At what point did you move onto the bass guitar?
On ‘It’s Your Thing.’ Before that Chris was playing piano, and I was playing drums and then we sort of drafted Marvin in as a bass player to form a trio. Because Marvin had a bass through natural curiosity I started playing it. I was playing it when I got to when I got my very first guitar in September 1968. A month later in October 1968, was the first rehearsal in our home for the song ‘It’s Your Thing.’ I was switching off between drums and bass and when we got to the recording studio I showed the bass player what I played and gave him his bass back. He had a different interpretation of his own (of the bass line) and so my older brothers got into a huddle and they said they preferred the way I played it so Ronald came to me before we started recording and said you’re going to play bass. I said oh my God, I’m not ready to do this. (Laughs). He said well you just did it and you did in the living room so just do it now. So he gave me the guy’s bass and gave me the headphones and then I heard a voice saying “rolling.” I was really scared but held on for dear life and played it. It was recorded in November, on a Monday, the day before the general election – it was the election Richard Nixon won, that’s how I always remember it. So I didn’t go to school Tuesday, the day of the election, and when I went to school on Wednesday, my friends were like, Ernie, hey what happened? You weren’t in school on Monday, did you have a cold or something? What’s up? I said I was in a recording session. They said yeah? I said yeah, I was with my brothers, playing the bass. They said what song? I said ‘It’s Your Thing.’ When’s it coming out? I said if you don’t hear it before Christmas it will be early next year. And it came out in the spring of ’69. It was a humongous hit and kick-started our career.
What did it feel like when you first heard the record with you playing on it on the radio?
Kind of like eating chocolate at Christmas in Disneyland with Mickey Mouse on one side and Santa Claus on the other. (Laughs). It was really, really sweet. The fact that it was a hit made it even more so.
(left: Isleys at Motown) It was a game-changing record for the Isley Brothers, wasn’t it?
Yes, it certainly was. It changed everything. T-Neck was my brothers’ label. They had had some success on Motown and then left Motown. Any artist that had been on Motown and left, that was usually the kiss of death to their career but they were the first artists to defy that; and successfully in a major way. That was in 1969 and in1971 Marvin Gaye came out with ‘What’s Going On’ and although Marvin Gaye had an extensive catalogue at Motown, ‘What’s Going On,’ was unlike anything that he had ever recorded. And then Stevie Wonder had ‘Music Of My Mind’ in ’72 followed by ‘Talking Book’ and ‘Inner Visions,’ which were unlike anything that he had ever recorded. Motown was a company that was changing and certainly the whole music business was going into another kind of gear and one of the first to do that would have been the Isley Brothers.
At what point then did you graduate from bass to lead guitar?
I wanted to play ‘Light My Fire’ by José Feliciano and then I wanted to play the twelve-string guitar part on ‘Love Is Blue’ (by Paul Mauriat) and I also wanted to play Mason Williams’ ‘Classical Gas.’ Those were the three songs. And then after that I was trying to play what I heard in my head. I was on-the-job training and learning as I was going along and eventually I got a certain kind of dexterity and just a knowledge of the instrument. I was learning and improving day-to-day and week to week. Four-and-a-half years later we’d got to April 1973 and the ‘3+3’ album. That came about when I went to music store on Sunset Boulevard into their guitar centre and asked them for certain kinds of guitar toys (effects pedals). They brought them to me and I asked for a Strat (a Fender Stratocaster guitar), plugged into an amp and played the rhythm guitar part and the lead part to ‘That Lady’ in the store. Nobody came over to me or turned around but I knew what I had and I went into the studio that night and said I’ve got to have this pedal. It cost a hundred bucks and the engineer said you don’t have to buy that, we can rent it. So I said okay, and told them what it was and the next day it was there. I plugged in and when I hit the very first note on the ‘That Lady’ rhythm track it went from