Isley, Bacharach Make It Easy - Rolling Stone
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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.”

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