If you wanted to trace the last 70 years of black vocal group music, you’d have a pretty decent template in the life story and career of Rudolph Isley.
Isley, who died Wednesday in his Chicago home at the age of 84, sang with his siblings Ronald and O’Kelly for more than 30 years, mid-‘50s to late ’80s, as the core of the Isley Brothers.
They were barely teenagers when their father O’Kelly Sr., a former vaudeville performer, followed the tradition of turning his vocally talented sons into a singing group. This was not unlike what Joe Jackson would later do with the Jackson family, though the Isleys tilted more toward the church. O’Kelly Jr., Ronald and Rudolph often performed gospel music, harmonizing behind lead singer Vernon.
They picked good role models, like the gospel group the Dixie Hummingbirds and the R&B group Billy Ward and the Dominoes, whose lead singers included Clyde McPhatter, Jackie Wilson and Eugene Mumford.
They started singing in 1954, then stopped in 1956 when Vernon was killed in a bicycle accident at the age of 13.
They regrouped a year later, with Ronald taking the lead and a tantalizing possibility in the wind. Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers had made young-lead vocal groups a hot ticket, so the three Isley brothers boarded a bus in their hometown of Cincinnati with $20 in their pockets and headed for New York, hoping to catch the wave.
Legend has it that one of their fellow bus riders heard them singing and happened to know an agent in New York. However it happened, they soon landed a deal with Teenage Records and cut their first release, “Angels Cried.”
It’s very much in the 1950s R&B vocal group style and like several other records that followed, it pretty much went nowhere for the Isleys.
They scored work as a stage act, mostly performing songs popularized by other artists. One night at Washington’s Howard Theater, a regular stop on the black circuit, they were doing an enhanced version of Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops” in which they added the line “You know you make me want to shout.”
RCA executive Howard Bloom happened to hear it and thought the line might be the kernel of a spinoff song. He signed the Isleys, got a song written and engaged the organist from the Isleys’s Cincinnati church, Professor Herman Stephens, to play on the recording session.
“Shout,” with its church-rooted call-and-response framework and the brilliant interlude when the band takes it down “a little bit softer now,” then builds back up to “a little bit louder now,” made the song a rock ’n’ roll standard.
Even though “Shout” eventually sold more than a million copies, it peaked at only №47 on the pop charts. It didn’t make the R&B charts at all.
They had a second semi-related hit two years later with “Twist and Shout,” which is too often better known for inspiring a version by the Beatles.
The Isleys then fell into a fallow period that led them to start their own label, T-Neck Records, in 1964. But black independent labels have never had an easy time, and they didn’t return to the charts until they signed with mainstream powerhouse Motown/Tamla.
This immediately gave them what some consider their best record, “This Old Heart Of Mine,” which reached №12 in 1966. But like some other artists — Gladys Knight comes to mind — Rudolph and his brothers were never a comfortable fit in the Motown machine.
They wanted to do harder, funkier material, more like Sly Stone, which is exactly what they did when they left Motown in 1969 and reactivated T-Neck.
Their first release there, “It’s Your Thing,” got them embraced by the black audience, which was timely. Black music would re-emerge as its own entity in the 1970s after a period in the early to mid-1960s when the music biz mistakenly thought music by black artists had been almost entirely absorbed into mainstream top-40.
While the Isleys interpreted some mainstream and even folky material in the early 1970s — Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay,” James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” — they placed 17 records in the top 10 on the R&B charts between 1971 and 1980, including five №1s. They cracked the pop top-10 only twice in that decade, with “That Lady” and “Fight the Power.”
“Fight the Power” was probably their most enduring song from the ’70s, reflecting the group’s newly aggressive attitude toward social issues. It’s not coincidence that it arrived at the time when rap was germinating, and a dozen years later Chuck D and Public Enemy would appropriate the title for a hard-core hip-hop album.
By that time, the late 1980s, the original Isleys had almost run their course, O’Kelly having died of a heart attack in 1986 and other family members having gradually been integrated into the group.
Rudolph left in 1989 to return to his roots. He became a minister. He joined Ronald and other group members for a couple of reunions and their 1992 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Like many of their colleagues, the Isleys never had a №1 pop hit. Still, they were known to multiple generations of music fans and they inspired subsequent artists the way the Dixie Hummingbirds and Dominoes inspired them. From the church to New York’s 1950s pop music machine to Motown to the streets and back to the church, Rudolph Isley helped tell the musical story his life reflected.