The Isley Brothers were best described by Rickey Vincent in his 1996 guidebook Funk: The Music,The People And The Rhythm Of The One as being the embodiment of funky manhood. Everything from their musical rodeo image to the intense power of their sound. Throughout the 70’s and into the 80’s,they were unique among funk bands as having come out of a R&B era vocal trio into the funk era. Their 3+3 era line up kept their hard driving,uptempo sound updated throughout their years together. And were capable of utilizing the new instrumental form to fashion sexy,thickly rhythmic ballads.
During the first year and a half of the 80’s,the Isley’s were actually very successful as album artists. The R&B community and record charts never stopped viewing them as straight up musical icons. In the pop world however even their hard rocking,often guitar shredding funk grooves were having trouble landing them any major singles. In 1981,this all changed because of an album that…I found a beat up$1.99 vinyl copy of in a record store about 20 years ago. It even got to be a Soul Train line dance song too. The name of this song and it’s accompanying album was “Inside You”.
The drums come at you with a pounding 4/4 beat from Everett Collins-surrounded by the percussion of the Isley’s , the conga drums of Kevin Jones and Marvin Isley’s thundering bass. All showcasing Ernie Isley strumming on liquid rhythm guitar. A string section dart into the mix with brittle precision similar to Chic. They sustain themselves behind Ron’s first and second vocal refrain-the latter of which takes the song into a melodic major chord. The bridge reduces the song to it’s string/ rhythm guitar/synth bass pulse before the Isley’s back up Ron’s leads with some powerful gospel harmonies to the fade out.
One of the understandings that came from this song for me is that it really added a new rhythmic element to the 3+3 Isley Brothers sound. During the late 70’s,the disco era found Afro-Latin percussion becoming more prominent in dance music such as that of Barry White and Michael Jackson songs such as “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”. The Isley’s had primarily utilized basic rock and funk oriented back beats at that time. As the 80’s sound settled in,I find it interesting that the Isley Brothers began integrating that Afro-Latin rhythm so heavily into their steely funk/rock sound.
Filed under 1980's, Afro-Cuban rhythm, Chris Jasper, drums, Ernie Isley, Everett Collins, Funk, Isley Brothers, Kevin Jones, Marvin Isley, percussion, rhythm guitar, Ron Isley, strings, synth bass
The Isley Brothers embodied something that is generally more common among jazz artists. They’ve been around long enough and through so many changes in music that their sound has a number of distinct periods. In each of these,they’ve provided popular music that was also on the cutting edge instrumentally somehow. Of course my personal favorite of these periods is known as the 3+3 years,when the Isley’s had two generations of brothers performing and playing together as a monster funk ensemble. They remained massively popular throughout the 70’s in this configuration.
In 1980 this format of the band released their 18th studio album entitled Go All The Way. Generally speaking, most literary discourse on the Isley’s praise their 70’s work up until roughly 1978’s “Take Me To The Next Phase” and then pick up with 1983’s Between The Sheets song and album. Between that time however,their sound evolved towards their mid 80’s electro friendly sound even more than it had even with Chris Jasper’s synthesizer washes. One song from this 1980 album really pulled that together beautifully. And the name of it was “The Belly Dancer”.
Ron Isley begins panting song lyrics over a pumping drum line-within which Jasper begins playing two synth parts-one an ethereal string like part in the back round,plus a revving guitar like one on every other beat. He doubles up the synths as the song segues into the first chorus-finding Ernie Isley’s train-like guitar chug with Ron playing call and response to his backing vocal. It’s punctuated by Jasper’s popping synth bass. Most of the song is built around this chorus-with only a brief refrain featuring a melodic passage focusing on Ernie’s rhythm guitar. After a heavy percussion bridge,the song is all chorus to the fade.
In my own opinion,this is one of the thickest funk splatters that the Isley’s turned out within the first few years of the 80’s. It really does a lot to showcase how much their steely funk/rock hybrid of the mid/late 70’s was on the naked/electro funk to come in the 80’s. This song not only adds sleeker melodic elements. But it’s full of rhythm. Henrique and myself were discussing the ultra rhythmic piano of Duke Ellington tonight. And with Chris Jasper and Ernie Isley really pumping up the beat on this song,it’s solid proof of players in the Isley’s known for soloing could also rhythmically throw down the heavy funk.
