The Isley Brothers have done it all for almost 50 years — despite family feuds and two deaths, O’Kelly Isley and Rudolph Isley — and now they’ve done it again. Their new CD, the aptly titled Eternal (DreamWorks), blends their trademark sounds — gospel shouts, snake-walk guitar riffs and fierce guitar melodies, tenor ecstasy — with a full circle of new ones, sounds that they have taken back from several artists (notably R. Kelly and Angela Winbush) whose music would not be what it is if not for Isley Brothers songs. But the Isleys do more than merely reclaim Winbush and Kelly — both artists participate in Eternal. Winbush produces and sings on "Warm Summer Night," a romantic duet. And R. Kelly, a tenor who first began as a younger version of Ronnie Isley, produces "Contagious," a lover’s song with a conflicting undercurrent of menace. It’s a style that has made him the most dramatic and dominant soul tenor since Ronnie first flourished, some 40 years ago.
Any doubt as to whether Ronnie Isley is up to the Kelly challenge — he was, after all, singing soul hits like "Shout" and "This Old Heart of Mine" long before Kelly was born — evaporates when you hear him wrap his tenor around the lyrics. The smooth fire and the high soothing suppleness caress the words as he soars, whispers, and lullabies his way through "Secret Lover," "You Deserve Better," "Settle Down," and "Eternal," ballads all, in which he dominates the drama. Ernie’s guitar riffs rarely appear in these songs, setting the tone of an intro or underlining the special high of a break.
The primacy of Ernie’s work is missed. It was his guitar lines — adopted from the work that Jimi Hendrix did when, from 1964 to 1967, he was the Isley Brothers’ guitarist — that replaced the Isleys’ harmonic, three-voice orientation with the hard, funky, rhythm-centered sound that was introduced on 1972’s Live It Up. Adding a younger generation of Isleys — Marvin Isley and Isley cousin Chris Jasper, as well as Ernie, the group became a mostly instrumental sextet. They celebrated their new format on 3 + 3, which yielded "That Lady," a 1973 #1 hit thanks to Ernie Isley’s passionate yet tender guitar solo; thereafter the funk hits flowed, and the Isleys stood alongside James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic as avatars of tough, take-no-prisoners dance music. Pairing Ernie’s piercing, sharp-edged guitar with the wistful heat of Ronnie’s tenor unbalanced the music; every song struggled with itself, and that struggle mirrored the tension on the dance floor as the music strove to break on through to the other side, as the Doors once put it.
The Isley Brothers’ funky sound lost its hold during the 1980s, funk going as seriously out of favor as doo-wop had during the Motown 1960s. Eventually the funk-era Isleys broke up, with Ernie and Marvin Isley and Chris Jasper leaving to form the short-lived Isley-Jasper-Isley. Rudolph and Ronnie Isley reverted to the vocal 1960s Isleys sound that had once been theirs. As it happened, African-Americans were just then rediscovering — and embracing — the soul-tenor and Motown-harmony sounds of 30 years before, sounds that were now making huge stars of "neo-doo wop" vocal groups like Jodeci and Boyz II Men, sounds that, in 1960s hits like "This Old Heart of Mine," "Testify," and "I Guess I’ll Always Love You," the first Isley Brothers format had epitomized. Rudolph & and Ronnie’s 1996 CD, Mission To Please (Island), put this new Isley Brothers incarnation atop the R&B charts; coming to Boston a year later (with Ernie, his breakaway career dropped), they filled Berklee Performance Center with an audience that was almost totally African-American. None of their rare still-active contemporaries had anything like such an audience. Indeed, the new Isleys were honored by fans who stand in awe of R. Kelly and understand his sources, just as they understood (and appreciated) the funk and soul (P-Funk, James Brown, Frankie Beverly, and Maze) sources of hip-hop and new jack.
Eternal too is that kind of an album, a Ronnie Isley ballad fest with a couple of "That Lady" jams ("Move Your Body" and "Ernie’s Jam") and one "That Lady" remake (the intro of "You’re All That I Need"). Ronnie sings closer to the mike than he did during the 1970s, but his voice has lost nothing of its soft delicacy, its expressive nuance, or its high smooth heat. The voices of most soul singers his age sound dark or flabby. Not his. Ronnie sings as brightly and sweetly as he did 30 years ago, as brightly as R. Kelly sings today.
Persistence matters more in African-American pop music than in rock and roll. The fundamentals of rhythm-and-voice dueting go on, the one mirroring the other, tempering it, reshaping it, just as the male and female of a marriage go on and temper and reshape each other. The Isley Brothers have shifted ground, to be sure, but always within the boundaries of the combination. Sometimes, as with Angela Winbush on "Warm Summer Night" and newcomer Jill Scott on "Said Enough," they add a female voice to the basic combination; sometimes, as in 1968’s "It’s Your Thing," they adopt another sound (in that case, the boogaloo, a Latin-jazz New York City invention) to theirs. Yet they have always reverted to the basics. Their eternalizing approach sets them far apart from rock and roll, with its insistence on the uniqueness of the moment.
You almost don’t have to wonder what kind of music the Isley Brothers will make 50 years hence, when even Ronnie and Ernie have gone. It will sound like 3 + 3 or The Heat Is On or Eternal. Or like all three. And the message it presents — that there is rhythm and romance to life, and that both matter profoundly — will still find favor.