Isleys have kept pace for decades

August 08, 1996|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Few things are as ephemeral as pop stardom, and Ernie Isley was reminded of just how fleeting such fame is while watching TV recently. One of the video channels was looking back at the big hits of the '80s, and Isley was amazed at what he saw.

"I was saying, 'Who are these people?' " he says, over the phone from a tour stop in Milwaukee. "I mean, these artists came out of a Kleenex box -- you used them once and threw 'em away. A lot of people, obviously, have hit records, but not too many have a career. Two, three years -- five or seven years is a long time, is an eternity."

Five or seven years would be just a career phase for the Isley Brothers. It's hard to think of another currently successful group whose winning streak stretches as far as theirs does -- from 1959, when the Isleys burst onto the scene with the gospel-style raver "Shout -- Part 1," to the present and "Mission To Please," the group's current smash.

Amazingly, the Isleys' stage show -- which Ernie describes as "Isley Brothers Deluxe" -- runs the gamut of the group's career. And that's quite a lot of stylistic ground to cover.

"Nobody has kept up with the changes like we have," says Isley. "Like, '59 was the good old glory days of rock and roll. But by '62, the twist era, the music had changed." So the Isleys changed with it, cutting a tune called "Twist and Shout."

"The Beatles redid 'Twist and Shout' in 1964," Isley points out. "By the time of the British Invasion, the twist era was actually over; it's just that they liked the song, and so they went and did."

Meanwhile, the Isley Brothers kept moving on. They went to Motown and had another hit with "This Old Heart of Mine" in 1966. Three years later, the funky "It's Your Thing" topped the R&B charts for four weeks. In 1973, the Isleys' sound took on a rock edge with such hits as "Who's That Lady," "Summer Breeze" and "Fight the Power."

"We did an album in '83 called 'Between the Sheets'; that's been like the granddaddy of all the sample-songs for the rappers," adds Isley. "Bones Thugs-N-Harmony has had out this 'Crossroads' thing, which musically was a sample of the Isley Brothers' 'Make Me Say It Again, Girl.' Ice Cube had done a song called 'It Was a Good Day,' but he was using as a musical sample the Isley Brothers' 'Footsteps in the Dark.' So we've been embraced by the new hip-hop/rap/MTV generation. And obviously, we've also embraced them."

It doesn't hurt, either, that the Isleys played a large role in R. Kelly's smash hit "Down Low" -- both on record and in the video. "R. Kelly, being a big fan, was doing some songs for us for the 'Mission To Please' album," says Isley. "He was recording in Florida when we went down to Miami. He said, 'Oh, by the way, guys, I'm doing a session tonight of my own stuff. I got this idea for a song, "Down Low," and Ronald, I'd like you, if you would, to sing on it, and Ernie, if you would, to play some lead guitar on it.' And we just said, 'No problem.'

"Of course, then Ronald did the video," he adds. In the clip, Ronald plays a gangster called Mr. Biggs, whose girlfriend has a clandestine affair with Kelly. "There are a lot of kids now that don't recognize him as Ronald Isley, but as Mr. Biggs," says Ernie. " 'Mommy, that's Mr. Biggs!' And he has to laugh, because they just relate to him as that."

The Isley Brothers

When: Saturday, 8 p.m.

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall

Tickets: $37.50

Call: (410) 481-7328

Sundial: To hear excerpts from the Isley Brothers' new release, "Mission To Please," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the code 6146. For other local Sundial numbers, see the directory on Page 2A.

Pub Date: 8/08/96

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