In Conversation: It’s Ernie Isley’s Thing, He Does What He Wants to Do

The Isley Brother sits down for a rare interview and tells us about life as a member of one of music's most famous families.

Several weeks ago, at August’s end, The Isley Brothers—soul’s first family of Cincinnati-born, Englewood, New Jersey-fostered players and singers—released The RCA Victor and T-Neck Album Masters (1959-1983): twenty-one of their primetime albums remastered to perfection.

The box set collects remixes and rare tracks, with several of the latter featuring the Isleys’ one-time guitarist Jimi Hendrix. There is the never-released gem Wild In Woodstock: The Isley Brothers Live at Bearsville Sound Studio 1980 that completes the picture of a time when the Brothers (Ronald and Ernie, along with Rudolph, Chris, and late brothers O’Kelly, Vernon, and Marvin) stood concurrently at the very apexes of doo-wop, R&B, rock, funk, disco, protest music, and quiet-storm soul. Guitarist/co-composer Ernie Isley and singing brother Ron are the only original members still touring under the name, and the two plan to release a new album sometime soon. FLOOD had the exceedingly rare opportunity to sit down with Ernie for a long chat. And to keep you company, we put together a playlist of our favorite Isley Brothers tracks. You can listen along below via Spotify.

I watched you and your brother do a gig in Atlantic City not that long ago. You guys were tight, but your solos were freewheeling and improvisational. Are you doing long rehearsals with the band or are you just going for it?

Usually the only time I see the band is during sound check, just running through a few grooves. If you’re into what you’re playing, when it’s time to play, it just happens.

What do you see when you look at him your brother?

I see a pro. Somebody I know well. Somebody’s whose face I recognize from the first twenty-four hours of my life—we got that introduction out of the way pretty fast. From that point of view we’re simply different versions of each other. I am an alternate version of Ronald and Ronald is an alternative version of Ernie. If the other brothers were here, I believe that they would say the same thing. Most of our experiences are parallel.

You’re a baby brother and didn’t start playing with the group until after O’Kelly, Ronald, and Rudolph had their first smashes with “Twist and Shout,” “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You),” and “Shout.” When you were old enough to appreciate music, what was your impression of these gentlemen?

Everybody in the business knows “Shout.” We can do it at the Super Bowl. We can play it at weddings, anniversaries, bar mitzvahs—everyone would understand; it’s the ultimate celebratory anthem.

Even as a kid I was very proud of them. “Shout” came out in 1959. Everybody in the business knows that song and has done that song. We can do it at the Super Bowl halftime and wave American flags. We can play it at weddings, anniversaries, bar mitzvahs—everyone would understand; it’s the ultimate celebratory anthem.

The other night, after a show, we were staying at a Hyatt, and there was this wedding going on that spilled into the lobby. There were a group of people getting on my elevator—they have no clue who I am—and right in the middle of the ride they start singing “Shout.” Then when they hit their floor, they were joined by other people singing it. All I could do is start laughing.

Everybody embraces that song. I’ve heard Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, and The Beatles sing it. When President-elect Obama was inaugurated out by the Lincoln Memorial, Garth Brooks was singing a song, and he stopped, put down his acoustic guitar, took off his hat, and went “Waaaait a minute” and all of a sudden like 235 thousand hands go up in the air. Joe Biden’s hands go up. Barack, Michelle, and the daughters’ hands go up. It’s an “oh my god” moment. That song is part of my resume; it’s a family heirloom.

You started off as a drummer. What attracted you to the drums?

I played bass, too; that’s me on “It’s Your Thing.” The guitar I got hold of late. The drums? I was attracted to them as a little kid, the way they looked, the various ways that I had seen them played, like during July Fourth parades and big band shows. Everybody watches the drummer. They’re the centerpiece. There was a drum kit in our basement, and one of the Brothers’ drummers told me about what each pedal was for, how to hold the left hand and right hand for the sticks. It seemed like too many things at once but he pushed me. I was twelve. Funny thing is, I played my first gig—in Philly—with my brothers right after I learned, because that drummer left the band in a hurry. One minute, I’m just practicing and the next my brother Ronnie is like “you’re up.” That same night I wound up drumming for Martha and the Vandellas too, because their drummer just up and quit.

When you started playing guitar for your brothers, there was no looking back.

No, because I understood where we were going. We had done a few covers albums that were crucial because no one in black music had bothered to do to white rock as white rockers had done to us by covering our songs—it was a thank you. By the early ’70s, with songs like “Who’s That Lady,” I was just riffing like crazy, experimenting, playing rhythm and leads. They told me that they had to make room for the vocals. We were getting funkier. There was a lot of rock in our sound. So we just started expanding the songs, the length, the breadth. By 1973 and the 3 + 3 album, we made the songs longer.

By the early ’70s, with songs like “Who’s That Lady,” I was just riffing like crazy, experimenting, playing rhythm and leads.

And more dynamic.

Yes, which was challenging and equally as intimidating, especially considering that we recorded in the same studio as Stevie Wonder, who was also experimenting. Imagine hearing “Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing” over and over. Man, that wasn’t “My Cherie Amour” or “Superstition.” That made us think about what we were doing.

Do you think that a big part of the success of 3 + 3 and Harvest for the World came down to complete control—your label, your production?

Yes, actually. We had our own sounds and our own ideas and we created signatures with those albums. Something like “Take Me to the Next Phase,” that was all us. We didn’t have to cop to anyone but ourselves. If we were influenced by something, we let it fly. FL

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