THE ISLEY BROTHERS: ‘The RCA Victor & T-Neck Album Masters 1959-1983’ (Sony/Legacy)

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From gospel and doo-wop in the ’50s via sleek Motown soul in the ’60s to rock-inflected funk in the ’70s and super-smooth R&B during the 1980s and ’90s, the arc of the ISLEY BROTHERS’ career trajectory has been a truly extraordinary one. Three of those four distinct phases in the Cincinnati group’s storied life and times are represented by this humungous box set – containing 23 discs in all – which begins with 1959’s RCA debut LP ‘Shout!’ and ends with 1983’s sensuous romantic feast, ‘Between The Sheets.’ Between that sonic alpha and omega are sandwiched three albums from the tail end of the ’60s (‘It’s Our Thing,’ ‘The Brothers: Isley,’ and ‘The Isley Brothers Live At Yankee Stadium,’ all released in ’69); twelve from the ’70s (‘Get Into Something,’ ‘Givin’ It Back,’ ‘Brother, Brother, Brother,’ ‘The Isleys Live,’ ‘3+3,’ ‘Live It Up,’ ‘The Heat Is On,’ ‘Harvest For The World,’ ‘Go For Your Guns,’ ‘Showdown,’ and the double set, ‘Winner Takes All’); and five from the ’80s (‘Go All The Way,’ ‘Grand Slam,’ ‘Inside You,’ ‘The Real Deal,’ and ‘Between The Sheets’). Though most of the Isleys’ ’60s oeuvre is absent – in particular, their spell at Motown from 1965-1968, which that the classic ‘This Old Heart Of Mine’ – the presence of the T-Neck released LP, ‘In The Beginning…The Isley Brothers & Jimi Hendrix,’ originally recorded between 1964/1965 plugs some gaps. But the real find on this massive assemblage is the previously unissued album ‘Wild In Woodstock: The Isley Brothers Live At Bearsville Studios 1980,’ more of which later.

‘Shout!’ with its raw, fervent, church-influenced rave-ups illustrates the Isley Brothers’ formative gospel roots but by 1969, the year from which the second album in this collection derives (‘It’s My Thing’), the band, now on their own T-Neck imprint, was unrecognisable from its earlier incarnation. Led by Ronald’s seraphic falsetto, it featured newcomer, Ernie Isley, playing bass and found the band putting their own unique spin on the funk aesthetic originally patented by James Brown and Sly Stone. Their ‘Brother, Brother, Brother’ LP from 1972 – propelled by the hit, ‘Work To Do’ – was almost as popular as ‘It’s My Thing’ but it was the ‘3+3’ album – featuring the classic hits ‘That Lady’ and ‘Summer Breeze’ – in 1973 where the Isleys really found their own style that married soul and funk with rock. By this time, Rudolph Isley’s brother-in-law, Chris Jasper,  was making a crucial contribution on keyboards but even more significantly,  Ernie had graduated to lead guitar and gave the Isleys’ smooth soul sound a palpable edge via his searing, Hendrix-style solos. As this box set confirms, the 1970s was a fertile period for the Ohio siblings and each successive album yielded a classic song or two – such as ‘Fight The Power’ from ‘The Heat Is On’; the title track from ’76’s ‘Harvest For The World’; ‘The Pride,’ ‘Livin’ The Life’ and ‘Footsteps In The Dark’ from ‘Go For Your Guns’; and ‘Take Me To The Next Phase’ and ‘I Wanna Be With You’ culled from ‘Showdown’ and ‘Winner Takes All’ respectively. On the latter album, the Isleys tried their hand at disco – exemplified by ‘It’s A Disco Night (Rock Don’t Stop)’ – but it wasn’t really their thing. In the 1980s, their music grew smoother and silkier, exemplified by the Quiet Storm classic, ‘Between The Sheets.’ The box set’s chronicle ends just before the band split into two factions in 1984 – Ernie, Marvin and Chris exited to form Isley-Jasper-Isley while Ron, Rudy and O’Kelly stayed as the Isley Brothers but were reduced to a duo after the death of O’Kelly. These days Ron and Ernie are still flying the flag for the Isley Brothers (their last album was in 2006) and last year they were the recipients of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Though it doesn’t tell all of the Isley Brothers’ story, this mammoth collection covers in rich detail their most fertile phases. An added incentive to shell out for this superlative box set (which is listed at a tempting pre-release price of £79.99 at Amazon) is the presence of  the previously unissued ‘Wild At Woodstock’ album, which the band recorded live at Bearsville Studios in 1980. Originally planned as a double LP which, curiously, was to have dubbed crowd noises on, it was shelved but is now restored (minus the canned applause, thankfully) and is absolutely sensational: a potent reminder of a band captured in the raw at its peak. All the Isleys’ key cuts are performed, including vibrant versions of ‘That Lady,’  ‘Voyage To Atlantis,’ ‘Summer Breeze,’ and ‘Say You Will.’ Other collectable rarities (there are 84 in all, not forgetting that each of the remastered studio albums is presented in expanded format) come in the shape of alternate mixes and promotional radio interviews. It all adds up to a fabulous portrait of one of soul music’s most important, influential and much-sampled bands.

(CW) 5/5

Isleys_pack_shotTHE ISLEY BROTHERS’ ‘The RCA Victor & T-Neck Album Masters 1959-1983’ is released on August 21st.