New Book on The Isley Brothers Hits Market

Author Darrell M. McNeill champions The Isley Brothers’ universal music influence.
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In 1957, the music business was unsophisticated and informal, where fame-seeking young adults were charmed by fly-by-night indie labels looking to snag the next Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers type of act. Enter The Isley Brothers. By 1959, the teen trio from Ohio would be one of the first groups to own their own publishing company.

First-time author Darrell M. McNeill’s newly released work, 3+3, examines The Isleys’ 1973 album of the same name. McNeill asserts that The Isleys are under-lauded architects of rock and roll given that they entered the industry a year after Elvis Presley and almost a decade before the British Rock Invasion and the psychedelic rock movement that followed. The Santa Barbara–based producer and journalist also looks at why the band has maintained relevance in popular culture for nearly 70 years. Before delving into the album, the book examines The Isleys’ less-than-meteoric rise to fame. Through his carefully researched accounts, McNeill introduces us to how they navigated the “Wild West” industry practices of the late ’50s, and how 16 years of shifting from one indie imprint to another kept them hungry for hits.

For McNeill, that hunger was a boon that always helped them reinvent their sound, particularly during a time when Motown, adult-oriented rock, and progressive rock claimed the airwaves. Undaunted, The Isleys reclamation of rock birthed an experimental breakout album, 3+3, their first release on CBS Records. They also rounded out their lineup by adding their three youngest brothers—Chris Jasper, Ernie, and Marvin—hence the title, 3+3.

According to this new book, the album was the definitive precursor to a string of commercially successful albums that were reclaimed by younger generations through sampling in hip-hop. During our interview, McNeill talks about how the Jimi Hendrix mentors were always serendipitously at the center of the next new wave in music. As a result, the Lincoln Heights natives, Rock and Roll Hall of Famers and Cincinnati Black Music Walk of Fame inductees have been important in every decade since the 1950s.

MAY 2024
Author Darell McNeill

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF BLOOMSBURY PUBLISHING

You’ve included a testimonial from Vernon Reid about how Ernie Isley has never been on the cover of any guitar magazines. I know that you’re part of the Black Rock Coalition, so I’d love to hear your thoughts about why you included that quote. 
I’ve been asserting for years The Isley Brothers are a criminally under-recognized, foundational group in rock and roll. It is my assertion that The Isley Brothers are the longest tenured active rock and roll group because their first release came out in 1957, and this was just after the watershed year of 1956, where Elvis Presley essentially exploded the rock and roll genre across the nation.

The Isleys were peers to Little Richard, they were peers to Chuck Berry, they were peers to Fats Domino, they were peers to Bo Diddley—all of the great foundational Black rock and roll artists. They were there in the mix. They were in the mix with The Coasters, The Drifters. They were in the mix with all the great groups. They came up with Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Little Jimmy Castor. They came up with all of these teen Black singing groups of the 1950s. They are foundational as far as rock and roll is concerned.

You fast forward about 10 years to just about around the time that Jimi Hendrix passes away, and then there’s this paradigm shift transitioning from the late 1960s to 1970s where there’s enough critical mass of white audience and more importantly, white participants, producers, and musicians who have come into the genre of rock and roll. And we start seeing this gradual but steady and deliberate ethnic cleansing of rock and roll as we go into the 1970s, with few and rare exceptions. Jimi Hendrix was like probably one of the last “sanctioned” Black rock and roll artists of the era to be grandfathered into this new transitioning trend in rock and roll, where it becomes sort of a white exclusive, whites-only arena. And Black artists, irrespective of what genre they are in, are being marketed separately and just decidedly different.

They’re being marketed as R&B, soul, funk. They’re being marketed as everything but rock and roll. And this is where The Isleys get jammed up in the mix.  This is why I very specifically chose to write about The Isley brothers, write about their history, write about their body of work, and very specifically write about 3+3, and why I cite Ernie Isley specifically.  By the time they’ve reached their peak powers in the early to mid-1970s, the industry’s flipped the script on them and they’re no longer considered a rock and roll group. And through my work in the Black Rock Coalition, we collectively take issue with this. We call it out whenever the issue comes up. There’s still a great many people out here who still don’t believe that Black folks have anything whatsoever to do with rock and roll. And this is categorically false.