black-and-white to 3-D Technicolor. It was astounding. And it flawed all of us. We were all like: wow. Our engineers were also working with Stevie Wonder – they were working with us half the day and the other half were working with him – and when they heard this guitar sound, they lost it: “Wow, that’s not Clapton, that’s not Hendrix, that’s not Carlos Santana, that’s not Jeff Beck, that’s… Ernie?” Everything changed. There were two takes of ‘That Lady’ and the first one I was playing everywhere. I lost it. My brother Kelly was staring at me for forty-five minutes through the studio glass without blinking. (Laughs). So then I did the second take and the second take I didn’t like so we shut it down and came back couple of days later and played back what we’d done. I said to the engineer I’m glad you didn’t erase it because take number two was what went on the record. Take number one was better but that ingredient changed everything. When CBS heard the finished product they were like, “well, ‘That Lady’ doesn’t sound like ‘It’s Your Thing’ and doesn’t have trumpets or saxophones but we like it. What category is it in?” We looked at each other and said category? Yeah, they said, “because it’s got dance elements, it’s certainly got R&B elements but it’s also got rock elements with the guitar. It’s a great sound – where did you get the guitar player?” Ronald said that’s my brother Ernie. “Get out of here. We thought there were only three of you guys. Ernie?” Yeah, my brothers said, he’s twenty-one years old and in college in his last year. By the time we’d done the cover for the album and all that, the Isley Brothers was launched as a band. With the sound that we had and the songs that we did – ‘That Lady,’ ‘Listen To The Music,’ ‘Summer Breeze,’ ‘Lonely The Night’ – it was like wow, whatever categories we were supposed to be in we kicked those little plastic doors open and there was no looking back after that.
Was ‘That Lady’ inspired by a particular person or woman at all?
I heard Ronald say once that was for his wife Margaret. Because it was done in ’64 as a cha-cha, kind of like a bossa nova. He said we’re going to do that song again and I said but it’s a bossa nova. He said no, we’ve got to change the melody and change the lyrics and you are going to play lead guitar on it. I was like okay. We tried it and it worked.
Chris Japser joined the band at the same time as you…
Yes, Chris has a sister married to my brother Rudolf. The Jasper family lived about three minutes from where the Isley family lived in Cincinnati. Same neighbourhood. And Chris is not quite three months older than me. (Laughs). It sort of worked out. He played keyboards and I played drums and we joined the band that way.
You both brought a unique quality to the group with your contributions…
Yes, the keyboard thing certainly. What record doesn’t really at some point incorporate the keyboard as a reference point? The fact that he plays so well and we’d be bouncing stuff off of each other musically. I remember once in ’72, he came over to Ronald’s house and Ronald was playing these four-note chords in the right-hand and it sounded really good. He asked Chris to play it, showed him what he was playing, and Chris could play it in tempo. Those chords were for the song ‘Work to Do.’ When we went into the studio to do it, the way Chris played it from the way it was originally demonstrated, he just embellished it more on acoustic piano.
That song appears alongside ‘That Lady’ on the unreleased ‘Wild at Woodstock’ album. Why wasn’t it ever released?
We were working on more than one particular idea for the next record that we would do in 1980 and we wanted to do a live album and did it but we were also working on a studio record (‘Go All The Way’). The live album (‘Wild In Woodstock’) was finished first but then CBS in the end wanted the studio album. Because the live album had been tracked and had already been recorded, it’s sort of went on the backburner to the point that we went on and did other things. When they got to assembling this project (the new box set retrospective), they realised oh, we’ve got a live album that was never released. So they opted in there and we said wow, that’s really good stuff. Why didn’t we release that? (Laughs). But at least it’s there now.
(Isley Brothers with Jimi Hendrix far top right)
One of the discs covers Jimi Hendrix’s tenure with the band in early-to-mid-’60s. What do you remember about him?
