May 202008

My musical taste these days usually plies a fairly reliable course between reggae and jazz, with frequent calls at R&B, hip-hop and MPB, but occasionally it will drift a bit off course and I’ll stumble upon something uncharted that commands my attention for a time. Lately? The Isley Brothers. Obscure? Hardly. Outside the realm of my normal musical affections? Not at all. But somehow, to me, overlooked. No other group was able to keep abreast of every major development in black American pop for as long. They could sear nearly as hot as Funkadelic, and then turn it around and quiet storm hard enough to break Smokey Robinson’s windows. But despite all my explorations of bygone generations of black pop, I only recently figured that out.

Oh, I was familiar enough with the early part of Isleys’ career. “Shout,” “Twist and Shout,” and “It’s Your Thing” are as imprinted on my consciousness as they are on every other living person’s. I’d even heard some of their very early, basically doo-wop material…

“Angels Cried”

…and of course I was aware that the Isleys had once employed (and lived with) a very young, pre-fame Jimi Hendrix…

“Move Over and Let Me Dance” (ft. Jimi Hendrix)

(Isn’t it odd how an Isley Brothers song that happens to feature Jimi Hendrix as a sideman sounds like nothing other than a Jimi Hendrix original? The man had a signature sound and gone.)

Somehow though, mea maxima culpa, I had overlooked the group’s post-’60s efforts. I really don’t know how.

I began to realize the error of my ways when, by chance, I heard the blistering “That Lady (Pts. 1 & 2),” a remake of a song from the Isleys’ earlier days, which despite being a fairly major hit in 1973 had escaped my usual awareness of the pop culture of yesteryear. A massive oversight on my part, I know.

“Who’s That Lady?” (1964 original)

“That Lady (Pts. 1 & 2)”

So I began acquiring and soaking up their albums from the Gaye-and-Hayes era, getting particularly into 3 + 3, in which the Brothers traded in their snazzy R&B suits and pompadours for the fringe, leather, velvet, chrome lamé and open shirts worn by any self-respecting band of ’70s Afro spacemen, and brought on the younger generation of Isleys as full-time instrumentalists and official band members – including Strat-slinger Ernie Isley, who had obviously paid close attention during the period of his cohabitation with Mr. Hendrix. 3 + 3 and the few albums that follow it demonstrate the Isleys’ unparalleled ability to toe big-name funk’s finest line: aiming for the charts without sacrificing the groove. A few dance hits aside, Parliament/Funkadelic’s 40-odd members were – God bless them – too busy snorting their way through a Chocolate Milky Way of cocaine to make a concerted effort at freeing America’s mind and pop charts, and for all Earth, Wind and Fire’s success, we must remember that basically only a few tasty guitar solos separated them from being the black KC and the Sunshine Band. No, when it came to the R&B and pop chart-toppers in the ’70s, it didn’t get much better than the Isleys. By the middle of the decade, they had even begun, in classic Isley fashion, to smell what Sly Stone and War had been cooking up the past few years, i.e. fist-in-the-air, brick-through-the-Man’s-window protest funk:

“Fight the Power (Pts. 1 & 2)”

But their compelling funksmanship aside, perhaps the Isleys’ greatest (and most surprising) strength is taking drecky MOR ’70s pop songs and stapling balls to them. Even James fucking Taylor.

See, now here is, ahem, sweet baby James’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” culled from the greatest hits album I downloaded for the purposes of this post and then immediately deleted before it could make me find Carly Simon, and by extension Steven Tyler and Seabiscuit, attractive.

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

God, what on Earth would ever make any woman want to let him be lonely? No, really, do you realize how many white children were conceived to this song, how many drape-haired and mustachioed ’70s-sensi-dudes let fly their seed to the sound of the hacky saxophone solo? No wonder the resulting generation was so into depression and flannel. My advice: don’t shake hands with any white American 35-year-olds – you might catch the Taylor.

But now here are the Isley Brothers doing the very same song, the song penned by the bony alabaster fingers of James Taylor:

“Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” (Isley Brothers)

How the shaw ’nuff did they do that? I mean, in a way, it’s justice; Taylor gained much of his fortune by turning in limp, colorless interpretations of black pop classics (see, or on second thought don’t, “How Sweet It Is”), and to have black artists take his limp, colorless, aggressively insipid originals and render them somehow awesome seems like sweet revenge. They can even do a number on “Fire and Rain,” which is an even worse song.

“Fire and Rain” (Isley Brothers)

It makes one curious to see if dewhitening device that apparently came into the possession of the brothers Isley circa 1972 could be applied to other contemporary shlockmeisters – say, Seals & Crofts. Hey, of course it could:

“Summer Breeze”

Still, for all their skill at resuscitating the hypoxemic hits of the early ’70s, even the Isleys can’t make the concept of imaginary jasmine sound any less dumb.

And their ballads? Yes, wonder of wonders, even those are alright.

“Let Me Down Easy”

“For the Love of You (Pts. 1 & 2)”

Still, in funk music, the ballad, which by its very nature requires a band to step back from a wrought-iron funk groove, is fraught with peril. No amount of Fender Rhodes warbling can save a song like “At Your Best (You Are Love)” from a terrible lyric.

“At Your Best (You Are Love)”

At your best, you are love
You’re a positive motivating force within my life

Not only does it reek of couples counseling (“You need to be a positive motivating force within each other’s lives!”), it raises the question: what is she at her worst? One imagines the Ron Isley family dinner parties culminating in impromptu booze-soaked renditions of “At Your Worst (Goddammit Woman Shut the Hell Up or So Help Me I Will Sell You to P-Funk) (Pts. 1 & 2).”

Perhaps songs like “At Your Best (You Are Love)” were an ill portent. Any period of creative fecundity must eventually wither away, and by the beginning of the 1980s, the Isley Brothers had become a textbook case of that sad artistic truth. The less said about their post-’70s career the better, especially once they discovered hip-hop, although I must profess a certain affection for timely “Sexual Healing” rip-off “Between the Sheets,” partly because it was on the soul station in GTA: San Andreas, and partly because ’80s-era bedroom freakin’ music is always somehow so honest.

“Between the Sheets”

So take my musical oversight, and the resulting Isleycation, as a lesson: when flipping through the stacks for the best of the obscure, one shouldn’t overlook the best of the popular. And remember, no matter how bad a song is, someone out there armed only with a Stratocaster and an elaborately embroidered double-breasted velvet suit has the power to make it kick ass. And that’s a comforting thought.