedy (that happens to also take place in 1962) “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978). In one of the film’s more memorable scenes, the actual “Shout” dance, complete with limbo-like crouches and falling on the floor writhing, is preserved for posterity.

Follow-up songs on RCA failed to chart after “Shout” so the brothers changed record labels and signed on with Scepter in 1962. Their first Scepter recording was “Twist and Shout” and it took them into the Top Twenty for the first time, only to stall once again with a series of unsuccessful subsequent singles.

 

JIMI HENDRIX JOINS THE ISLEY BROTHERS


The future Jimi Hendrix, lead guitarist for the Isley Brothers

In 1964, seeing they were going nowhere with Scepter, the Isley Brothers started their own record label and called it T-Neck Records. At around the same time, they met a twenty-one-year-old guitarist who called himself Jimmy James and had recently won the first prize during an amateur contest in Harlem’s Apollo Theater. Ronnie Isley granted Jimmy James, whose real name was James Marshall Hendrix, an audition after being recommended by an associate close to fellow singer/performer Joe Tex. After the audition, Ronnie offered Hendrix the lead guitarist spot in his backup band the I.B. Specials. Jimmy readily agreed.


Hendrix, far left with guitar

Hendrix moved in to live with the Isley Brothers in their New Jersey home once he joined the band. Youngest brother Ernie Isley and future Isley Brothers band member recalls being 11 years old and watching TV with Hendrix. They watched the popular programs of the day like the Ed Sullivan show, Wild Kingdom, Bonanza and cartoons whenever they were on, sitting on the couch of the family home with Jimmy seated next to him.

“He got along well with kids. He was polite. Great sense of humor. I can talk about Jimmy Hendrix and Pez candy, or Jimmy Hendrix and Saturday-morning cartoons with me and Marvin.” –Ernie Isley, recalling his childhood days with Hendrix.

He had been given a back room in the house where he could live and practice, which he would do without an amplifier for his electric guitar, learning how to play it behind his back and between his legs. All the while, he’d be listening to blues single 45s by Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters and other greats.*
*Source: Seattle Times

Besides playing them in live performances, Jimmy also played with the Isley’s on two single recordings.

TESTIFY – THE ISLEY BROTHERS

Peppered with shades of “Shout”, “Testify” is an irresistible up-tempo romp of an R&B tune with Hendrix on lead guitar. It’s a feel-good party song guaranteed to bring the house down, but it never entered the Billboard Pop chart, probably because it sounded more like a free-form jam shout out than any structured song.

The song “Testify” is based on the common tradition in Southern churches to stand up and “testify” to everyone within earshot about their own Christian beliefs and principles. No doubt the Isley Brothers wrote this based on their own experience in southern churches and used the form to celebrate the joyful power of soul music. In the song, they call out various names, Ray (Charles), Stevie (Wonder), James (Brown) and Jackie (Wilson), then they proceed to imitate them.

“Brothers and sisters and to all this song may concern if you want to have some soul, if you want to be a witness I want you to listen while I testify … All it takes is a rhythm in your feet, don’t worry about the music baby, you gotta have a beat, now you got soul” Testify – The Isley Brothers

Hendrix recorded one more song with the Isleys, released nationally through Atlantic Records, called “Move On Over and Let Me Dance”, which sounded a little suspiciously like “Twist and Shout”.

Jimmy left the Isley home after Thanksgiving in 1965, then came back two years later from London to pay them a visit on his way to the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Ernie remembers how he looked.

“He looked different in terms of his clothes. He had a hat, scarf, rings on every finger, stuff around his neck. He walked down the hallway sounding like Shane. ‘Man, is that Jimmy?’ ‘Yeah, he’s killin’ ’em in England!’“ –Ernie Isley

THIS OLD HEART OF MINE – THE ISLEY BROTHERS


Back cover of Tamla album release, “This Old Heart Of Mind”, reached #140 Billboard Pop Album chart and #15 Billboard R&B Album chart

Soon after Hendrix’ departure, the Isleys folded the record label they created and signed with Motown’s Tamla label, where they stayed for three years. Their biggest hit with the label was a song written originally for the Supremes by the legendary songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, alongside fellow Motown songwriter Sylvia Moy. “This Old Heart of Mine” made it to Number 12 on April 23, 1966, Billboard Pop and Number Six Billboard R&B. It’s a well-produced record and so typically Motown-sounding.

