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Listen up, rockers. The definitive Isley Brothers single isn't 1959's "Shout," the father of all soul rave-ups. It's 1977's "Footsteps in the Dark," the father of all slow jams. Deceptively smooth and indebted to AM-radio pabulum, "Footsteps" entered the black pop canon just as the airwaves were resegregating. It described romantic commitment at a crossroads, but also evoked a broader sort of dread. "Who feels really sure?" crooned Ronald Isley. "Can that feeling guarantee your happiness shall endure?"
Who could be sure of anything in 1977? Or today? A sample of Ernie Isley's delicate guitar phrasing went on to give Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day" its melancholic undertow. But it was that voice of uncertainty that left a chill. Ronald had told women, "It's Your Thing" in 1969, told everyone to fight the power in 1975, even demanded a harvest for the world in 1976. "Footsteps" cast his idealism in a funk. Now, as black radio's midnight snacks become pop's bread and butter, the sixtysomething frontman is once again registering his doubts in the mainstream, his haunted tenor affixed to the humorous alias Mr. Biggs on a new album titled Eternal.
On the lead single, "Contagious," this gangsta alter ego confronts a young R&B cuckolder, R. Kelly, in the act of stealing his woman (read: genre)--a poetic scenario for a man who has recorded influential hits in six consecutive decades without gaining superstardom or serious acclaim. Even today, the rock-crit cognoscenti seem perplexed to find a stunningly successful comeback (it debuted at number three on the pop charts) clogged with syrupy ballads.
But anyone who loves the Isleys knows they locate a universe of art within a cottage of cheese. Since 1973's pivotal 3+3, Ernie's liquefied strum-fuzz and Ronald's cooing vocals have become a cherished signature. At least one attendee at Sunday's Isleys gig in the Orpheum will fondly remember their cover of the Seals & Crofts radio curd "Summer Breeze." Such was the band's stature in black rock that when the Isleys began recording the new album with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the fans-cum-producers demanded a weeklong Q&A session--"Isley Brothers 101." Co-producer Raphael Saadiq (of Lucy Pearl) had always wondered how Ernie played that guitar part on "Footsteps."
The Isleys remain pop fans themselves, and always admired the white rock that ripped them off--from the Beatles ("Shout," "Twist and Shout") to Michael Bolton ("Love Is a Wonderful Thing"). Ernie was a kid when he sat with then-Isley guitarist Jimi Hendrix to watch the Beatles conquer Ed Sullivan, and he has recounted the war room-style family meeting that followed: Everything would change now, the brothers agreed. And the Isleys would have to change with it. Shortly thereafter, 1964's "Testify (Parts 1& 2)" lifted a melody from the Beatles' "From Me to You." (See the essential Isley box, It's Your Thing: The Story of the Isley Brothers, Epic/Legacy.)
The Isleys rocked and rolled with the punches. They always had. Ronald was appointed lead singer only after his brother Vernon died in a car accident in 1955. Three decades later, backing vocalist O'Kelly died of a heart attack. Co-vocalist Rudolph left to join the ministry; bassist Marvin retired, suffering diabetes. Even the new hit album represents a triumph shadowed by loss: Louil Silas Jr., the mogul who pushed Eternal through at Dreamworks, died in January. Then there was Aaliyah.
"She was 22, God rest her soul," says Ernie Isley, reached by phone at his home in St. Louis. The chanteuse had scored an early hit with the Isleys' "At Your Best (You Are Love)."
Then Ernie remembers the other plane crashes... "It's like, this human experience, for the time that we have it, is all that we really know that we have." Happiness shall endure.