LINER NOTES: The Isley Brothers, 3 + 3 (1973)
Until 3&3, the career of the Isley Brothers had been marked by a strange pattern; after a tremendous hit record, the group would seemingly disappear for years at a time only to bounce back with another tremendous hit. The problem was that when the group struck, they usually struck so big that they had a hard time following up their own act. “Twist and Shout,” 1962, “This Old Heart of Mine,” 1966, and “It’s Your Thing,” 1969, are three good examples.
But with “It’s Your Thing” they finally found themselves in complete control of their careers and with something every recording artist dreams about, their own record label, T-Neck Records.
While artist-owned labels are becoming increasingly commonplace, in 1969 they were something new, and the Isleys were one of the first. Finally, after 20 years in the music business, the Isleys are beginning to see some consistent returns.
The period after “It’s Your Thing” also produced musical direction, something that they had lacked. In 1969 Kelly Isley talked about producing a group called the Brothers Three (actually the Isleys in disguise) to get into the area of what was then called “psychedelic soul.” The term faded as did the group who popularized it, the Chambers Brothers, who were the first Black group to attempt the rock-soul fusion. The concept these two words represented was one which became a golden reality for the Isleys when the searing lead guitar of Ernie Isley took “That Lady” to the top of the charts in 1973. The album that it came from, however, 3&3, was not the Isleys’ first attempt at the fusion they had been aiming for. On the albums Giving It Back, The Isley Brothers Live and Brother, Brother, Brother Rudolph, Ronald and Kelly had been attempting the same thing and with each album had given more and more credit to the rhythm section--with younger brothers Ernie on lead guitar, Marvin on bass and brother-in-law Chris Jasper on keyboards implementing the new direction. The younger Isleys gained official recognition on 3&3 as not merely a backup band but as an integral part of the Isley Brothers’ creative unit. With this album they began to contribute their own original composition and production ideas, and the result was the Isley Brothers’ first gold album, followed by a second gold album--the incredible Live It Up.
Visiting the gaudily bedecked offices of T-Neck Records, I talked to the young bloods of the group. “A new concept evolved with 3&3,” Marvin admits. He is sitting with his rhythm mates, Ernie and Chris, who manage to get in a word or two during our conversation.
“Part of the concept,” chris elaborates, “was to allow more room for just instrumental playing. Before 3&3 there was more singing than playing, but we’ve all matured in our playing so it was just decided that we would become part of the group.”
The three younger brothers had their own four-piece band until they joined their older brothers in 1969. They were never tempted to add any more instruments because they had a definite idea of what they wanted to play.
“That concept came with Hendrix, Cream and people like that because they had just guitar, bass and drums,” explains Marvin. “But I can’t say if they really influenced our music because we had been playing long before we had a chance to think about what we wanted to sound like. I think a lot of people were influenced by the type of stuff that my older brothers did. I know Jimi Hendrix played with them for a few years and I know he got as much from them musically as they got from him.”
Who came first is unimportant, but one thing is certain: the comparisons between Jimi Hendrix and Ernie Isley have been continuous. Actually, Ernie has simply adapted one aspect of Hendrix’s solo style. There was a lot more to Hendrix, as a vocalist, as a rhythm guitarist, as a producer and as a personality, that no one tries to duplicate except the inevitable white, rip-off specialists. What the Isley Brothers have done is to create around a style that acknowledges Hendrix’s enormous influence on contemporary music.
“One thing Ernie has done,” says Marvin, “is to turn a lot of Black people on to Jimi Hendrix. I know a lot of them weren’t into him until he died and now with Ernie playing the way he does, I guess it makes a lot of people check Jimi out too. I know people personally who never bought a Hendrix album in their lives--until they heard Ernie.”
The young Isleys are aware of the meaning of what they have done and see it as an attempt to reassert Black musicians in a domain that has been, for the last eight years, challenged by whites in spite of the fact that Chuck Berry and Little Richard practically invented what we know as rock and roll. “It was a deliberate decision,” says Chris about their new direction, “because rock is an extension of R&B. Rock was taken from the blues and R&B, so when people say we’ve gone into another type of music, they’re wrong, It’s just that long, guitar solos are associated with rock music, but they actually came from the blues. All we are trying to do is use every facet of our musical knowledge and combine them into our own new sound.”
The Isley Brothers have opened up an entirely new area in Black music. They have done for the electric, lead guitar what Stevie Wonder has done for electronic keyboards with Music of My Mind and subsequent albums. With six people creating as one, feeding on the harmony that exists among them as brothers, musicians and businessmen, they have created an infinite set of possibilities. The musical growth that occurred between 3&3 and Live It Up was tremendous, and as Ernie says, “3&3 put one foot in the door, but Live It Up tore the door off the hinges.”
There are many doors yet to be unhinged.