I love the Isley Brothers, and their place in my heart is as unique as their place in music history. If superlatively great R&B singer Ronald Isley and his great backing singer brothers O’Kelly and Rudolph had retired after producing “Shout,” “Twist and Shout,” “This Old Heart of Mine” and “It’s Your Thing,” they would have been borderline Rock and Roll Hall of Famers and even those songs alone represent a great stylistic diversity. But they didn’t retire. Instead, they added the younger generation of guitarist Ernie (perhaps the most direct inheritor of Jimi Hendrix’s mantle, both stylistically and due to the direct mentorship that occurred when Jimi was a member of the band and Ernie was a kid), bassist Marvin and keyboardist Chris Jasper (a brother-in-law, but that’s cool too). This began the 3+3 era and spawned all sorts of other classics like “That Lady” and “For the Love of You.”
You’ll notice that none of the above-referenced songs are even on this list. That’s partly to give space to some of their other great songs and because there are simply so many of them that 10 is a very small number! I’m hard pressed to think of many other artists who’ve produced strong work with such a diversity of sounds and a consistent evolution over such a long period of time. I don’t love all their stuff, but I’m glad for all of it, as the diversity is central to what makes them so awesome.
1 ) “Harvest for the World” from Harvest for the World
There are a few songs that I can listen to over and over and still consider to be perfect, and this is one of them. Of course Ronald’s lead vocals are passionate, as they always are, but on top of that the chord progression is rich, the groove simmers and the lyrics walk that difficult tightrope where they’re concerned, utopian and literate all at the same time.
2 ) “Fire and Rain” from Givin’ It Back
This record introduced a formula where the often-covered Isley Brothers gave their own takes on then-contemporary rock songs. Though there were several hits among this initial batch of covers (notably “Love the One You’re With,” where on the way out of the bridge Ronald nails the part that is an organ glissando on the Steven Stills original) and a chilling medley of Neil Young’s “Ohio” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” this one is my all-time favorite. The gentle pathos of the James Taylor original boils over with passion via Ronald’s vocals and the amazing groove.
3 ) “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me)” from various compilations (issued as a single on Motown)
The Isleys’ relatively short Motown tenure was, by all accounts, somewhat frustrating, as they never became an “A-list” act. Maybe that’s not so bad insofar as it spurred them to focus on building their own T-Neck label. In the meantime, though, the Hitsville USA assembly line produced some good stuff for them, including this definitive rendition of a song better known for the similarly produced Motown hit version by Kim Weston (and, to rock fans, for the Doobie Brothers’ 1970s cover).
4 ) “Take Me to the Next Phase” from Showdown
I’m not crazy about the fake audience sounds, BUT they could overdub the sound of porpoises here and I’d still listen over and over again for this groove. The thick bass lines fusing Marvin Isley’s great bass and Chris Jasper’s synth make for a bottom end rivaled in the 1970s maybe only by Parliament’s “Flashlight.”
5 ) “Summer Breeze” from 3+3
This is another one of the 1970s cover songs that they did so expertly. I like Seals and Crofts as much as the next guy (assuming, I suppose that the next guy is neither Seals nor Crofts) but the Isleys really make it their own and, notably, this is one of Ernie Isley’s most stank-face-inducing guitar solos on record.
6 ) “Move Over and Let Me Dance” (issued on the It’s Your Thing compilation)
Oh yeah, that Hendrix guy. You might have an easier time finding “Testify (Part 1 & 2),” though the Hendrix style is less distinct there. This live bootleg, meanwhile, shows how the Hendrix guitar style fit into their mid-1960s high-octane R&B groove.
7 ) “Ballad for the Fallen Soldier” from Between the Sheets
Yes, this 1983 album is best known for its title track, one of the smuttiest hit songs of the 1980s (and pretty awesome if that’s what you’re into). This track, though, shows that their nuanced songwriting and social conscience had hardly exited. Ronald’s passionate lead vocals and Ernie’s edgy (and, when the solo comes around, searing) guitar dominate.
8 ) “Fight the Power (Part 1 & 2)” from The Heat Is On
This is a wonderfully hard-edged song both musically and lyrically. I’m not sure half the time when I listen whether I should be shaking my fist or my booty, but one wonderful thing about these guys is that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. This song gets extra props for putting all three older brothers in the forefront on the vocals.
9 ) “Nobody But Me” (1962 single)
As a kid I saw George Thorogood do this song on MTV and thought it was very cool. Then some years later I heard the 1968 hit version by the Human Beinz and felt like I had become hip and educated by discovering the source. Still more years later I heard the Isleys’ original version and my goodness is it awesome. As much as I love “Shout” and “Twist and Shout,” this is still my favorite early-years Isley Brothers recording, even though it strangely wasn’t a hit for them.
10 ) “Ernie’s Jam” from Eternal
I’m of two minds on the material that the Isley Brothers (which is to say, really, Ronald, Ernie and some producers) produced in the new millennium. It’s not really my aesthetic, I miss the other four, and some of the lyrics are downright tawdry in a way that (to me) is less endearing than some of their earlier work. On the other hand, bravo to them for remaining relevant, and as you can hear here, Ronald can still sing and Ernie can still play. This is the requisite Ernie-blows “slow jam,” in place of other songs like “Voyage to Atlantis” and “It’s Too Late” that nearly made this list.
Honorable Mention: “Caravan of Love” by Isley-Jasper-Isley
Because I’m often a stickler for the literal, I can’t include this song in the above list since technically it wasn’t issued under the name “Isley Brothers.” But the younger 3 of the 3+3 really knocked it out of the park on this Jasper composition, one of the great universal brotherhood songs of a decade that (save for star-studded things like “We Are the World”) had far too little of that.