A few months later, The Impressions released a song written by their lead singer Curtis Mayfield called “Can’t Satisfy” that sounded almost exactly like “TOHOM” and Motown thought so too, so they sued the Impressions. In the end, the court favored Motown and ordered the Impressions to share Mayfield’s songwriting credit with Holland-Dozier-Holland and Sylvia Moy on all future pressings of “Can’t Satisfy”.

Many other versions of “This Old Heart of Mine” have been recorded by various artists throughout the years, but the most popular version managed to surpass the original by one spot on the Billboard Pop chart.

In 1989, Rod Stewart joined Ronald Isley in the recording studio to sing a remake of “This Old Heart of Mine” together. It reached Number Ten Billboard Pop in 1990 and also stayed in the Number One position for five weeks in the Billboard Adult Contemporary Chart. Stewart had already done a solo recording of the song in 1975 and jumped at the opportunity of re-recording it with the original singer.

The Isley Brothers released seven more singles with Motown through 1969 and none of them went higher than Number 61, with two not even entering the Hot 100. It wasn’t because of lack of quality, since the Isley’s “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me A Little While)” only made it to Number 121 in 1968, but another group calling themselves brothers without being related, the Doobie Brothers, took their version to Number 11 in 1975.

The Isley Brothers had become unhappy at Motown. They felt second-tier to the label’s other groups, the Temptations, The Miracles and the Four Tops, so they left the label and re-started their own T-Neck Records. This time, they stuck to their own label for the next seventeen years, until 1985. As luck would have it, they scored another hit at the outset. This one became the biggest of their career.

IT’S YOUR THING – THE ISLEY BROTHERS

Ernie and Marvin were only six and seven years old, respectively, when their older brothers charted on Billboard for the first time with “Shout” in 1959. As they grew up, they too exhibited musical talent. Ernie’s first live gig with his brothers was as their drummer at age 14 in 1966. By age 16, Ernie had taught himself the acoustic, bass and electric guitars. Marvin also started to play the bass in high school with his friends and was mentored by his older brothers. During that time, the changing soundscape of pop music on the radio in the Sixties influenced the Isleys towards a funkier sound.


The Isley Brothers’ new, updated look; “It’s Our Thing” album (1969), charted #22 Billboard Pop Album chart and #2 Billboard R&B Album chart

By 1968, funk was being brought to the fore by the incredible music James Brown was recording at the time, and also by the debut of the first popular funk band in rock ‘n’ roll history, Sly & The Family Stone, led by a young genius named Sylvester Stewart. The Isleys were listening intently, and they responded in turn with a song that was the first single to bring the funk sound into the top echelons of the Pop chart.

Ronald Isley was driving his daughter Tamara to school when the melody popped into his mind along with the lyrical hook.

“It’s your thing/ Do what you wanna do/ I can’t tell you/ Who to sock it to”

Once Ronald got home, brothers O’Kelly and Rudolph helped flesh out the lyrics. The group was joined in the recording studio for the first time by their 16-year-old younger brother Ernie, on bass. Recorded after only two takes, the song was released as a single on February 12, 1969, ten years after the release of their first charted single “Shout”. ”It’s Your Thing” marked a turning point for the Isley Brothers. It made it to the Number Two position on the Billboard Pop chart on May 3rd and Number One on Billboard’s R&B chart. It was to be the biggest hit of their career.

The sound and popularity of “It’s Your Thing” preceded future funk acts that were to also become Top Ten artists during the Seventies like Earth, Wind & Fire, The Ohio Players, Kool & The Gang and the legendary, Parliament/Funkadelic.

The phrase “it’s your thing” became a catch-phrase of sorts during the late Sixties and early Seventies. The lyrics were also a subtle reference to their philosophy over the demanding ways of Motown’s founder Berry Gordy, who locked horns often with the group in terms of musical styles. Gordy ultimately released them from their contract but sued the group to get them back, primarily due to the success of “It’s Your Thing”. The court sided with the brothers, and the Isleys went on to win the Grammy Award in February 1970 for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group for the song. Rolling Stone Magazine also placed “It’s Your Thing” at Number 420 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Scores of artists recorded and performed their own versions, but it was given the Funk Stamp of Honor when James Brown recorded an interpolation of the Isley Brothers’ jam in 1974 and called it “My Thang”.

