The Legacy of The Isley Brothers

Ronald, left, and Ernie Isley. | Tracy Isley

The Isley Brothers
March 17 | 8 p.m.
Silver Legacy Resort Casino | Reno, Nev.

Few, if any, musical families have had as lasting an impact on American music and culture as The Isley Brothers.

As the fifth of six boys, Ernie Isley was only 7 when he first saw his teenage brothers O’Kelly, Rudolph and Ronald perform their timeless hit “Shout!” in 1959.

WATCH: A 1959 performance of “Shout”

“I started before I was born,” says the 66-year-old music legend. “On occasion, I might be out in the show in the audience and it was an amazing thing to see members of my own family be able to do a performance to a full theater. They always played last because they were a very hard act to follow. Nobody wanted to follow them — not Otis Redding, Sam Cook or Smokey Robinson They’d take all the air out the room. With a song like “Shout!” it was like, ‘Please, I can’t even follow that.’ ”

“Music has always been a reference point and a connection between people. It’s a form of honest communication … People can hopefully always find something in music that will inspire everyone to be free to speak in their own voice.”   –Ernie Isley

The now classic tune that you’ve probably danced to with your grandparents at a cousin’s wedding was originally developed as a call-and-response ending to a cover of Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops.”

“That song is in the creases of red, white and blue,” says Isley. “Everybody knew “Shout” and “Twist and Shout” since those were the two songs The Beatles used before they came to America. Everyone copied the total freedom of the style [my brothers] created.”

During the winter of 1964, a then unknown Jimi Hendrix bunked at the Isley home and gave Ernie his first guitar lessons, which might help explain the trademark wailing electric leads he later brought to R&B smashes like “That Lady” and “Summer Breeze.”

“Music was really getting out there at the time,” says Isley. “It was very youth-oriented and we happened to be a part of that first wave. For my part, I had to grow up first.”

Ernie initially made his mark on the band in 1969 by playing bass on the No. 2 funk breakout hit, “It’s Your Thing,” which won a 1970 Grammy for Best R&B Performance. Since then he’s been an integral part of the group as they released a string of successful records from the 1970s to the 2000s. In fact, the Isleys are the only musical group ever to chart in the Billboard Top 100 during six different decades.

With the advent of hip-hop in the 1980s, their music experienced a revival as samples on hundreds of well-known tracks including gangsta rap classics Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day,” Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s “Tha Crossroads” and Notorious B.I.G.’s anthemic “Big Poppa.” More recently, their music has been sampled by Kendrick Lamar, Mac Miller, Thundercat and Snoop Dogg.

“Of course, the musical climate has changed since we first started in the 50s during the twist era,” says Isley. “In some ways rap and hip-hop are old school now. But music has always been a reference point and a connection between people. It’s a form of honest communication and that’s still true today. People can hopefully always find something in music that will inspire everyone to be free to speak in their own voice.”

The Isley songbook is like a treasure trove of musical history reference points spanning doo-wop, rock ‘n’ roll, funk, disco, soul, R&B and hip-hop.

“These days folks may be aware of Bruno Mars, but maybe not James Brown,” he says. “They may love a strong female vocalist without being aware of the contributions of Aretha Franklin. When it comes to our music, some people know [“Big Poppa” lyrics] ‘I love it when you call me big poppa,’ but they don’t know [an Isley Brothers song] ‘Between the Sheets.’ They know [“It was a Good Day” lyrics] ‘I didn’t have to use my AK,’ but they don’t know [an Isley song] ‘Footsteps in the Dark.’ It’s kind of like they get illuminated.”

The performance at Silver Legacy Resort Casino will feature close to 20 musicians on stage ranging from percussionist to backup singers to guitarists and a full horn section while brothers Ernie and Ronald take the audience on a musical trip through time.

“They will see a little bit of everything,” Isley says. “Before we leave the stage, they will have a full dose of The Isley Brothers catalog. It’s a chance to see how much fruit has come to manifest in terms of our music and its influence on American popular music and rock ‘n’ roll.”

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