Origins and initial recordings
The Isley Brothers originally came from Cincinnati, Ohio, and were raised at the city's Lincoln Heights suburb, eventually settling at the satellite town of Blue Ash when they were teenagers. Their father, O'Kelly Isley, Sr., a former United States Navy sailor and vaudeville performer from Durham, North Carolina, and Georgia-reared mother Sallye, guided the elder four Isley boys in their singing while at church. Patterning themselves after groups such as Billy Ward and his Dominoes and the Dixie Hummingbirds, the brothers began performing together in 1954. Eventually they landed a spot on Ted Mack's Amateur Hour where they won the competition, winning a watch. With Vernon on lead vocals, the quartet soon began touring all over the eastern US regions performing in a variety of churches. When Vernon was thirteen, he was killed after a car struck him as he was riding his bike in his neighborhood. Devastated, the remaining trio disbanded.
Eventually convinced to regroup, the brothers decided to record popular music and left Cincinnati for New York in 1957 with their parents' blessings. With Ronnie assuming the lead vocal position in the group, the group got into contact with Richard Barrett, who soon had the group in contact with a variety of New York record producers. They eventually had their first records produced by George Goldner, who recorded the group's first songs, including "Angels Cried" and "The Cow Jumped Over the Moon" for the Teenage, Cindy and Mark X imprints. The songs were only regional hits, however. By 1959, the group landed a recording deal with RCA Records. Later that year, mixing their brand of gospel vocalizing and doo-wop harmonies, the group recorded their first composition together, "Shout", a song devised from a Washington, D.C. club performance in which the brothers had covered Jackie Wilson's "Lonely Teardrops". The original version of the song peaked at 47 on the Billboard Hot 100 and never reached the R&B chart. Nevertheless, it sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc by the RIAA. Follow-up recordings on RCA failed to chart and the brothers eventually left the label in 1961, later signing with Scepter Records. In 1962, the brothers scored their first top 40 hit with the Bert Berns song "Twist and Shout", which reached number 17 on the Hot 100 and number 2 R&B, staying on the charts for 19 weeks. The song had been produced by Berns for the brothers to teach then-struggling producer Phil Spector how to produce a hit.
Moving their entire operations to New Jersey, the brothers continued to struggle with recordings eventually forming T-Neck Records in 1964. During that same time period, Jimi Hendrix began playing lead guitar for the brothers' band. Bringing Hendrix with them in the studio, they recorded the song "Testify". Later on, Hendrix contributed guitar to another Isleys single, "Move On Over and Let Me Dance", which was recorded for T-Neck through distribution with Atlantic Records. After neither song charted and Hendrix left them for good in 1965, the brothers signed with Motown Records. Earlier the following year, the group had their second top 40 hit single with "This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)". While the brothers' recordings with Motown were more successful than the brothers' early works, they struggled to have a follow-up top 40 hit with the label. They left Motown in 1968.
Resurrecting their T-Neck label that year, the brothers signed a distribution deal with Buddah Records and issued "It's Your Thing" in February 1969. The song, which featured the first appearance of Ernie Isley on bass, became their biggest success to date reaching #2 on the Hot 100 and #1 on the R&B chart. The song's parent album, It's Our Thing, reached #22 on the Pop LP chart and "It's Your Thing" became their second million-seller and won them a Grammy Award. The release of "It's Your Thing" brought record label issues between the Isleys and Motown as Motown argued that the group recorded the song while still under their Motown contract. A 1975 court decision eventually ended in the Isleys' favor.
By 1971, the Isleys' younger brothers Ernie Isley and Marvin Isley and brother-in-law Chris Jasper started to add musical input to the band's music, first performing on the Isleys' Givin' It Back, which had the brothers reinterpreting rock songs mixing them with funk and gospel-oriented elements. They played an even bigger role in the music on the 1972 album, Brother, Brother, Brother. Both albums yielded top 40 hits including "Love the One You're With" and "Pop That Thang". By the end of their Buddah tenure in 1973, the brothers signed a distribution deal with Epic Records and made Ernie, Marvin, and Chris official members. In 1973, the Isleys released 3 + 3, which included the top 10 hit single, "That Lady" and a UK Top 10 cover of "Summer Breeze". Incorporating hard rock and folk rock as well as funk and soulful balladry, the album became their breakthrough hit, eventually selling over two million copies.