Can you talk a little bit about why you think they’ve stayed in the American public’s consciousness for nearly seven decades? 
Well, a lot of it is The Isleys’ penchant for reinvention. They don’t really stay in one lane or in one place for too long, particularly when there are opportunities to go in other directions, or in changes in the industry that act as precursors to other moves or other strategies that they employ that allow them to go in other directions.

If you look at certain pinnacle hits by The Isley Brothers and you break them down era-wise, they are almost completely different. None of them fit neatly into any era, sound or box.  “Shout” is completely different from “Twist and Shout,” which obviously is completely different from “This Old Heart of Mine,” which was a Motown song, which by its very nature being Motown, it’s gonna sound like a Motown record, which was completely different from “It’s Your Thing,” which was completely different from a song like “Love The One Your With” and the songs that came off of that album.

And you take “Love the One You’re With” and that late Buddah period, before they jump ship over to Columbia— “Work to Do,” “Layaway,” “Pop that Thing,” “It’s Too late”—again, completely different. And then once they transitioned to Columbia, 3+3 was literally a revelation. Partly because by this point, The Isley Brothers are the three originals and the three newcomers, Ernie, Marvin, and Chris Jasper.

[Cuts in]-I was going to ask you if adding their three younger brothers to the band elevated their sound.
Absolutely. It’s important to remember they’re a family, so everything is pretty much being done in house. And the three younger members were the road band for The Isley Brothers. When they weren’t in school, they would gig on weekends, they would gig on during the summers, they would tour in the summers, and they were in school like during the regular school year. And every single one of the younger members graduated from college, CW Post. And once they graduated and they could commit full time to being in the band, they honed their sound, they honed their style, they honed their vision. And 3+3 was arguably—it’s not even arguable—the most focused realization of The Isley Brothers’ collective sound.

It really kind of set the table again for the next several records that they would do, I would say, up to around the Go for Your Guns album and then like transitioning to Showdown. We’re now entering the 1980s and the sound changes again, it’s much more clean.  Digital technology is starting to come into the mix, keyboard-oriented music is coming into the mix. The style of Black music is changing. Disco has come, hip hop has come, electronic dance music is coming into the mix, and The Isleys are transitioning accordingly. The other aspect of it politically, is that The Isleys spent a good decade, decade and a half having to deal with, for lack of better terminology, dealing with the white rock establishment who kept them on the outside and they were banging their heads against the wall trying to cross over into white rock audiences, but it just wasn’t happening. And at a certain point…. I can’t speak for The Isleys, I can’t say what their mindset was or why they made certain decisions, but they opted to go in the ’80s along the path of least resistance and played to the audience—the Black audiences—that had been embracing them the whole way.

So, the music transitions accordingly from, we’ll say the Showdown album, to 1983, where they released their last album on T-Neck/CBS Records, which was Between the Sheets. But even after that, the original Isleys went one way, Isley Jasper Isley went another way. Isley Jasper Isley were pursuing more modern dance sounds, more modern Black pop sounds. Whereas, the OGs—Ronald, Rudolph and O’ Kelly—decided to take a more adult approach with The Isley Brothers’ Masterpiece on Warner Brothers. The key thing to remember is like right about that time, they were in their 40s and 50s, and they weren’t necessarily trying to do “shake your butt” records anymore. They were trying to do adult pop music at that point. But again, the point being is that the sound has transitioned again, there’s another reinvention. Then the two sides— Isley Jasper Isley and The Isley Brothers—they’re kind of scuffling along, because music has changed once again, they can’t really get their footing because hip hop and New Jack Swing has come along. That’s another major paradigm shift. The Isleys are trying to find whatever kind of lane they can get in, in that regard.

But what happens is the hip hop generation has seized upon The Isleys’ music, they start sampling Isleys’ material. Their hits are becoming hits again. “Between the Sheets” is a hit again because of Notorious B.I.G. and Keith Murray. “Footsteps in the Dark” is a hit again because of Ice Cube. “At Your Best You Are Love” is a hit again because of Aaliyah covering that song, so like a whole new generation is discovering and being turned on to The Isley Brothers’ music, which extends their career even further. You have all these different iterations of The Isley Brothers. R. Kelly essentially reinvents Ron Isley as “Mr. Biggs” and makes him an R&B/hip hop icon. This is essentially how The Isley Brothers have managed to sustain themselves over the course of seven decades, because it’s full of transitions and changes and reinventions to meet the Black pop music moment where it happens to be at any given time.

