Footsteps in the Dark--
Behind the Music, works by Ken Burns
The story of the Isley Brothers and their funkified influence on society and modern music
The Isley Brothers reflect the tumultuous times in America through powerful songs and a blazing guitar
Against all odds, a doo-wop band from Ohio produces hit after hit and morphs into a Blues band, a Motown hit-maker, a metallic funk band, ballad writers, and, now, legends.
Soundtracks. They are used to enhance the magic of the movie experience. In this case, Isley Brothers music has been used to enhance our LIFE experiences, of the last five decades. Anyone that can LIVE IT UP, that long, has got something to SHOUT about.
From the Jim Crow days of the 50s, to the Black pride movements of the 60s and 70s, and up to the hip-hop era of today, The Isley Brothers have been, ‘all up in the mix’.
The first big hit for the Cincinnati natives came when ‘SHOUT’ was released in 1959. Borrowed straight out of the Black Gospel experience, this powerful, upbeat toe-tapper has become an American classic. It was reborn when featured in the wildly insane college flick, ANIMAL HOUSE, and is now one of the most requested party tunes of all time. Especially if togas are involved.
SHOUT and it’s sequel TWIST AND SHOUT, came out at a time when centuries of oppression and degradation where being crushed under the heels of freedom marchers; and optimism was growing in its wake like a flower. Black America connected with the band’s unbridled feeling of joy.
Yes, this was the same TWIST AND SHOUT song later covered by The BEATLES. Unlike Elvis Presley, the Beatles constantly praised the African Americans who inspired them and helped mold the modern music that we have today.
When 1963 came, everything changed. Vietnam had started, Castro was tripping and one of the leaders of the ‘optimism movement’, Mr. JFK, got his cap-peeled-back in an assassination that still smells fishy, 41 years later.
WANTED: One Bluesman.
In walks THE Bluesman, his damn self. The legendary one, JIMI HENDRIX. The song TESTIFY was recorded during this time, but Jimi’s greatest accomplishment for the group was teaching kid brother, Ernie Isley how to play guitar, the JIMI HENDRIX way.
Ernie later turned out to be Jimi’s best and most loyal student. At 52 years old, he still dresses like his tradition blasting mentor. Even to this day, at concerts, they salute their fallen band mate and then let Ernie unfurl a pyrotechnic guitar solo that features playing the guitar behind the back, between the legs and even with his teeth.
After being courted by BERRY GORDY and MOTOWN, they dropped the raw bluesy sound they had with Jimi, for the polished sound of MOTOWN. The song, THIS OLD HEART OF MINE, was the result. It was a hit, but Ronnie Isley and the boys weren’t comfortable with this incarnation.
They left MOTOWN and formed T-NECK in New Jersey in 1969. The Black pride movement had swept the country and they traded the Smokey Robinson-look, for the more flamboyant look of their former guitarist, who was now one of the most famous music acts in the world. From this radical restructuring of themselves, and of society at large, they were inspired to write the song, IT’S YOUR THING. The song rocketed to number one and earned them their first GRAMMY AWARD.
Ernie’s debut came on the album, GIVIN IT BACK. He got a chance to honor his idol by doing his own version of JIMI’S anti-war song, MACHINE GUN.
Previous to this album, the common practice was for white performers to take Black songs, redo them, then get twice as much money as the composer. On this album, The ISLEYS took rock songs like OHIO by NEIL YOUNG, LAY LADY LAY by BOB DYLAN and the huge hit, LOVE THE ONE YOU’RE WITH by CROSBY, STILLS and NASH, and gave then a SOUL BROTHER makeover, from head to toe. The ISLEY BROTHERS became one of the first Black bands to cover white material successfully. Hey, if THE BEATLES could do it to them, … then yo…..
The fellas, reeling from the death of their spiritual sibling, JIMI HENDRIX in 1971, released the powerful album, BROTHER BROTHER BROTHER in 1972. Although tempered by the humorous song, POP THAT THANG, the theme of this album was unity and activism. WORK TO DO and BROTHER BROTHER are examples of this thinking.
The song, THAT LADY, features a blistering guitar solo by Ernie Isley, and became an off-the-hook, crossover hit. From that point on, Ernie blazing on the six-string, has been a signature feature of the group.
If their activist nature was ever in question, songs like FIGHT THE POWER, cleared it up, right quick. Not only was it a song of defiance in the 70s, but it was also reborn by PUBLIC ENEMY in the 90s, and the heat being brought to ‘the powers that be’, got even more intense.
