It’s about 1991 or so and I’m about three or four years old, sitting in the back seat of the car while my dad drives. As was usually the case, we’re listening to Chicago’s Oldies station, which at the time played mostly music from the 1950s and 60s. I liked everything I heard at that time, though there were a few songs that always got younger me excited, and one of them was by The Isley Brothers.
“Weeeeellllll….” Ronald Isley croons at the beginning of “Shout”, and I’m instantly excited. I was barely past toddling, and I knew all the words to a song that was already more than 30 years old. Every time it came on the radio, which was very often, it felt like a special time. I loved every second of the song, though naturally I was drawn to the bridge. Ronald repeats “a little bit softer now, a little bit softer now…” as everything quiets down, until suddenly it doesn’t anymore, and I feel that same rush from the beginning all over again.
Aside from thinking “Shout” was possibly the greatest song in the history of music as a kid, I didn’t really come to appreciate who The Isley Brothers were until far more recently. I even knew other songs of theirs; “This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You)” and “It’s Your Thing” got regular play then as well, though I wouldn’t have known it was the same artist. Everything I’ve learned about The Isley Brothers has really come in the last few years, despite the fact that “Shout” cemented my love of music before I was even school age.
The Isley Brothers formed in Cincinnati in 1954 as a quartet, featuring brothers O’Kelly Jr., Ronnie, Rudolph, and Vernon. After winning an amateur music competition, the group had begun touring across the east coast when Vernon, their lead vocalist, was killed by a car while riding his bike. The group was devastated, and disbanded.
After several years, the remaining three brothers reformed The Isley Brothers in 1957, this time with Ronnie singing lead. By 1959, they had signed with RCA Records, and released their first composition together as a single, “Shout”. It became a slow-burning hit, selling over a million records, despite only hitting 47 on the Hot 100.
After leaving RCA and joining Scepter Records, their next big success came in 1962 when they released “Twist and Shout”. The song had been recorded before by The Top Notes to little success, but The Isley Brothers’ version became a big hit. It reached #17 on the Hot 100, and #2 on the R&B Chart. The brothers struggled to find their feet after that, despite a brief tenure with Jimi Hendrix as their guitarist and founding their own record label. After Hendrix left in 1965, The Isley Brothers signed with Motown Records.
The Isley Brothers’ tenure with Motown was only three years long, and by most accounts was a frustrating period for the group. Not used to being under the thumb of label owner Berry Gordy, they were forced to record whatever the label told them to, while previously they had done a lot of their own songwriting. It wasn’t all for nothing, however, as the brothers managed to produce one of their biggest hits for Motown.
Adapting to the Motown sound and way of doing things, The Isley Brothers’ debut for the label was “This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You)”, the lead single from their album of the same name (minus the parenthetical). Written by the classic Motown songwriting trio of Holland-Dozier-Holland along with Sylvia May, it ended up being among their biggest hits. While “Twist and Shout” sold about as much contemporarily, The Beatles version of that song has seen to the legacy of the original being overshadowed. “This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You)” remains one of The Isley Brothers most enduring and iconic songs.
Reports suggest that The Isley Brothers felt like an afterthought in Detroit. Despite their proven success before signing with the label, homegrown talents like The Temptations and The Supremes received more of the attention and good, original material. The Isley Brothers were used to creating, and found themselves in a disheartening position. They would only record two albums for the label before moving on.
After their brief and disappointing tenure with Motown Records, The Isley Brothers went back to their own label of T-Neck Records. There, they would reinvent themselves again, infusing funk in their style and making another huge hit with “It’s Your Thing”, arguably their most recognizable song to this day. The album, It’s Our Thing, had significant success as well, their first album featuring little brothers Ernie and Marvin.
Throughout the 70s, The Isley Brothers maintained consistent success with their funk-infused sound. They had hits with songs like “Love The One You’re With” and “That Lady”, among others, and their albums continued to sell well throughout the decade. Meanwhile, many other artists who had started around the same time as The Isley Brothers floundered when the 70s arrived.
The original trio remained intact until 1986, when O’Kelly Isley passed away from a heart attack while battling cancer. Rudolph Isley would retire from the group in 1989 to pursue a career in Christian ministry, while Ronnie would briefly put the group into hiatus before continuing with Ernie and Marvin. This lineup lasted until 1996, when Marvin was forced to retire due to complications from diabetes. That same year, the remaining Isley Brothers released the platinum-selling album Mission to Please for their T-Neck Records, as well as Island Records.
The remaining duo continues to this day, Ronald and Ernie still performing regularly. Their most recent album, a collaboration with Santana, was released in 2017, while the group most recently has been on tour with similarly long-lived R&B group The O’Jays. The Isley Brothers managed to have at least a gold record or platinum album in every decade from the 1950s til the 2000s, a feat that very few other artists can claim. On a personal level, I probably wouldn’t be into soul music if it weren’t for “Shout”, and for me, that will always make them iconic.