Can you talk about The Isleys’ connection to Jimi Hendrix? 
Jimi Hendrix had his first professional gig with The Isley Brothers. He had just been discharged from the Army and he was just kind of scuffling around, doing little pickup gigs here and there. He landed in New York and again, he was basically trying to get on his feet and through word of mouth, The Isleys found out about it, and they brought him in for an audition.

The dude was living on couches, sleeping wherever he could, eating whatever he could get. He had hocked his guitar, and through word of mouth, a friend recommended him to The Isleys. The Isleys had set up an audition and there are different variants on this story.  In one story (and that’s the version that I write about), he comes to the brothers’ house in New Jersey to do an audition. And in other versions of the story, they bring him to a studio or something to do the audition. But either way, somehow or another he shows up on The Isleys’ doorstep and he’s got a guitar case, but he’s got no guitar. He’s got all of his world possessions in his guitar case, but he does not have his guitar, which he had had to hock to pay for food.

The Isleys had to go get his guitar out of hock and bring it back for him to do an audition. And much to their surprise, Jimi knew all of their material and, you know, proceeded to blow them away. And without too much hesitation, they invited him to join the band. They went above and beyond because again, Jimi was like surfing between apartments and whatever dry spot that he could get some sleep. They put him up in the family home in Montclair [New Jersey], and he lived with them for about two years or so. It was an off-and-on situation with The Isleys; he played with him for a few months, then he would quit, and then he would go play with some other folks. He played with Don Covay, Percy Sledge, Little Richard, Wilson Pickett, and basically did the whole Chitlin Circuit.

But he would from time to time, end up back on The Isleys’ doorstep and he would do gigs with them. He did some sessions with them. And then he finally left the group, I would say in about 1966. And, you know, he scuffled around a little bit more in the New York area, but before he was discovered by Chas Chandler of The Animals at Cafe One New York City. And Chaz takes him to London, and the rest is pretty much history.  The key thing about Hendrix’s participation in the group is that he became very tight with the two youngest Isley brothers, Ernie and Marvin. They were literally in the house with him while he was practicing, while he was listening to records and developing his style, evolving his style. And he didn’t provide hands on tutelage for Ernie, but Ernie paid very close attention to his practices, to the things that Jimi was listening to, to his work ethic. This would eventually influence Ernie when he began to pursue guitar seriously. He started out as a drummer. He migrated over to guitar, and guitar became his main instrument and his tutelage, even though it wasn’t hands on and direct his tutelage under Jimi, essentially, then you can clearly hear the similarities in their style. And he worked himself into becoming somebody who could be legitimately described as an heir apparent to Hendrix.

What’s your top three picks from 3+3, and why?
Honestly, it’s hard for me to pick a top three because I’m kind of an albums guy. I’m not like a singles guy. I mean, singles are great, but I grew up in an era where albums were recognized, where albums were embraced, where albums were championed. 3+3 for me is to be experienced as one whole work as one whole entity, as one whole piece. Every time I listen to “3+3,” I listen to the whole thing from beginning to end. Obviously “That Lady,” because that was the major paradigm shift—that was the revolution, that was the outcry as to we are doing something completely different here. You are used to hearing us one particular way, but what you’re about to hear after this is going to be completely different from anything that you’ve ever experienced from us. So, I have to say “That Lady,” “Summer Breeze” does not get anywhere near the credit that it should.

That is an Isley Brothers unequivocal masterpiece, because I love the original version and I love The Isleys version, but what The Isleys end up doing with that record, they took a MOR [middle of the road] format ballad and turn it into a heavy metal anthem. People talk about “That Lady” as the guitar showcase for Ernie Isley. The real guitar showcase on the album for me is “Summer Breeze.” I can pick a number of songs, but I’m going to say “Highways of My Life,” the very last song on the album, because it is like this brilliant showcase and he doesn’t get enough credit. That’s a piece that Chris wrote, and it showcases Chris’s brilliance as a pianist, a keyboard player, a songwriter, and an arranger.

