Everybody knows the Isley Brothers, a family band with era-defining hits in every decade since its start in the 1950s with “Twist and Shout,” “This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You),” “Shout, Pts. 1 & 2,” “It’s Your Thing” and “What Would You Do?”
Or do you know?
Silken vocalist Ron Isley and thunderous guitarist Ernie Isley, the two remaining musical brothers, are betting that you don’t know them as well as you should.
“We have been doing this longer than everybody — since 1959,” says Ron Isley. “We want everybody to know this, know us, and see who we are.”
After having performed a rousing Verzuz-Instagram Live battle in April with Earth, Wind & Fire and host Steve Harvey, the Isleys — motivated by Ron and his wife Kandy Isley — are looking at a 2021-22 filled with tours (starting July 23), new music (the just-released “Friends & Family” w/ Snoop Dogg precedes an album for fall), a newly lensed documentary/concert film, the development of a ”Respect”-style musical biopic and a young lawyer, Navarro Gray, to help the Isleys with the details.
But first, they have to travel to their hometown of Teaneck, NJ (the namesake of the ’70s Sony-based label, T-Neck) for the naming ceremony today (June 24) of “The Isley Brothers Way,” honoring the historic influence, first at the intersection of Van Cortland Terrace Van Arsdale Place. It’ll be followed by a separate street-naming ceremony at the intersection of Liberty Road and Greenleaf Avenue in Englewood, NJ.
“It’s a blessing, man,” said Ron Isley. “My brothers O’Kelly and Marvin are not here. They passed. My brother Rudolph is in Chicago, in the ministry. This naming means the world to me and my family… and that we named our label after Teaneck goes without saying.”
Attorney Navarro Gray has represented Ron Isley (not Ernie) for the last four months, and is on board to guide the Isleys through a quickly changing music industry, be it the language and price points of new revenue streams and NFTs.
“Ron brought me on because of my track record,” says Gray of working with rapper Fetty Wap and the Internet Money production crew (Juice WRLD, Trippie Redd). “I’m in touch with all the changes in the business.”
Presently, Gray is making several deals for the Isleys. First, there’s finalizing the paperwork on the full album follow-up to the recently released single “Friends & Family” single on Ron’s R.I. Top Ten label. There is a live concert with documentary elements (“a docu-concert,” notes Ron) celebrating the Isleys’ decades in the business. Directed in part, says Isley, by Reginald Hudlin, with an executive production credit for Kandy Isley, concerts were filmed at St. Louis’ Fox Theatre and Fort Lee, NJ’s Linwood Theatre, with production 95% finished, he says.
Says Gray, “While there are name production companies interested in getting behind the docu-concert, it’s Mr. Isley’s direction to have this go out independently, so we’re looking to lock-down Amazon, Hulu or Netflix, a distributor. I want whomever we pick as distributor to finalize production, to do its editing. When people consider ‘Black music,’ they should recognize the legacy of the Isleys, that Ronald Isley should be up there with giants such as Michael Jackson and Prince. The same thing is true of the upcoming biopic. We’re looking for production partners who will take Ron’s vision and amplify it, what he perceives through his and his family’s eyes. without giving away creative control.”
Creative control is definitely Ron Isley’s game when it comes to the three-prong attack of a new album, the development and filming of an upcoming biopic and the fam’s self-titled docu-concert.
“It was my wife’s idea to film a concert and include the stories about us making these songs, their lyrics, development and more,” says Ron Isley. “It went from being one thing into becoming a movie unto itself, something astronomical.”
Along with its concept, Isley credits Kandy Isley for orchestrating the live concert (“new dancers, new uniforms, very elaborate”), its guests such as Carlos Santana and several other features not yet named (“We want to surprise people”) and a production that cost nearly $1 million.
“I want people to hear his story from his mouth because no one can tell it like Ron – he lived it,” says Kandy. “Ernie, too. Their full story has never been told. The Isleys are part of history. and Ron’s still here doing what he’s always done.”
The still untitled album, due out this autumn, is, as the new single states, a friend and family-filled affair. “Snoop Dogg’s been a friend for 20-odd years,” says Ron Isley. “As soon as he heard the ‘Friends and Family’ track, he started laughing and knew exactly what he would do.’
According to Ron and Kandy, other vocal guests on the new album include Beyonce (“She’s recording her part by end of June or first week July,” says Kandy), Rick Ross, Trey Songz, Alicia Keys and Drake, the latter of whom Ron recently had dinner with, becoming part of Drizzy’s IG stories. Producers 1500 or Nothin’, Scott Storch, and Eric Hudson will take part in the Isleys’ new album (and “possibly Dr. Dre,” says Ron) as will R&B songwriters Poo Bear and Fresh.
“The album reflects a new take on Ron without losing who he is,” says Kandy. “He evolves and changes with time. It’s Ron 2.0.”
Represented by CAA and driven to tell his and his family’s full story, Ron Isley plans to be one of the Isley biopic’s screenwriters, hopefully, and he says he and his wife are in serious talks with Antoine Fuqua to direct. “We want someone to write who knows the Isleys from the beginning,” says Kandy. “The ins-and-outs.”
Ask Ron Isley if he sees his family biopic as primarily factual (a la Ray Charles’ “Ray,” “Respect” or Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody) or more fanciful (Elton John’s “Rocketman”), and he says the former.
“We want to show the real, the highs and the lows, the difficult points and the triumphs, like in ‘Ray.’ Only this involves family – a band of brothers making their own way, creating new music, a label first like T-Neck. We were the first Black group to truly do their own thing.”
Ron continues, ”We’ll go back to our days with Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin who was a good friend from the ’60s until she passed. We moved to Englewood because of Clyde McPhatter and Sylvia Robinson. There’s the story of me hiring Jimi Hendrix to play with us, and him living in our house for 2 years, as well as us hanging with the Beatles. McCartney has told friends that if wasn’t for me, they’d still be in Liverpool; their two biggest songs before they started writing were ‘Shout’ and ‘Twist & Shout.’”
Considering all this, 2021 and 2022 are shaping up to be a new era and a defining era for the Isleys. And like so many other legacy R&B and hip-hop artists at present, this current resurgence started with their appearance on Verzuz.
“Being on Verzuz, letting people see us, and how many viewers we got, inspired me,” says Ron Isley, with a laugh. “Hey, it was the first time that I got to show off my new beard, and got so many comments about being the ‘Sexiest Man in the World.’ Now, can you see me on the cover of People magazine?’