In their heyday, when they made global hits like “That Lady” and “Harvest for the World,” the most physically imposing of the Isley brothers – sporting a bushy beard, a stern expression and embroidered clothing A cape and shirt with a rolled collar, and walking shoes encrusted with gems. The cane may have been a symbol of the office of one of the elders of the group – Rudolph Isley, who has died at the age of 84.
From “Shout” in 1959 to “Contagious” in 2001 after Rudolph’s departure, the Isleys’ songs remained hits for six consecutive years. Their success during his active years included the genre-defining hits “This Old Heart of Mine” (1966), Motown the classic, funky favorite “It’s Your Thing” (1969)), and the boudoir soul of “Between the Sheets” (1983).
Although Rudolph was not their regular lead singer, with his brother Ronald serving as lead singer, Rudolph was present from the band’s inception in 1954 until leaving in 1989 to become a Baptist minister. He made occasional appearances as lead singer, including the Top 20 hit “It’s a Disco Night,” which was popular in the UK at the height of the disco era in 1979.
The church is where the brothers first sang as children in Cincinnati, Ohio, under the tutelage of their mother Sally (née Bell) and father O’Kelly Easley, a former U.S. Navy sailor and vaudeville performer Sing. When they debuted in 1954, Vernon was the original lead singer, initially backed by his brothers Rudolph and O’Kelly Jr, followed two years later by Ronald Also joined. When Vernon was killed in a traffic accident at age 13, Ronald took over the position.
After their father’s death in 1957, they moved to New York, where they blended their gospel roots with secular R&B, recording for several small labels, including Gone, run by George Goldner Records, where he discovered Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. But it wasn’t until they were signed by Sam Cooke’s team of producers Hugo (Peretti) and Luigi (Creatore) that they made an impact.
Peretti and Creeley were seen at Harlem’s Apollo Theater rousing audiences with an extended program of rapturously fast-paced call-and-response at a Baptist service. Acting on suggestions that they might turn it into a song, the three brothers came up with “Shout,” which was released in its entirety in 1959 on both sides of an RCA Victor 45. The song reached the top 50 in the United States, prompting accusations of blasphemy against the church. It used gospel idioms while providing a template for a generation of young white rock and pop musicians keen to capitalize on the emotional fervor of black music. The cover version was one of many by Scottish singer Lulu, who launched her career in 1964 when the song reached the top ten in the UK charts.
Shout was also a staple of the Beatles’ early live performances, but it was their recording of another Isley Brothers hit, “Twist and Shout” in 1962, that provided the Liverpool quartet with the mop-shaking A chance to please fans. The climax of each chorus is filled with youthful abandon. The Isley brothers’ hairstyles at the time were elaborately styled into luxurious pompadours that no one could match.
In 1964, they formed their own label, T-Neck, named after the town of Teaneck, New Jersey, where they lived at the time, and visited the UK to perform on Ready Steady Go!. The following year, they were dissatisfied with their sales. After the release of T-Neck, they signed with Motown Records, with writer-producers Lamont Dozier, Eddie and Brian Howe Brian Holland produced “This Old Heart of Mine” for them, in which their sounds were applied to classic Motown riffs. The single reached the top 20 in the US and number 3 in the UK. Ten years later, a cover version of the song became one of Rod Stewart’s biggest hits.
Despite outstanding recordings with Motown including “Behind a Painted Smile” and “Tell Me It’s Just a Rumor Baby,” there were no more hits, and the brothers ended their contract in 1968. The T-Neck revival was their response to the success of James Brown and Sly Stone developed a funkier style, making their “It’s Your Thing” their biggest hit to date, and they also covered Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” and Neil Young’s “Ohio”, entering the realm of rock.
A deal with Columbia Records in 1972 allowed the band to keep up with changing fashions, thanks to the addition of two younger brothers, guitarist Ernie Isley, whose hits were inspired by Jimi Hendrix Inspired by Jimi Hendrix, bass guitarist Marvin Isley and keyboardist Chris Jasper’s sister Elaine joined forces with Rudolph in 1958 ) marry. On albums such as 3+3 (1973) and Live It Up (1974), they produced hauntingly subtle rearrangements of ballads such as James Taylor’s “Don’t Let” Qu. “I’m Alone Tonight,” Todd Rundgren’s “Hello, It’s Me and the Seal,” and Crofts’ “Summer Breeze.”
In 1989, three years after O’Kelly died of a heart attack and between the recording and release of their 25th album, Spend the Night, Rudolph left the band and returned to the church. In 1996, he released the gospel album Shout for Jesus. The Isley Brothers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, but he reunited with them only once, in 2004 when he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the BET (Black Entertainment Television) network.
Marvin died in 2010. Rudolph is survived by Elaine, their three daughters Elizabeth, Valerie and Elaine, son Rudolph Jr. and several grandchildren, as well as Ronald and Ernie.