In their prime, when they were making such global hits as That Lady and Harvest for the World, the most physically imposing of the Isley Brothers – sharply bearded, stern of countenance, wearing embroidered capes and shirts with billowing collars, and carrying a jewelled walking cane that might have been the symbol of office of an elder of the group – was Rudolph Isley, who has died aged 84.
The Isleys had the distinction of enjoying hits across six consecutive decades, from Shout in 1959 to Contagious in 2001, after Rudolph had departed. Spanning the evolution in Black American popular music from doo-wop to hip-hop, their successes during his active years included genre-defining hits with This Old Heart of Mine (1966), a Motown classic, the funk favourite It’s Your Thing (1969), and the boudoir soul of Between the Sheets (1983).
Although not their regular lead voice, a function belonging to his younger brother Ronald, Rudolph was present from their beginnings in 1954 until he left to become a Baptist minister in 1989. His occasional appearances as lead singer included It’s a Disco Night, a Top 20 hit in the UK at the height of the disco era in 1979.
Church was where the brothers had first sung, during their childhood in Cincinnati, Ohio, under the supervision of their mother, Sallye (nee Bell), and their father, O’Kelly Isley, a former US Navy sailor and vaudeville performer. Vernon was the original lead singer when they made their debut in 1954, at first supported by his brothers Rudolph and O’Kelly Jr, with Ronald joining two years later. When Vernon was killed in a road accident, aged 13, Ronald took over.
From left: Rudolph, Ronald and O’Kelly Jr. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
In 1957, after their father’s death, they moved to New York, where they took their gospel roots to secular R&B in recordings for several small labels, including Gone Records, run by George Goldner, who had discovered Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. But it was not until they were signed by the team of Hugo (Peretti) and Luigi (Creatore), Sam Cooke’s producers, that they made an impact.
Peretti and Creatore had watched them rousing the audience at the Apollo theatre in Harlem with an extended routine based on the ecstatic up-tempo call-and-response of Baptist services. Acting on the suggestion that they might turn it into a song, the three brothers came up with Shout, released in full over two sides of an RCA Victor 45 in 1959. It reached the US Top 50, attracting accusations of blasphemy from churches objecting to its use of the gospel idiom, while providing a template for a generation of young, white rock and pop musicians keen to exploit the emotional fervour of Black music. Among many cover versions was that of Lulu, the Scottish singer, whose career was launched when she reached the UK Top 10 with the song in 1964.
Shout was also a staple of the Beatles’ live performances in the early days, but it was their recording of another exhilarating 1962 Isley Brothers hit, Twist and Shout, that provided the Liverpool quartet with an opportunity to delight their fans by shaking their moptops with youthful abandon at the climax of each chorus. No Isley brother, whose hairdos at that time were carefully coaxed into lavish pompadours, could have matched that.
Isley at the fourth annual BET Awards in Los Angeles in 2004. Photograph: L Cohen/WireImage for BET Network
In 1964 they formed their own label, T-Neck, named after the town of Teaneck, New Jersey, where they then lived, and visited the UK to perform on Ready Steady Go!.The following year, dissatisfied with the sales performance of their T-Neck releases, they signed with Motown Records, where the writers and producers Lamont Dozier and Eddie and Brian Holland gave them This Old Heart of Mine, in which their vocals were applied to a classic Motown riff. A US Top 20 hit, the single reached No 3 in Britain. A decade later a cover version of the song became one of Rod Stewart’s biggest hits.
Despite making fine records with Motown, including Behind a Painted Smile and Tell Me It’s Just a Rumour Baby, no further hits were forthcoming and the brothers were released from their contract in 1968. Reviving T-Neck, they responded to the successes of James Brown and Sly Stone by developing a funkier style that gave them their biggest hit yet with It’s Your Thing and they moved into rock territory with covers of Stephen Stills’s Love the One You’re With and Neil Young’s Ohio.
A deal with Columbia Records in 1972 kept the group abreast of changing fashions, helped by the addition of two younger brothers, the guitarist Ernie Isley, whose lead work was inspired by Jimi Hendrix, and the bass guitarist Marvin Isley, as well as a keyboards player, Chris Jasper, whose older sister Elaine had married Rudolph in 1958. For albums such as 3+3 (1973) and Live It Up (1974) they devised memorably subtle rearrangements of such folk-tinged songs as James Taylor’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight, Todd Rundgren’s Hello It’s Me and Seals and Crofts’ Summer Breeze.
It was in 1989, three years after the death of O’Kelly from a heart attack and between the recording and the release of Spend the Night, their 25th album, that Rudolph left the group to return to the church. In 1996 he released a gospel album, Shouting for Jesus. The Isley Brothers would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, but he was reunited with them only once, in 2004, to receive a lifetime achievement award from the BET (Black Entertainment Television) network.
Marvin died in 2010. Rudolph is survived by Elaine, their three daughters, Elizabeth, Valerie and Elaine, and son, Rudolph Jr, and several grandchildren, and by Ronald and Ernie.
Rudolph Bernard Isley, singer and minister, born 1 April 1939; died 11 October 2023