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  • | The Enquirer

    Cincinnati’s Isley Brothers are rock and roll pioneers who deserve more appreciation

    By Jeff Suess, Cincinnati Enquirer,

    30 days ago

    The Isley Brothers are rock and roll royalty.

    The Cincinnati natives, who have been actively recording since the 1950s, were one of the pioneering acts during the early days of the rock and roll explosion. But they haven’t had the same level of appreciation as, say, Chuck Berry or Little Richard.

    Not in their hometown, either. While the brothers were inducted into Cincinnati’s Black Music Walk of Fame in 2021, we don’t recognize their local connection as loudly as we do James Brown and King Records.

    Their songs “Shout” and “Twist and Shout” should be pedigree enough. Both were immortalized in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

    “They were the first rock and roll group that I ever heard in my life, before anybody ever started using the word rock and roll,” Little Richard said when inducting the Isley Brothers into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.

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    “They are the founders. They are the originators. They are the creators. They are the emancipators! The architects of what they’re doing. One of the greatest groups in the world. The rock and roll giants!”

    There are surprisingly few books written about the Isley Brothers. The new book, “The Isley Brothers’ 3+3” by musician and journalist Darrell M. McNeill, is a welcome addition.

    The slim volume is part of the 33 1/3 series published on influential albums in popular music. Rather than focus on the 1973 album “3+3,” the first to include the younger generation of Isleys, McNeill explores their entire career.

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    Teenage singers from Cincinnati

    The Isleys were all born in Cincinnati. The older brothers – O’Kelly Jr., Rudolph, Ronald and Vernon – grew up in Lincoln Heights, then moved to Blue Ash in 1954. Their father, O’Kelly Sr., worked as an attendant at the Veterans Administration Hospital. Their mother, Sallye, trained and accompanied her teenage sons as a vocal quartet, who toured the gospel music circuit and performed on Ted Mack’s “Amateur Hour.”

    Then, Vernon, the youngest at age 11, was killed Sept. 24, 1954, in a tragic accident.

    He was riding his bicycle down Cooper Road on his way to Blue Ash School when his bike skidded on a gravel path, and he hit his head on the steel bed of a truck. His death was front page news in Cincinnati newspapers. He is buried in Beech Grove Cemetery in Springfield Township.

    After Vernon’s death, the group split for a time. The brothers reformed as a trio with a shift to a doo-wop sound, and the family moved to New York in 1957 so they could start a singing career.

    ‘You make me want to – shout!’

    Over the next two decades, the Isley Brothers recorded with RCA Victor, Motown, United Artists, independent labels and their own T-Neck Records (it’s a wonder they never worked with King Records).

    “Shout,” released by RCA in 1959, was their first hit, and is as infectious a tune as there was from the early rock period.

    “We-e-e-l-l-l,” Ron Isley wails at the beginning of the song, “you know you make me want to – ”

    The brothers punch back: “Shout!”

    A gospel-inspired call and response ensues, first getting “a little bit softer now,” then “a little bit louder now,” building to a frenzy of woos and hey-heys. You can’t help but shout along.

    Their reworking of “Twist and Shout” in 1962 produced another massive hit. The Beatles covered the Isley Brothers version on their debut album in 1963. Paul McCartney once said, “If it weren’t for the Isley Brothers, The Beatles would still be in Liverpool.”

    “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You),” penned by Motown’s songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland, hit No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1966.

    The Isley Brothers broke out on their own label in 1969 with the anthem “It’s Your Thing,” which earned them the 1970 Grammy Award for best R&B vocal performance.

    Isley Brothers discovered Jimi Hendrix

    By then, teenage brother Ernie Isley was playing guitar for them. He had learned at the foot of another guitarist the brothers had hired in the early 1960s – Jimi Hendrix.

    Before going onto fame for his psychedelic, distorted fuzz guitar playing, Hendrix played in the Isleys’ band on several singles and lived with the family in a spare room. He got bored and began to upstage the group, so he left in 1965 and made his own mark.

    Ernie built on what he learned from Hendrix to become one of the guitar greats himself.

    In 1973, younger brothers Ernie and Marvin Isley and family friend Chris Jasper (also from Cincinnati) joined the three older brothers, bringing their own songwriting and musicianship.

    McNeill was emphatic that the Isley Brothers are a rock and roll group, rather than R&B, funk or one of the many labels used to separate Black artists.

    Such labels, McNeill argues, kept Black musicians like the Isley Brothers from mainstream radio play, despite the Isleys’ string of 9 million-selling albums throughout the 1970s.

    The younger Isleys split off as Isley-Jasper-Isley in the 1980s, but the brothers continued to record together, scoring new songs on the Hot 100 in six different decades.

    O’Kelly died in 1986, then Marvin in 2010 and Rudolph in 2023. Ronald and Ernie still perform as the Isley Brothers. They made their most recent hometown appearance as headliners for Cincy Soul Fest in 2021.

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