Brown also used the basic rhythm track from “It’s Your Thing” and produced a record for singer Marva Whitney in 1969 as an answer song called “It’s My Thing (You Can’t Tell Me Who To Sock It To)”.

3+3 – THE ISLEY BROTHERS ALBUM

By 1971, brothers Ernie and Marvin were allowed more creative input into the group’s music and direction. Their brother-in-law Chris Jasper had also unofficially joined the band as part of the backup unit with E and M and he too participated in the arrangement and production of the songs. The Isley Brothers’ 1973 album would reflect the group’s expansion, titled “3+3”, an apt description for an evolving group following their muse.

“3+3” became the most popular album of their career up to that point. The Isleys had broken through the Pop Album Top Ten for the first time in their career, nineteen years after they first formed, reaching Number Eight after its release on August 7, 1973, and earning them their first Platinum Record, having sold more than a million copies. From that point on, the Isley Brothers were to begin their most successful decade, landing five of their albums in the Billboard Pop Album Top Ten from 1973 to 1978 with two of them, “The Heat Is On” (1975) and “Go For Your Guns” (1977) going Double Platinum, selling over two million units.

During this time, Ernie would rise to the top of the group. He was now involved heavily in the songwriting with Ron and Chris, playing guitar and percussion on all the tracks and handling the musical arrangements as well. Chris, in the meantime, oversaw much of the production with the other brothers. Marvin contributed bass and had some minor involvement in the composition of songs. Kelly was the taskmaster. A large, heavy-set man, he tended to tell his younger brothers what to do. Ron, the quietest of the bunch, participated in much of the writing with his brother Ernie and usually provided lead vocals.


Isley Brothers’ first Platinum album “3+3” (1973), charting #8 Billboard Pop Albums and #2 Billboard R&B Albums. Featuring founding members O’Kelly, Ronald and Rudolph Isley along with younger brothers Ernie and Marvin, and brother-in-law Chris Jasper

“3+3” consisted of a blend of the Isley Brothers’ own self-written songs along with four otherwise country/folk/pop songs, recently popular, that the Isleys took and funkified. These songs were James Taylor’s beautiful ballad “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”, “Listen to the Music” that was a hit for the Doobie Brothers at that time, and the Isley’s second single release from “3+3”, Seals & Crofts’ 1972 hit single, “Summer Breeze”.

THAT LADY – THE ISLEY BROTHERS

“3+3’s” first single was a remake of a song they had written and first released back in 1964. In the new, updated version, “That Lady” is looser, sung more confidently by the lead and background vocals alike, and is firmly entrenched in funk. The 1964 version is much more controlled and uninspired when compared with the 1973 far superior recording. The 1973 “That Lady” is a masterpiece of a funk jam.

The Isleys recorded the new version of “Who’s That Lady” for “3+3”, and also released it as the album’s first single. They broke the recording up into two parts so that the entire song could fit on the single, by splitting it between the A-side and the B-side of the 45 rpm record. It was re-titled “That Lady (Parts 1 and 2)”, and boy, it cooks. The A-side fades out at the end of the lyrics, and the B-side picks up the rest, an all-out instrumental jam, dynamic and funky as can be. Ernie delivers a magnificent guitar lead, heavily influenced by his old TV-watching buddy Hendrix and another legendary guitarist of the day, Carlos Santana, and helping inspire future guitar funk jams that future artists like Prince obviously listened to more than once.

“That Lady” reached Number Six on October 6, 1973, on the Billboard Pop chart and Number Two R&B, and became their second biggest hit after “It’s Your Thing”. It’s ranked at Number 357 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s list, the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

The new familial collaboration proved fruitful. The brothers were at the top of their form.

Ron, O’Kelly and Rudolph are all credited as songwriters for “Who’s That Lady” and later confessed that the remake was inspired by Santana, who in turn recorded a Latin-infused version of the song himself in his own “Spirits Dancing In The Flesh” (1990) album.

