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Published: Sunday, 12/1/2013

MUSIC

At 72, Ronald Isley is still proving himself

BY GARY GRAFF
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE
Ronald Isley of the Isley Brothers has been making music since 1957. Ronald Isley of the Isley Brothers has been making music since 1957.
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Ronald Isley is 72 years old, and he’s been making music — both under the Isley Brothers moniker and on his own — since 1957. His voice enlivens 22 Billboard Hot 100 singles, including landmark tracks such as “Shout” (1959), “Twist and Shout” (1962), “It’s Your Thing” (1969), and “That Lady (Part 1)” (1972). He’s been a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since 1992.

His legacy is well-assured, in other words, but that doesn’t mean that Isley is resting on his laurels. A case in point: his ambitions for “This Song Is for You,” technically his second solo album, which came out in June and debuted at No. 3 on the R&B Albums chart.

“I want to make it make history, man,” Isley says, speaking by telephone from Los Angeles, where he spends part of the year, while living most of the time in St. Louis with his second wife, singer Kandy Johnson, and 6-year-old Ronald, Jr. “I want to make it win Grammys. To make it special, just a legendary ... I want this album to show all the young people what I have supposedly done.”

Isley’s history is certainly rich, from singing in church in his native Cincinnati to appearing on television at 16 to moving with older brothers O’Kelly and Rudolph to New York, where they landed a deal with RCA records and released the all-time party classic “Shout” in 1959. The Isleys recorded for a number of labels, including Motown, and employed a fledgling Jimi Hendrix as the lead guitarist in their backing band, the I.B. Specials.

Forty years ago the Isleys expanded their ranks to include younger brothers Ernie and Marvin, as well as brother-in-law Chris Jasper, and created the hugely successful album “3+3” (1973).

That edition of the Isleys also had the distinction of recording in the Record Plant in Los Angeles at the same time that Stevie Wonder was there making his landmark album “Innervisions” (1973), and even talked him into recording the hit “Don’t You Worry ‘bout a Thing” (1974).

“Stevie would be in the same studio recording all the time, with the same engineers and everybody,” Isley recalls. “We met him as soon as we got to California, and just had a ball doing our album while he was doing his album. He was doing everything that we wanted to do, so that was inspiring and very, very, very memorable.”

Isley, who spent three years incarcerated for tax evasion between 2006 and 2010, has kept the group name alive even as his brothers began passing away, starting with O’Kelly in 1985. Though he records as a solo artist these days, he still tours under the Isley Brothers name, with Ernie playing guitar.

Isley views “This Song Is for You” as another component of a continuing history lesson, keeping alive a style of performance that he feels is woefully missing from the current R&B world.

“There’s no more Marvin Gayes or Luther Vandrosses. All that’s passed away, and mostly the successful albums are about rapping. I still think people need to study the music and study the people that made music before them, just study your craft more," he says.

For “This Song Is for You,” Isley reunited with producer Troy Taylor, who previously worked on the Isley Brothers’ release “Baby Makin’ Music” (2006). Taylor worked on 11 of the new album’s 13 tracks, and rest assured that baby-making, or something like it, is the subject of at least a few of those songs, including “Bed Time,” “Let’s Be Alone,” “Make Love to Your Soul,” and “Lay You Down,” the last of which features Trey Songz. “Another Night” revisits the Isleys’ hit “Between the Sheets” (1983).

The Isley Brothers — Ronald, left, and Ernie — in New York in 2001. The Isley Brothers — Ronald, left, and Ernie — in New York in 2001.
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Isley says that he and Taylor were after consistency.

“We first started by saying that we didn’t want any album fillers,” the singer recalls. “We wanted to be 12, 13 songs that could each be released as a single. That was the first task I think we felt we could accomplish.”

On the track “My Favorite Thing,” Isley teams up with soul singer/​writer/​producer Kem.

“He’s more like Marvin Gaye and Luther Vandross when it comes to his music,” the veteran says. “He’s very particular in everything he does. It took nine months to write that song. We wanted a special song to do together, and that song is a smash, man.”

The song was released as a single, following “Dinner and a Movie,” though it didn’t hit the charts. Whether Isley’s goals for “This Song Is For You’s” “legendary” status will be met have yet to be determined. 

Either way, though, he promises that nothing will deter him from more recording in the future or from continuing his mission of educating an audience about his own accomplishments and carrying a torch for those of his contemporaries.

“I want to prove things to the fans, and I always want to be competitive,” Isley concludes, “because our family was always competitive with whatever was out. We always wanted to be first and set trends like we did with ‘Twist and Shout’ and ‘Between the Sheets’ and all those records we’ve done.

“I’ll never give up on that, and I’ll never give up, period.”



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