Jimi Hendrix was our house guest between March 1963 and November 1965. He was very talented. He caught on quick and played all the time. Being a kid I didn’t understand that because he didn’t have to practice but he was always playing, with or without an amplifier, to the point that whenever I would hear him play in the house I’d find a book or something like that and go in the same room with him, not necessarily doing social studies but listening to and observing him. So, naturally enough, the way everything went if he had been around when ‘That Lady’ came out he probably would have given me something between a bear hug and a tackle and say how did you ever learn how to play like that?
Looking back at your career with the Isley Brothers, what’s been the biggest highlight for you?
Oh, that’s really hard. One of them would be in 2014 when we got a lifetime Grammy achievement award. At the ceremony was Olivia Harrison (George Harrison’s wife) and Yoko Ono and Ringo (Starr) and Paul McCartney was in the audience but we had already met Paul. All of them were very gracious and in 2011 we had done a show for the estate of Ron Perlman, whose family own Revlon. Ronald and I did a performance and when we left the stage went back into the audience afterwards. We were signing autographs and taking pictures and stuff and we sat back down. My wife Trish, she says, “Paul McCartney’s over there.” I said where? She said “A few tables away.” So I weave through the tables and I go up to him and tap him on the shoulder. He stands up to its full height and gives me a bear hug that almost put me out of commission. And we’re both talking to each other at the same time and I said something like: Paul, Ringo, George, and John are just flat out wonderful and he said, “Ernie, if it were not for the Isley Brothers, the Beatles would still be in Liverpool.” And then he went on stage and said the same thing. And we performed Twist & Shout” for the very first time with a Beatle and the Isley Brothers with Richie Sambora and Usher and John Bon Jovi. After we did ‘Twist & Shout’ and it was over everybody was standing around saying “now what we do? How do we follow that after what we just heard and saw?” It was like there’s nothing else left.
Your music has been much sampled and covered and is still very popular. Why is it stood the test of time do you think?
That’s divine grace. And we love what we do and we have a lot of listeners, obviously. Everybody knows ‘Shout’ and ‘Twist & Shout.’ I mean it’s just “what key do you want to sing it in?” The Beatles have done it, Bruce Springsteen’s done it, Stevie Wonder’s done it, Lulu has done it, and it’s been in the movies Animal House and Sister Act. ‘Shout’s’ been like everywhere. It’s just the perennial rock ‘n’ roll party song everyone knows at weddings, and bar mitzvahs. I’ve been in hotels where they’ve had weddings and we’ve been in the hotel because we did a show. And after the show I’m riding on the elevator with people who are going to a wedding and the elevator door opens on that floor and I hear (Ernie sings the very first opening words and notes of ‘Shout’). We just look at each other and go wow, man. Incredible. So it’s a wonderful thing that the music has been embraced like that. Of course, certain songs that we were doing we didn’t know that by way of technology and MTV and hip-hop and rap that songs would come back in another kind of way. ‘Big Poppa’ by Notorious B.I.G., or ‘Today Was a Good Day’ with Ice Cube, and ‘Footsteps in the Dark’…. Bone Thugs and Harmony with ‘Say Again Girl,’ the backdrop to ‘See You At The Crossroads,’ which was the biggest record in the industry that year. Or Aaliyah doing ‘At Your Best You Are Love,’ which we never released as a single. I know there have been a couple of versions of ‘Harvest For The World.’ So we’ve done very well in that regard. I think everybody likes our music and that’s what we were doing it for in the first place.
(Ernie with brother Ron today) Going forward from the past into the future, are you in Ron still performing under the Isley Brothers banner?
Yes, as a matter of fact we’ve got a show coming up this time next week. We’re going to be doing a TV special with Oprah Winfrey along with Smokey Robinson. And we’ve got a show coming up in Detroit with Aretha Franklin. So yeah, we’re busy. We’ll be at a music festival off the coast of Venezuela in early September so we’re going to be busy.
What about recordings? Anything in the pipeline?
We’re working on it. It’s a work in progress.
‘The RCA Victor and T-Neck Album Masters (1959-1983)’ is out on August 21st.
Read the review here: