Soul legend Ronald Isley, 72, has been famous for the majority of his life. Performing his first solo in church when he was a toddler standing in a chair, the Cincinnati native later teamed with siblings Rudolph Isley and O’Kelly Isley to become one of the most important groups of the last century: the Isley Brothers.
After winning local talent shows in their hometown, the brothers relocated to New York City in 1958 and, one year later, released their first smash single, “Shout.” But while most groups of that era quickly faded away, the Isley Brothers kept recording for various labels through the ’60s, including a stint at Motown.
It wasn’t until the Isleys formed T-Neck Records in 1969 and recorded the massive funk hit “It’s Your Thing” that their professional world began to change. For the next two decades, the Isley Brothers merged soul, rock, funk and pop balladry, recording original material (“Fight the Power,” “That Lady”) and covers (“Summer Breeze,” “Hello It’s Me”) with vigor.
Singing lead on each soulful song, Ronnie’s distinctive voice, one that could easily slide from a growl to a whimper, led the group towards gold and platinum discs, Grammy Awards and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. After connecting with R. Kelly in the 1990s, Isley transformed himself into Mr. Big and continued making hits like “Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)” and “Contagious” well into the 2000s.
Despite personal and professional setbacks (including tax evasion prison stint and a stroke in 2004), Ron Isley looked wonderful the morning we met on the mezzanine of the London Hotel in midtown Manhattan to discuss his upcoming project, This Song Is for You.
EBONY: The first single from your latest project is “Dinner and a Movie.” Can you talk about that song?
Ron Isley: Man, it’s just about what couples are going to be doing. That’s the best way to get over with a lady. If you meet someone you want to be with and you both want to find out what each other is about, what’s a better way than to have dinner and go to a movie?
EBONY: Talk about the new project a little bit. What made This Song is For You different?
RI: Trying to top yourself and make sure everything is special for the people and for yourself. I wanted this album to be like a real Grammy Award-winning album, with all the records sounding like number ones. I wanted each of the songs to be like singles without any album fillers. I wanted every song to be special, and that is what we accomplished. I had a ball doing the album.
EBONY: You did a song with Trey Songz, “Lay You Down.” Talk a little bit about Trey.
RI: His producer Troy Taylor produced a song for me called “Just Came Here to Chill.” Trey Songz is his artist, and a few years ago when he was trying to get him off the ground, they made a couple of albums. I met with Trey and we talked. He was a young person and he talked as I thought he should talk. With his third album [Ready], he did very well. We talked about doing something together.
Later, he contacted me and said he wrote a song: “I want you to hear this, I think it’s something we can do together.” I heard it and thought it was perfect for what I wanted to do. I said, “Well, let’s go out and show the people your R. Kelly side.” I thought it was really good.
EBONY: Speaking of R. Kelly, you guys were working together a lot at one point. Talk about your reinvention in the 1990s, when you started calling yourself Mr. Big.
RI: Meeting R. Kelly was great. His mother was a big fan of ours. I was surprised he knew so much about the Isley Brothers music; he knew everything about it. He wanted to do a song with me, I think it was “Down Low.” We did that song and he became like a son to me at the time.
EBONY: What was he like as a collaborator?
RI: Great, it was great. I had an artist on my label named Kelly Price. I introduced her to Robert and she did a song called “Friend of Mine,” which R. Kelly remixed. That’s when we did, “This is Mr. Big…” Then we did “Contagious,” which was the super song for us. He did about four songs. In those days, we just had so much fun just doing what we wanted.
EBONY: The Isley Brothers made some classic love songs. “Between the Sheets” is one of the biggest baby-making songs on the planet.
RI: At the time, Marvin Gaye had “Sexual Healing” out, and it was such a hit. I was talking to him on the phone one day and I was like, “Hey man, wait until you hear ‘Between the Sheets.’ ” I said, “We going to knock ‘Sexual Healing’ off.” We just laughed. We were very competitive in those days. Somebody like Teddy Pendergrass would do “Close the Door” or “Turn Off the Lights,” and we’d do something like “Don’t Say Goodnight.” It was fun to listen to those records and have a competition going at the same time.
EBONY: From Jay-Z to J Dilla, there are hundreds of rap songs that have sampled the Isley Brothers’ music.
RI: Some of the language [on rap records] used to make me want to say no, but I realized they were only telling their story the way they wanted to tell it. So I let it happen. One of my favorites is Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day,” that sampled “Footsteps in the Dark.” That record knocked me out, as did the “Big Poppa” song Biggie did. The Isley Brothers are the most sampled artists in the business; I think James Brown is second. Maybe the Funkadelics are third. Hey man, I’m just glad we influenced the rappers that much.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He's also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.