On December 14, 1974, the Isley Brothers debuted “Who’s That Lady” on national syndicated television when they appeared on “Soul Train” to perform the song.

“Who’s That Lady’s” guitar intro has been sampled by the Beastie Boys in 1989’s “Paul’s Boutique” album and most recently by Kendrick Lamar in his 2014 single, “I”. It’s also been featured in TV and movies from “30 Rock” to “Anchorman: The Legend Of John Burgundy”.

FIGHT THE POWER – THE ISLEY BROTHERS

The Isley Brothers’ next studio album, the outstanding “The Heat Is On”, was released on June 7, 1975, and became their first Number One Pop album, sixteen years after they first charted.

The Isley Brothers had found the vibe the world wanted to dance to in 1975, and they pursued their musical instincts to great success. The album sold half a million copies just after a month in release and spent ten months on the Billboard Pop Albums chart. This time, all six tracks on the album were written by the Isleys, and if there was any such a thing as acid funk, this album was its birth. “Fight the Power” was its lead single and became the last Top Ten hit the group would have as the 3+3 Isley Brothers incarnation. The song was an early precursor to the disco genre that was just beginning to form during that period, a style of dance music that exploded worldwide in the late Seventies, typified by the incessant “tss, tss, tss” cymbals, ubiquitous in every disco single to come.

Written by Ernie Isley, “Fight the Power” is also the Isley Brothers’ most politically charged composition they ever wrote. In 1989, fourteen years after its original release, Public Enemy took the title of the Isley’s song along with its lyrical hook and used it for their own groundbreaking song, also calling it “Fight the Power”, and taking the Isley Brothers’ words to a new level, showcased in an astounding music video that still resonates powerfully today.

There were only six tracks in the entire album but each one clocked in at over five minutes, the longest track reaching nearly eight minutes. The first side was comprised of three funk tracks and the second side was dedicated to three smooth soul ballads. It was a perfect contrast. Critic Colin Larkin wrote that the two sides represented “the pinnacle of both genres”.

The first track on Side B, “For the Love of You”, was the album’s second single release, a smooth Seventies R&B love song that reached Number 22 Billboard Pop on December 20, 1975. Many of this new century’s hip-hop artists have sampled the Isley’s “FTLOY”, including Dr. Dre with Ed Lover, Thug Life, 504 Boyz, BoneThugs-n-Harmony and Skee-Lo.

Almost a quarter century later, on August 17, 1999, “The Heat Is On” was certified double platinum, having sold two million copies since its original 1975 release.

The Isley Brothers released five more albums between 1976 and 1980, with four of them landing in the Top Ten Billboard Pop Album chart. Their singles chart success during that same period, however, was dismal, releasing as many as eleven 45rpm records, with only one of them getting up as high as Number 40 and six not even entering the Hot One Hundred.

The Eighties started with a bang, thanks to “Go All The Way” their eighteenth album released on April 19th, 1980 that cracked the Billboard Top Ten Albums chart. After that, though, as per their usual track record, each subsequent album release brought dwindling interest. The Age of Disco had ended and the Isleys were being perceived as passé. They couldn’t compete with the new artists that were breaking out during those years: Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson, Duran Duran, Culture Club, Men at Work

Their declining popularity made the three younger members of the group restless and they started to talk about leaving to form a new band. Their 1983 album, “Between the Sheets”, would be the last album all six Isley Brothers would record together. As a result, the brothers closed their T-Neck Record label while the original three, O’Kelly, Ron and Rudy, set out to find a new label and press on once again as a trio.

At around that time, Brother O’Kelly Isley was diagnosed with cancer. He fought the illness by losing a significant amount of the weight that had made him obese most of his life. In 1984, Ernie, Marvin and Chris formed Isley-Jasper-Isley and did reasonably well with their debut album “Caravan of Love”.

The original three in the meantime also threw themselves into work at the recording studio to create the Isley Brothers’ twenty-third album, “Masterpiece”, and their first release with their new label, Warner Brothers. It only managed to make it to Number 140.

