Whenever Ernie Isley visits North Carolina, he usually feels like he’s amongst family. Of course, it helps that he has some strong family ties to the state.
As the guitar-playing member of the famed R&B outfit The Isley Brothers, Ernie comes from a unit of brothers whose father hailed from Greensboro. In fact, when the Isleys played Greensboro during one of their ’70s tours, they made a late-night visit to their aunt, who checked out their show. “She was expecting us to come by and see her,” remembers Isley, 63, on the phone from his St. Louis home. “It had been a long day for us, and although I was tired and (bass-playing brother) Marvin was tired, we said, ‘We gotta go over there and see her.’ And, of course, she was still awake – wide awake. This would’ve been 12:30, 1 in the morning after a show. And she was really, really happy to see us, and she had all of this memorabilia that she had been keeping track of – her nephews.”
Those nephews have become a black-music institution that now spans decades, even being inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. The Cincinnati-bred brothers started in the late ’50s and ’60s as a singing group consisting of big bros Rudolph, O’Kelly and lead singer Ronald, churning out classic numbers like “Shout,” “Twist and Shout” and “It’s Your Thing.” As they continued recording in the ’70s, they brought in remaining bros Ernie and Marvin, along with brother-in-law Chris Jasper. This full-fledged band of brothers dropped one album after another, filling black radio airwaves with funk-rock jams like “That Lady” and quiet-storm anthems like “For the Love of You.”
“We never were trying to confine ourselves to a particular musical category,” says Ernie, regarding the band’s versatility.
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Many Isley numbers have found memorable spots in pop-culture history, ending up in everything from commercials to rap tunes by The Notorious B.I.G., Ice Cube and Kendrick Lamar to movies like the George Clooney-Jennifer Lopez action-romance “Out of Sight.” But as influential and popular as their songs have become, the road has been rocky for the brothers. The ’80s were particularly bumpy. Ernie, Marvin and Jasper left the group in 1983 to form their own group, Isley Jasper Isley. Eldest member O’Kelly died from a heart attack in 1986. And Rudolph retired from music in 1989 for a life in the Christian ministry.
Ronald, Ernie and Marvin eventually got back together as a trio, releasing several albums in the ’90s before Marvin retired in 1997, eventually dying of diabetes complications in 2010. The Isleys’ career did receive a resurgence thanks to R&B star and fan R. Kelly, who began collaborating with Ronald on music, even casting him as kingpin Mr. Biggs in Kelly’s “Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)” video. Kelly went on to produce songs on several Isley albums.
“He has an instinctive understanding of our music,” says Ernie. “We had a chance to work together on the ‘Mission to Please’ record and, then, he was working on something in the studio called ‘Down Low.’… And then, the next thing he started talking about was he had this idea for a video, and he was wondering if Ronald would portray this character, Mr. Biggs, and Ronald agreed. And R. Kelly, when he heard that, he got very animated, happy.”
Even though the siblings haven’t released new music since the 2007 holiday album “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (Ronald has released a couple of solo albums in recent years), they continue to do live shows, as evidenced by their Mother’s Day concert Sunday in Durham. Ernie also says there is some future music in the works, which just goes to show that even when there are only two Isley brothers around, the Isley Brothers will still be around.
“We’ve been able to musically cross generations, and we’ve sort of changed musically with the musical climate and terrain – and, still, we’re able to sound like us.”
Who: The Isley Brothers, with Mary Jane Girls
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St., Durham
Details: 919-680-2787 or dpacnc.com