Isley brother talks career-spanning box set

In a 2003 R. Kelly video: Brothers Ronald and Ernie Isley (on guitar). (Photo: Dreamworks Records)

The Isley Brothers released The RCA Victor and T-Neck Album Masters (1959-1983) last week, a collection of 21 of their albums that unfurl with crisply remastered productions, rare tracks, and the never-released Wild in Woodstock: Live at Bearsville Sound Studio 1980.

"That's a lot of music," said Ernie Isley, the guitarist-brother who, with vocalist Ron Isley, form the still-touring, currently recording Isley Brothers - soul's first family of musicians, born in Cincinnati and raised in Englewood, N.J. "I'm glad I was there."

The package is as much of an earful to take in as the title is a mouthful to say, but that's par for the course for the brothers (Ron and Ernie, along with Rudolph, Chris and late brothers O'Kelly, Vernon, and Marvin). They have been at the forefront of doo-wop, R&B, rock, funk, disco, protest music, and every genre in between.

"The Isleys are important because they came from gospel, retained that sound within R&B, stayed a family, took their street-corner thing into all their music, and made 'Shout' the national anthem of every college kid," said renowned DJ Jerry Blavat, who also happens to be Ernie's buddy.

Blavat broke the brothers' 1962 hit "Twist & Shout" when it was still in demo form. "I put it on air, and it was such a smash," said Blavat, "the label had to rush it out, make a B-side from its instrumental."

Blavat broke all the Isleys' hits ("This Old Heart of Mine," "Who's That Lady?") on Philadelphia radio and gave Ernie his first-ever live gig in 1964.

"Man, that's when I was still drumming, 12 years old," said Ernie Isley.

For that show, Blavat booked the Isleys into the now-defunct State Theatre, then at South 52d Street, with Martha & the Vandellas and Frankie Lymon. But the Isleys and the Vandellas had just lost their drummer. Ron tapped young Ernie to pound the skins instead. Ernie remembered drumming for both his brothers and the Vandellas, getting not only cash ("They handed me $50, told me to buy a hot dog") but also a klatch of screaming girls. "All my age," Ernie said about the comely fan base. "I never got that action at home. That was nice. Philly gave me my first 10 minutes of fame," he said. "Your town stayed a big market for us. If it broke there, we knew we had a monster."

And there were a lot of monsters along the way, like funk hits with empowering lyrics, such as 1969's "It's Your Thing" ("I played bass on that one," said Ernie), 1975's "Fight the Power (Part 1)" and 1976's breezy "Harvest for the World." Each song has become a classic ripe for sampling by rappers and hip-hop producers alike. There were also the romantic soul numbers, such as 1975's "For the Love of You" and 1983's "Between the Sheets."

The Isleys even turned the charts on their head when they began covering folk and pop hits with the likes of Stephen Stills' "Love the One You're With" and Seals & Crofts' "Summer Breeze."So many artists had recorded the Isleys' songs (the Jackson 5, the Temptations, the Beatles) that the brothers wanted to show what music they liked. "We liked some odd stuff, too," Ernie said, thinking about covering Carole King and Neil Young.

Ernie Isley's 1973 3+3 was his most crucial album. By that point, he was playing guitar for the brothers ("I was really influenced by José Feliciano's style on 'Light My Fire' "). He became a fully functioning compositional force within the group and started showing off his heavy rock influence. "We began to extend ourselves, personally and sonically, and you could hear that in the songs, even in their length," said Isley. "That was as challenging as it was intimidating."

By that time, the original trio behind all the pre-1973 Isleys hits - Ron, O'Kelly, Rudolph - had grown to a sextet to include brothers Ernie, bassist Marvin, and their keyboardist cousin Chris Jasper.

But by 1985, the elder brothers and younger members had split for separate careers. "We had our own opinions, sounds, and ideas," said Ernie Isley. "We had a separate identity." By 1991, he'd returned to work with his older brothers and has continued with brother Ron, recording five albums since. Another album will be released by the end of the year.

"There have been problems, but you pick up where you left off, because nothing changes between brothers," Ernie Isley said reflectively. "Not with my living brothers or those who have passed. That relationship never changes. That is the true 'til death do us part."