Isley, Bacharach team up for songs that mesmerize

Pop singer's admiration for composer goes way back

Music: in concert, CDs

November 20, 2003|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

He may not think so, but Ron Isley has absolutely nothing to prove.

After nearly 50 years of mining gold and platinum, the artist known to the hip-hop generation as Mr. Biggs has shown us time and time again that he is one of the most distinctive male vocalists in pop. With a sanctified shout and a crystalline swoop, Isley enchants us with an instrument that sounds more refined today than it did on those old Isley Brothers' records: "Twist & Shout," "It's Your Thing," "For the Love of You," "Voyage to Atlantis," "Between the Sheets," and the classics go on and on.

"It's just a real, real blessing to maintain it, man," says the 62-year-old legend, who's phoning from Los Angeles. "Once I recognized my voice as a gift, I started to protect it. Sometimes when I'm singing, I feel like I'm singing for all my friends who have gone on: Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Eddie Kendricks and all the rest."

On his new solo album, Here I Am: Ron Isley Sings Burt Bacharach, the performer collaborates with a master of American pop songwriting, re-interpreting hits made famous by Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, B.J. Thomas and others. Isley's admiration of the famed arranger goes back to the early '60s when Isley and Warwick were an item, and she was the main interpreter of those tricky, richly melodic songs Bacharach wrote with Hal David: "Don't Make Me Over," "Anyone Who Had A Heart," "Walk On By" and others.

"I would be in the studio when Dionne was recording some of those tunes," Isley says. "My brothers and I were doing rock-'n'-roll-like songs then, but I always wanted to sing those kind of songs Dionne was doing."

In '62, a year before Warwick broke out with "Don't Make Me Over," the Isleys almost had the chance to record a Bacharach- David song, "Make It Easy on Yourself." Later made famous by Jerry Butler, the tune was originally slated as the "A" side to "Twist & Shout." The group was in New York City's Bell Sound Studios rehearsing the tune with Luther Dickinson, the A&R director of Scepter Records, when Bacharach walked in. A few lyrics had been changed by Dickinson, which upset the composer. The two argued, and Bacharach took his sheet music and stormed out. The Isleys were left with "Twist & Shout."

"And that was it," the soul singer says. "We had rehearsed that song for weeks, man. And we never got a chance to record it."

Flash forward 41 years. Reduced to just Ron and Ernie, the Isley Brothers is still a platinum-selling act with such R. Kelly-produced albums as Mission to Please and Body Kiss, which debuted at No. 1 in May. DreamWorks Records executive John McClain approached Ron with the idea of partnering with Bacharach for an album. During early summer, Isley visited the composer at his Los Angeles home, where they went over Bacharach's songbook.

"We hit it off," Isley says. "He just flipped out after I started singing some of the tunes he forgot he wrote, like 'In Between the Heartaches' and 'Here I Am.'"

The two selected 11 of the most indelible compositions to grace the charts, including "The Look of Love," "A House is Not a Home" and "This Guy's In Love With You." Two new songs -- "Count on Me" and "Love's (Still) the Answer" -- were written expressly for the project by Bacharach and Tonio K. The album was recorded in July inside Capitol Records Studios A and B in Hollywood, where Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra cut such chestnuts as "Unforgettable" and "Come Fly With Me" respectively. Here I Am was recorded live as Bacharach conducted the 40-piece orchestra.

"Man, I hadn't recorded like that in 40 years," Isley says. "At first, I thought it would be torture 'cause I was used to overdubbing and all. But Burt was like, 'No. We're gonna cut this once and let the strings react to you and the musicians feel you.' I just closed my eyes and let it happen."

The result is mesmerizing, truly inspired throughout. Isley's clean falsetto glides around, leaps over and darts in and out of the cinematic swirls of strings and muted lines of brass. Some tunes -- namely "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" and "The Look of Love" -- are revamped with jazzier charts. The mood is warm and laid-back, the sounds soulful and lush. Bacharach left ample room for Isley's aching, honey-butter voice. The rhythms framing it dip into the gospel-suffused R&B that made Isley famous.

Today's young music buyers may know the veteran singer as the pimped-out, cane-carrying character Mr. Biggs, an R. Kelly creation. But Isley says fans young and old won't notice much of a difference in his approach to Bacharach's tunes.

"The fans are more into the singing, anyway," says Isley, who divides his time between homes in St. Louis and L.A. "They know I can do certain things, and they can see that I can take it to another level musically. So this new project isn't a big departure from the recent albums."

And although the singer has successfully interpreted songs from various idioms -- jazz, folk, rock, funk, gospel and hip-hop, Isley feels that Here I Am was an artistic challenge.

"With these songs, I had something to prove," he says. "With the orchestra and everything -- this is the type of project I've always wanted to do. And what better way to do that than to have Burt on it? It doesn't get any better."

See Ron Isley when the Isley Brothers and Earth, Wind & Fire come to Washington's MCI Center Dec. 4 for the Comedy Soul Festival. Tickets are $42.50 - $75.50 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-481-SEAT or visiting www.ticketmaster.com.

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