Filed under 1980's, Boogie Funk, Chris Jasper, drums, Ernie Isley, Marvin Isley, naked funk, percussion, rhythm guitar, Ron Isley, synth bass, synthesizers
The Isley Brothers embody a very special quality for me. They have and continued to function positively as a bi-generational family soul/funk group. Due to changes in music from the 50’s to the 70’s,this quality didn’t always make for personal harmony between the elder and younger sets of Isley brothers. But it did make for some amazing hybrids of soulful harmonies,rocking solos and funky rhythms during their 70’s period. By the time of the bands 1977 release Go For Your Guns,Ron Isley’s focus was geared more towards singing the groups ballad material. As for younger members Ernie Isley and cousin Chris Jasper,they continued to innovate the bands funk/rock hybrid as time marched along.
The last two tracks on the Go For Your Guns album were somewhat companion pieces. The first was called “Livin’ In The Life”. It featured Ron Isley on lead vocals-singing in the lower end of his range. The last song on the album was the instrumental title track of the album. This featured the guitar solo of Ernie Isley. Ernie was the composer of both tracks and played drums on each of them as well. The song was actually a huge success for them as a top 10 R&B hit and landing directly into the pop Top 40. When I first heard this song during the frightening Maine ice storm of 1998,it made a huge impact on me across a number of levels. And it’s an Isley’s song I’ve always wanted to break down musically.
The groove gets going with Chris Jasper playing a brittle guitar like riff on his ARP synthesizer-multi tracking with himself on the first couple chords while Ernie’s drumming clips along at 125-130 BPM. After a brief three beat hi hat call off,the clapping snare drums kick into gear along with Ron Isley’s lead vocals and Marvin bass line,which functions in an equally brittle manner to the lead synthesizer riff. On the gospel powered melody of the chorus,Jasper’s synth solo becomes more solid and orchestral before going back to main them of the song. As the song fades out,Jasper adds deeply bassy bursts of synth along with Marvin’s line adding that abruptly closes out the song.
Even 18 years after first hearing it,there’s no denying the power of this song on this end. In terms of composition,it takes the bluesy refrains and testifying gospel soul choruses and amps it all up. The echo plex and heavy steeliness of the production gives this the 70’s arena rock equivalent to what Rick James would soon be doing with his “punk funk” sound. In a lot of ways,this finds the Isley Brothers pretty much perfecting their funk/rock hybrid. The reason for that is finding where the blues can intersect those two rhythmic ideas. And that makes Ron’s assertive,empowering lyrics all the more appropriate to Ernie’s hard driving instrumentation and production.
The Isley Brothers,to paraphrase writer and my Facebook friend Rickey Vincent do come off strongly as the embodiment of funky masculinity. That not only goes for their mixture of pragmatism and sensitivity. But also to their musical approach as well. The family group’s 3+3 combination adding younger brothers Ernie and the late Marvin Isley and cousin Chris Jasper added a strong instrumental element to the vocal harmony approach of the elder brothers Ron,Rudy and the late Kelly Isley. During the mid 1970’s, they came up with a distinctive approach to instrumental vital funk and rock along with keeping the soulful bedroom ballads cooking at all ends.
During this time,the sextet began recording in the TONTO synthesizer complex. This is where Stevie Wonder was than working his own electronic funk/soul masterpieces as well. Most of the 3+3 Isley Brothers classic albums were recorded using the complex-especially with keyboard maestro Jasper in tow. In 1976 they released their album Harvest For The World. The album continued to expand on the throbbing grooves they developed,along with the lyrical themes of sensuous eroticism and strong minded brotherhood. Nothing on this album could ever be underrated from where I sit. But it’s the song “People Of Today” that really pulls everything else here together on every possible level.
A rolling drum launches into the song itself. It’s a gurgling mix of bass synthesizer and guitar with multiple Clavinet parts. One of them even contributing to the bottom end of the song as well. This huge tonal array of sound is calmed somewhat on the vocal refrains from Ron Isley. On the end of each chorus,a second refrain features Ron singing a call and response vocal line to a Vocoderized voice singing “my world is fine”. After this a fast and bluesy Clavinet riff leads back into the central theme of the song in which it all begins. This pattern of two separate refrains and repeated choruses maintains itself from beginning to the fade out of this song.
If I were to describe this or any Isley Brothers funk from this period, it would be as the musical equivilant of chunky peanut butter. It’s caramel colored cream texture with a strong crunchiness mixed into it. And has the same strong flavor too. The layering of the keyboard parts of this song are amazing. And it’s the perfect accompaniment as Ron Isley sings about getting ones head out of comfortable denialism. At one point he even responds to the Vocorderized “my world is fine” with the vocal response “ah your jivin’ me”. As implied in the title, it’s a wonderful example of the type of classic 70’s funk that I’ve dubbed over the years as “people music”.
Filed under 1970's, bass synthesizer, Chris Jasper, clavinet, electro funk, Funk, Isley Brothers, Rickey Vincent, Ron Isley, TONTO, Uncategorized, vocoder