Isley, Bacharach Make It Easy

Legendary producer, R&B combo collaborate on standards

In a backdoor way, Ronald Isley credits Burt Bacharach with helping break the Isley Brothers forty-one years ago.

By Isley's recount, the R&B sibling ensemble was in the studio to record Bacharach's "Make It Easy on Yourself" for Sceptor in 1962. The group's A&R director, Luther Dickinson, had altered the lyrics to the song, which didn't sit right with the composer. "Burt walked into the studio and we were singing it," Isley says. "He said, 'This is not my song.' They had this big, blowout argument in the studio, and he told the musicians to stop playing and walked out." With twenty minutes of studio time left, the Isleys weren't inclined to walk out, so they worked up an original, "Twist and Shout." "I sang it once and I thought I heard my voice crack," he says. "They told me I was out of time, and I felt like our career was over."

Needless to say, fate had other ideas, and the song became the Isley's first charting single. And the Isley Brothers, who had initially been positioned as smooth-crooning ensemble cut from the same cloth as Johnny Mathis, traversed to a more rock & roll-tinged brand of raw-boned R&B. "The faster things just hit first," Isley says. "'Twist and Shout' just took our career in another way."

Fast forward four decades, and the Isleys are enjoying a renaissance, topping the pop album charts with Body Kiss this spring. The group -- now whittled down to Ronald and guitarist Ernie Isley -- will take its next step with an eye cast on the past. The Isley Brothers are working on an album of standards composed and rearranged by Bacharach, and featuring all of his lush orchestral bells and whistles (including twenty-six violins on "Alfie"), for a November release. For an added bit of history, the recordings are taking place in the legendary Capitol Studio A and B in Los Angeles, the site of classic sessions by Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole.

A good friend of Dionne Warwick, Isley claims that he was on the periphery of numerous sessions with Bacharach, lyricist Hal David and their best-known interpreter. But Isley and Bacharach hadn't really spoken until very recently, when the former began to conceptualize a standards album and wanted to cover at least one piece by his "favorite arranger, producer, writer." A meeting was arranged, a green light was illuminated and five songs -- "In Between the Heartaches," "Alfie," "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," "Make It Easy on Yourself" and "A House Is Not a Home" -- were recorded in the first session. A second session yielded "This Guys in Love With You," "Anyone Who Had a Heart," "The Look of Love," "Windows of the World" and "Here I Am," and they plan to put down two new songs ("Love Is the Answer" and "Count on Me") to round out the set.

Isley says he and the Bacharach/David catalog go back years. "They're the type of songs I walk around the house singing," he says, "not thinking I'd ever record them. But I spent a lot of time in his house rehearsing, talking about the history of song. I think I'm more familiar with his work than he is. That's what kind of fan I am. I've talked to him about songs he forgot he wrote. But I have such a love for Burt's arranging ability, I wouldn't want to do his songs without him being a part of it. When you say you're gonna do a classic album of standards, some of these songs are bound to come to mind. But they really come to mind with this producer and arranger."

Bacharach is quick to deflect praise back toward Isley. "His vocals are impeccable," he says. "He's a brilliant, brilliant singer. I hope that we'll come to you in a very soulful way. I was always comfortable in that area of making records, though usually most comfortable with the female voice. But he's a wonderful vehicle. The thing that just knocked me on my ass is his choice of notes. You never know what licks he's gonna throw in. There's something very clean about the top part of Ronnie's voice. You don't get it until you're sitting at the piano conducting at Capitol -- you hear what it sounds like when he does just one thing on 'Alfie' and the whole string section applauds and you just say, 'Holy shit.'"

Bacharach also relished the opportunity to rethink some of his classic pieces. "The way we did 'Raindrops,' you'd never imagine it's 'Raindrops,'" he says. "So soulful. It's an area I'm very comfortable in: going back and taking some of this material, not wanting to score it the same way that I did thirty years ago, but not being irreverent. I'm not going to let that happen. I'm not going to step on the integrity of this music. It's hard, because I did thirty-five concerts last year, fourteen or so this year, so I'm in touch with the material and I've done them close to the originals."

Both men speak of the recording process with a sense of reverence and nostalgia. "It's like magic, the same kind used by Sinatra, Dean Martin . . ." Isley says. "It has that special chemistry, that's why we're doing the whole album in that studio." Adds Bacharach, "It's been exhilarating to do it this way. Do I write better arrangements than I did then? I'm not gonna go to that place. But we're cutting the whole thing live, no overdubs, no overlays. Nobody's recording that way anymore. I guess it's been done, but I haven't done it in a long time that way. Cherish every note. I'm very proud of the work we've done."