The three brothers dedicated “Masterpiece” to their brother Vernon who had died at thirteen years old, as well as their parents Sallye and O’Kelly Sr. A few months after the album’s release, on March 31st, 1986, O’Kelly Isley lost his fight to cancer when he suffered a heart attack and died in his New Jersey home. He was 48.

It was sad to see their slow demise, evident even in their album covers. Their 1987 release, “Smooth Sailin’”, only showed Ron and Rudy behind a beautiful pool framed by palm trees. The Isley Brothers’ final release of the Eighties only had the name ISLEY written above and titled “Spend the Night” (1989). The cover showed Ronald Isley standing in what appears to be the same pool as in their previous album cover, only sepia-toned and muted. Brother Rudy had left the duo in the midst of the album’s recording, so it turned into a quasi-solo album for Ronald. Rudy had been devastated ever since the death of his brother O’Kelly and decided to pursue his life-long interest in the ministry, so he left the Isley Brothers and became a preacher. As of 2016, he is retired and living in California with his wife.

But despite these events that would have normally derailed any other enterprise, the Isley Brothers’ career were far from over. Ernie, Marvin and Chris’ group, Isley-Jasper-Isley lasted only three years as a group to not much success. Ernie signed a solo recording deal, as did Ron after Rudy left. Neither of their solo attempts fared very well, so Ron, Ernie and Marvin reformed as the third incarnation of the Isley Brothers, once again as their original configuration, a trio, with Ernie and Marvin filling in for O’Kelly and Rudy. But their 26th album “Tracks of Life” (1992) only made it to Number 140, just like Ron, O’Kelly and Rudy’s first album for Warner Brothers. As a result, it would be their last album with that label.

By the late 1990’s the newly reformed Isley Brothers had shaken off their antique disco image and had lasted long enough to become elder statesmen musicians. Their 27th album “Mission To Please” (1996) managed to climb all the way to Number 31, their best chart performance in fourteen years.

In 1997 at age forty-four, youngest brother Marvin retired from the group. He had been diagnosed with diabetes back in his 20s and it had taken its toll. But the Isley Brothers name, now made up of only Ron and Ernie, would not stop recording, carrying on with more albums as well as separate and memorable appearances as solo artists or performing with other popular artists of the day. In 1996, Ron and Ernie were featured in R. Kelly’s “Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)”, which went to Number Four Billboard Pop and established an enduring relationship with the two artists.

Things suddenly changed for the better for the Isley Brothers at the dawn of the 21st Century, however. Three out of four of their studio recordings during that decade all made it into the Billboard Pop Album Top Ten. “Eternal” (2001) went double Platinum, selling two million copies and reaching Number Three on the Billboard Pop Album chart.

Separately, Ron and Ernie did well. Besides the Rod Stewart/Ron Isley recording of “This Old Heart of Mine”, released in 1990, Ron collaborated with other artists such as Burt Bacharach in their album duet “Isley meets Bacharach” (2003) as well as working with contemporary artists like R. Kelly, Warren G, 2Pac and UGK. But things abruptly took a halt when Ronald was sentenced to three years and one month in prison in 2006 for tax evasion. He was released in early October 2009 and sent to a half-way house to finish off his sentence. As soon as he did his time, he immediately went back to work.

On June 26, 2010, after having to have his legs amputated due to the disease, Marvin Isley, who had retired thirteen years earlier, succumbed to complications from diabetes. He was 56 years old. Later that year and just out of prison, Ron released his first solo album, then followed up with his second solo album in 2013, both to moderate success. Ronald Isley wasn’t one to be easily stopped, though. He made a cameo appearance in Kendrick Lamar’s music video for “I” (2014) and continues to perform and record to this day in 2016, even after having been erroneously declared dead in social media early this March. Most recently he appears in one track on Carlos Santana’s 2016 album reuniting the early 1970s Santana Band where he sings lead in “Love Makes the World Go Round”. Listening to him sing at seventy-five years old shows how little his voice has changed through the decades.

To this day, Ron and Ernie still tour together. Besides his own solo work and collaborations with other artists, Ernie has joined his older brother to keep the name alive, even after all these years. Their last album was a Christmas collection released in 2010, but as long as they both have breath in their lungs, don’t underestimate another Isley Brothers recording comeback at any moment.

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