“Every award we get, it means a lot to us,” says Ronald Isley. “But one of the high accomplishments for us would be to get a Rolling Stone cover some day. When I see Puffy on the cover of your magazine, I know what he’s done for the business, I respect him and he’s a friend of mine. But I’m also goin’ like, ‘Damn! When is it our turn?'”
Coming from a flash in the pan like Lou Bega or Crazy Town, such a statement might merely seem like so much empty posturing. But the musical legacy of the Isley Brothers is a staggering thing, indeed. Formed in 1954 as a Cincinnati, Ohio gospel trio consisting of Ronald and his older brothers O’Kelly and Rudolph, the Isleys have scored over sixty hit singles during their career, beginning in 1959 with the immortal “Shout.” Their songs have been covered by artists as diverse as the Beatles (“Twist and Shout”) and Booker T. and the MGs (“It’s Your Thing”) to Aaliyah (“At Your Best You Are Love”) and Vanessa Williams (“Work to Do”), and have been sampled by everyone from Public Enemy to the Notorious B.I.G. And for a year or two in the mid-Sixties, the Isley Brothers’ band even featured the talents of a freaky young guitarist named Jimi Hendrix. So when Ronald Isley says, “We’re one of the pillars in the fabric of rock & roll,” you’d best pardon the mixed metaphor and give the man his props.
And yet, despite being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, receiving a Quincy Jones lifetime achievement award at this year’s Soul Train Awards and selling untold millions of records worldwide, Ronald Isley still feels he has plenty to prove. “It’s like football or basketball,” he says. “They throw you a pass, you wanna catch it; in baseball, you wanna knock the home run when the bases are loaded. We’ve always been competitive like that, and when we go into the studio we’re like, ‘We gotta show these guys how it’s done!'”
Eternal, the Isleys’ new album for DreamWorks, definitely makes a compelling case for the group’s relevance in the modern R&B era. Recorded with contributions from R. Kelly, Jill Scott, Ronald’s wife Angela Winbush, producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, R&B singer-songwriter Avant, Raphael Saadiq of Lucy Pearl and the late Curtis Mayfield, Eternal could well be to the Isleys what Supernatural was to Carlos Santana. But despite the all-star cast, the record’s fourteen tracks are pure Isley Brothers, filled with summery slow-jam grooves, Ronald’s silky tenor croon and the sweetly sizzling guitar leads of younger brother Ernie, the group’s musical lynchpin since the late Sixties. The music and lyrics to cuts like “Move Your Body,” “You Deserve Better” and the title track may sound contemporary, but the feel is 100 percent classic soul.
“This is like the Super Bowl record for the Isleys,” explains Ronald, who, along with Ernie, warmed up for the Eternal sessions by taking apart their classic hits and exploring what made them work in the first place. “We sat around with Jimmy and Terry, and they’d say, ‘How did y’all make “Fight the Power”?’ ‘What did you do on this bass line?’ ‘How did you play that lick on “Who’s That Lady”?’ We would play just about everything, showing them how we developed this or that, and then we started to develop the new songs. It was really fun!”
Eternal also gives Ronald an opportunity to further develop his alter-ego of Mr. Biggs, a character that originally appeared in the video to R. Kelly’s 1995 hit, “Down Low (Nobody Has to Know),” thereby introducing Ronald to a whole new generation of R&B fans. “I’d walk through airports, and kids three years old would be sayin’, ‘How you doin’, Mr. Biggs?'” Ronald laughs. “And so I thought, we’ve gotta outdo that. We’ve got to make it a soap opera, a special thing that nobody else is doing.”
“Contagious,” the album’s first single, certainly provides its share of drama, with Mr. Biggs coming home to find his lady gettin’ jiggy with R. Kelly. Unfortunately, Kelly’s presence in the song (and its accompanying clip) upset the folks at Jive Records, who worried that it would adversely affect the sales of their star’s TP-2.com CD. “Man, the first time R. Kelly pulled his pants off [in a video] was with us!” Ronald says, laughing. “That’s like Marilyn Monroe pullin’ her brassiere off on your movie, you know? He’s like our son, and he battled them with us, but our record still got pushed back.”
Eternal was then pushed back even further to accommodate “Said Enough,” the record’s gorgeous duet with Jill Scott. “I thought the album was finished,” Ronald remembers, “But [the record label] said, ‘If you come up with the right song, we’ll make room.’ Jill is at her peak, now, and she’s like a poet. I knew she had a special liking to Angela Winbush, who I’m married to; but she also knew all about our music, and we have a love for what she’s doing now. We started thinking about, ‘What if we could come with this Roberta Flack/Donny Hathaway type record?’ So, when she wrote the song, I said, ‘Oh man, let’s go back in and do this!'”
Now pared down to a duo of Ronald and Ernie — O’Kelly died in 1986, Rudolph left to become a minister, and baby brother Marvin has been sidelined by diabetes — the Isley Brothers still pride themselves in making substantial music with a positive message. “A lot of times when we recorded, we would try to show the direction of where the music needs to be goin’,” says Ronald. “And that’s what this record is. We were trying to throw the knockout punches back then, and we’re still doin’ it today.”