To me, it’s one of the most breathtaking ballads that The Isleys have ever produced. And then I have a bunch of different honorable mentions: “Sunshine (Go Away  Today)” (written and released in 1971 by Jonathon Edwards); another brilliant Isley Brothers cover.  “You Walk Your Way,” that’s another brilliant piece. Again, it’s really hard for me—if I had to pick a top three, “That Lady,” “Summer Breeze” and “Highways of My Life,” but for me, I have to experience the album as a whole, because there’s not one single bad song on the record. And there are no false notes, there are no missteps. Everything fits seamlessly. Every note is exactly the way that it should be. If I were to wish for The Isleys to go back in time and make that record again, I wouldn’t want them to change a single thing.

What do you want readers to take away?
I didn’t want to just write about The Isleys. I didn’t want to just write about a record. I wanted to use The Isleys’ music and their story as a lens on history, because one of the problems that I have in observing the way that black music is treated in this country, is the absolute and deliberate divorce of Black people and black culture from history. There’s no rootedness in a nation’s history. I wanted to talk about the Isley Brothers being a product of the Great Migration, how O’ Kelly Sr. and Sally Bernice Bell migrating out of the Jim Crow south to this unincorporated area just outside of Cincinnati, and the establishment of the first self-governed Black city, Black town above the Mason Dixon line.

I wanted to make sure that part of the history and how Lincoln Heights came to be and what ultimately ended up happening to it, I wanted to make sure that that was part of the story. The thing that ultimately fascinated me about this book, and I need to mention this: I did not interview The Isley Brothers at all for this book. I didn’t have an opportunity to talk to The Isleys directly because I was writing this book the better part of last year, and The Isleys were on a career upcycle. This was just on the heels of the Verzuz they had with Earth, Wind & Fire, and they had a major popularity spike. They released a new album, Make Me Say it Again, Girl. They did a collaboration with Earth, Wind & Fire and El DeBarge, a cover of Switch’s “They’ll Never Be” and covered their song, “Make Me Say It Again, Girl” with Beyonce. The Isleys were on a bit of a career high, which made them sort of inaccessible and difficult to reach. They were fielding different offers to write a book or something. I would’ve liked to have spoken to them. There’s still a lot of time, there’s still a ton of unanswered questions for me about this book that I think would’ve been a much better experience if I did have an opportunity to speak to them.

The other aspect of it is it put me in a position where I had to go through archives and I had to dig through articles and articles about The Isley Brothers and the people that they’ve encountered over the course of their career. The Isleys are kind of like The World According to Garp or Forest Gump, insofar as they keep coming up at these climactic periods in history and interfacing with all of these pivotal figures in the music business. They worked with Bert Burns, Burt Bacharach, Lieber and Stoller, Hugo and Luigi, and Berry Gordy. At every turn, there’s some connection to some important figure in music or they’re somehow connected to these different events. They’re indirectly connected to Elvis, insofar as they were on the same label [RCA Records] for about two minutes.

“Shout” came out on RCA Records. And the interesting thing about that is they were only there for like a few months; when they left RCA, Hugo and Luigi went in, went out and got Sam Cooke. So, it’s like they were on the way out. Sam Cooke comes in, they were able to put Bert Burns and they gave him a major hit with “Twist and Shout.” And then he would go on to write “Hang on Sloopy” and “I Want Candy” and a number of really major hits on several artists, but like, The Isleys kind of got him through the door, especially when the Beatles covered [“Twist and Shout”].

And they transitioned over to Buddah Records and Neil Bogart was like their promotional guy. And Neil Bogart is important in so far as after he left promotions and sales for Buddha Records, he goes on to form Casablanca Records.  They come to Motown, they got one hit, they kind of scuffled on Motown, but then after they leave Motown, that like kind of clears the way for Berry Gordy to bring in The Jackson Five.

It’s like, all these dots in the history, all these different things, all these different people and events and situations that somehow they either directly were connected to or indirectly connected to. That was probably the most fascinating thing about writing this book.

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