As diverse as the community they served, the Isleys also gave birth to a large number of steamy love ballads such as, FOR THE LOVE OF YOU, HELLO ITS ME, BETWEEN THE SHEETS, MAKE ME SAY IT AGAIN, GIRL and CHOOSEY LOVER. These love songs, also known on the street as baby-making-music, was about the only Viagra we needed in the hood.
Just when you think you have the Brothers figured out, BLAM, they flip the script!. HARVEST FOR THE WORLD, Ernie Isley plays an acoustic guitar?
And the lyrics. If MARTIN LUTHER KING JR would have been a songwriter, he might have authored something like this. The hope, the selflessness, the determination that a brighter day for all people is on the way, shows a maturity level that few, even today, have been able to achieve.
Don’t worry. Ernie Isley didn’t turn into Jewell or Joan Baez either. He still has the axe swinging fast and hard on tunes like WHO LOVES YOU BETTER, PEOPLE OF TODAY, LIVE IT UP and THE PRIDE
The song, BALLAD FOR THE FALLEN SOLDIER, has a special significance these days. In it, a child frets about his father going to a war that no one understands, to fight for a country that treats him like crap. And of course, he doesn’t come back home. It shows the absolute lunacy of war, in a dramatic, yet melodic fashion. If a song ever needed to be re-released dawg, whewww.
Ronnie Isley’s smooth vocals have been featured on many tracks done by young hip-hop artists who are almost a quarter of Ronnie’s age. The most notable protégé is R. KELLY. The songs, MISSION TO PLEASE and DOWN LOW, have re-introduced Ronnie to a totally new audience. He even reinvented himself as fictional gansta, Mr. BIG and has appeared in several recent videos. .
Honored by BET, The ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME and SOUL TRAIN for lifetime achievement awards, the legend of the ISLEY BROTHERS continues to grow. Although suffering from a recent stroke, word has it that RONNIE ISLEY is recovering quickly. If we are lucky, we’ll be blessed with many more years of entertainment, enlightenment and amazement from these cherished brothers from Ohio. May they spin the soundtrack for our lives, for another five decades
Growing up in Buffalo, NY, ( a haunt of the original Mark Twain) and being snowed in often, the author's diversity of reading material included Alex Haley, Ivan Van Sertima, Chancellor Williams, Stephen King, Walter Mosley, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Dick Gregory, MAD Magazine, Creepy Magazine, Players Magazine, The Gospel, Buddhism and Playboy.
With a heritage that includes ancestors of both the Cherokee and Choctaw nations, he is very much interested in the problems that face Native Americans.
While in New York, Harmon received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication from the University of Buffalo. After not being able to find employment and watching his friends get sucked down the toilet by a City with no pity, he traded in the extreme snow of upstate New York for the extreme heat of Phoenix, AZ.
On August 18 1994, after being downsized from his first 'decent' job, he prayed hard and a merciful God gave him an epiphany. Somehow, someway, this Brother was gonna be a writer.
After taking several courses and attending seminars from people like Natalie Lemberg, David Trottier, John Truby, Richard Walters and Michael Wilde, his writing has blossomed.
Harmon recently signed a deal with The Simmons Lathan Media Group (Russell Simmons - Stan Lathan) to show his mini documentary, The Glory Days Of Isaiah Mays, (about an Arizona Buffalo Soldier who won the Congressional Medal of Honor) on the internet through their Pay Per View web site.
His screenplays include Rebuilding the Soul, The REAL Monsters, Mary Shelley's American Nightmare, Red Thunder, The Ghost of the Dragon, Rocking Jerusalem, Blitz of the Black Wolf, and Deliver the Word (in progress). He has also written a teleplay, The Simpsons: The Predator vs. Shaft, and has published several articles and short stories.
Awards: Quarterfinals in the Chesterfields; Semifinals in Maui, Winner of the Diversity Award (Scripts Division), and Finals in the Asian-American Media Dev. Award.
His production company, EMANCIPATION NATION, will be producing audio books, music CDs and films in the future.
Harmon is represented exclusively by The Swetky Agency.
The PUB Report Productions
R.K. Jackson - Music Producer
NOTE: All material is copyright protected. No portion of this material may be copied or reproduced, either electronically, mechanically, or by any other means, for resale or distribution without the written consent of the author. All copy has been dated and registered with the American Society of Authors and Writers. Copyright 2006 by The Swetky Agency