The following year's Live It Up reached gold. In 1975, the brothers recorded one of their most successful recordings with The Heat Is On, which featured the hits "Fight the Power" and "For the Love of You", and became their first to reach #1 on the Pop LP chart, also selling over two million copies, going double-platinum. The brothers would have more hit albums including Harvest for the World, Go for Your Guns, and Showdown, which either went gold or platinum and released several top 40 pop and R&B recordings and several popular album and radio cuts. By the release of 1979's Winner Takes All, the brothers had incorporated disco and quiet storm music into their work. The brothers' final album under their six-member lineup, 1983's Between the Sheets, sold over two million copies. By then, financial struggles, creative difficulties, and other issues affected the group. Shortly after the success of Between the Sheets, Ernie, Marvin, and Chris left the Isley Brothers and formed Isley-Jasper-Isley, later recording the hit, "Caravan of Love".
In 1985, the original Isleys trio of O'Kelly, Rudy, and Ronnie signed with Warner Bros. Records and recorded and released the album Masterpiece. Shortly a year after its release, Kelly Isley died of a heart attack while battling cancer, in March 1986. The remaining duo of Ron and Rudy released the Angela Winbush-produced albums, Smooth Sailin' in 1987 and Spend the Night in 1989. Shortly after the latter release, Rudy retired from the music industry and followed life in the ministry. Ron put the group on a brief hiatus in 1990 while he recorded solo material. In 1991, Ron revived the group; Ernie Isley and brother Marvin returned to the fold. that year they released the album, Tracks of Life. Five years later, Ron Isley gained popularity as video villain Frank Biggs (or Mr. Biggs) in the music video for R. Kelly's hit "Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)", which included the Isley Brothers as featured artists. The success of the song and its video helped the brothers' 1996 album Mission to Please reach platinum status.
That same year, Marvin Isley's career ended after a bout with diabetes forced him to have both of his legs amputated. Ron and Ernie have carried on as a duo from then on. In 2001, the duo released their best-selling album in years with the Eternal album, which sold over two million copies and featured the top 20 hit single "Contagious", making the Isley Brothers the only act to reach the Hot 100 (in fact, that chart's top 50) during the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Two years later, the brothers' Body Kiss album peaked at number-one on the Billboard 200 album chart, becoming their second to reach the position and the first to do so since The Heat Is On. Their next two released albums included 2006's Baby Makin' Music and the 2007 holiday album I'll Be Home for Christmas. In 2007, the Isleys' career was interrupted by Ron Isley's three-year prison sentence for tax evasion. He was released in 2010. In June of that year, youngest brother Marvin Isley died in Chicago after his longtime bout with diabetes. During the group's hiatus, Ernie toured as part of the Experience Hendrix concert festival, while Ron Isley released his first solo album, Mr. I, in 2010. A year later, Ron and Ernie reunited and have since performed on the road.
In 1993, The Isley Brothers song "" was sampled by hip-hop artist Ice Cube for the hit single "It Was a Good Day".
In 1994, The Isley Brothers song "Between the Sheets" was sampled by The Notorious B.I.G. for his hit single "Big Poppa". That same year, R&B singer Aaliyah did a cover version of "(At Your Best) You Are Love" for her debut album.
After the break-up of Isley-Jasper-Isley in 1987, Chris Jasper continued as a solo artist, multi-instrumentalist, and producer, forming his own independent record label, Gold City Records. He has since released 14 solo albums, including 4 gospel albums. He released the #1 R&B hit "Superbad" in 1988, a song which emphasized the importance of education, a theme Jasper continues to emphasize in many of the songs he has written since his days with the Isleys. In January 2013, Jasper released Inspired: By Love, By Life, By the Spirit, a compilation of love songs as well as socially conscious and spiritual tracks. In May 2014, Jasper released The One, reminiscent of the soulful R&B and funk music he wrote for the Isleys. In 2016, Jasper released Share With Me, which included a cover of the Billy Preston hit, "You Are So Beautiful" and a track called "America", a tribute to the nation and a call to come together. In April 2018, Jasper pre-released a double-A single "The Love That You Give/It's a Miracle" from his 15th solo album Dance With You, scheduled for a July 2018 release. Jasper, who earned a law degree in 2004, has continued to write, record, and perform all the music on his solo albums and produce artists for his Gold City label, including Liz Hogue, Out Front, and Brothaz By Choice. The most recent addition to the Gold City label is Jasper's son, Michael Jasper, a songwriter, recording artist and screenplay writer, who earned his law degree in 2018. In 1989, Jasper wrote, produced and performed on "Make It Last" for Chaka Khan's CK album. In 2015, in conjunction with Sony Music, Jasper released the Essential Chris Jasper which encompasses all of the tracks that Jasper sang lead on during his Isley-Jasper-Isley years and solo career at CBS/Sony Music. In 2015, he received the German Record Critics Lifetime Achievement Award ("Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik"). In 2016, Jasper was awarded the National R&B Society Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 2017, Ernie and Ronnie Isley collaborated with guitarist Carlos Santana and released Power of Peace, out on July 28 by Sony Music’s Legacy Recordings.