Singer-songwriter Ron Isley

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Veteran R&B singer-songwriter reveals the history of his cane and talks about his new, first-ever solo project.

This year marks the 50-year milestone in the recording business for R&B veteran Ron Isley. As senior member, lead singer and composer, he led the Grammy-winning and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Isley Brothers through two generations of siblings and more than two dozen gold, platinum and multi-platinum albums. Over the years, he's also worked with such diverse artists as the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Rod Stewart and R. Kelly. Isley's new release, "Mr. I"—which includes a guest appearance by Aretha Franklin, among others—is his first-ever solo album.


Tavis: Ron Isley is, of course, the legendary lead singer of one of my favorite groups of all time – The Isley Brothers. Recently at the Soul Train Awards he was honored for his remarkable 50-plus year career in the biz, which now includes, believe it or not, his very first-ever solo project.
The new disc is called “Mr. I.” From the CD, some of the video now for the single “No More.”
Tavis: I was reading about this project, Ron, before it came out, and it occurred to me that you’ve been doing solo stuff for a while.
Ron Isley: That’s right.
Tavis: But they’re promoting this as your very first-ever solo project. Tell me why that is.
Isley: Ever since 1987, when I did an album called “Smooth Sailin’,” when my brother just went into ministry after my oldest brother passed, and so he came out and took pictures with me because my father had always said I wanted to keep the name Isley Brothers.
After that, then my other brother, Marvin Isley, who just passed this year, he was with me and my other brother, Ernest Isley, who plays guitar, and who he’s doing now a solo project, Jimi Hendrix, something, some sort of tour or something like that. But the main thing, my brothers were always with me, would always be involved with me.
Tavis: So even when you were doing solo stuff, your daddy insisted that you keep the name The Isley Brothers on the –
Isley: Daddy and mother.
Tavis: And your mother.
Isley: Yeah.
Tavis: On the project.
Isley: That’s right.
Tavis: Why was it so important for them for all your brothers to (unintelligible)?
Isley: Because he wanted us to stick together, and that’s been the thing that kept me going all those years. Just thinking about them, whether they’re with me or not with me.
Tavis: So they’re always with you, so you’re never by yourself. When you were on lockdown you were, of course, by yourself. Your brothers couldn’t be there with you in that moment. What’s it like when you have the freedom, as you have exercised all these years, to travel all around the world, and then you are confined to a space where you have no freedom? What’s the loss of freedom like?
Isley: Well, it’s nothing like that. (Laughs) It’s nothing like that. It’s a feeling that – I guess I was in a camp with 150 people, and those people were very close to me. I say very close; they protected me. We stayed together and I worked in a chapel with them and did shows once a week.
Tavis: They had you singing while you were in there.
Isley: Every Monday. (Laughter) Every Monday (unintelligible).
Tavis: Every Monday, Ron Isley in concert.
Isley: Yeah. We did (laughter) a gospel show.
Tavis: Okay.
Isley: A gospel show, and I’m going to do a gospel album. But oh, man, they just became such a – more of a part of me in there than out here.
Tavis: That’s amazing.
Isley: My family was there to see me four times a week, visiting. It was about 100 miles from where I lived, and so I could see my son four times a week, and my wife and my mother-in-law. It wasn’t that bad for me. It was bad for me not to be able to entertain and do my normal thing.
Tavis: To your point about putting out a gospel album somewhere down the road, are there certain gospel songs, two or three, that resonate with you that you just love to sing? Give me a couple of them.
Isley: I love to sing – well, I did “How I Got Over.” I was raised up on Clara Ward.
Tavis: Oh, Lord, yes.
Isley: Oh, man. My brothers, that’s what we did before we started doing this. My father wanted us to learn everything, so we learned from the gospel years from Clara Ward, Dinah Washington and all those songs first. Then after that broke off into learning about Clyde McPhatter and the Dominoes, Jackie Wilson and all those type of people became my friends.
Tavis: “How I Got Over” is a good one.
Isley: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: If you’re going to sing one, that’s a good one to sing.
Isley: Surely God is able.
Tavis: I know that (unintelligible). (Laughter) I went back to check this to make sure I was right about this. I’m trying to juxtapose all the Ron Isley and the Isley Brother romantic ballads and all the social stuff that y’all have done, and I’m trying to juxtapose all this with your very first hit, which I could not believe. (Laughter) Is it true that your first song was “The Cow Jumped over the Moon?”
Isley: That was the first record. (Laughter) How did you hear that?
Tavis: I had to go dig it out, man. I had to go dig. I said, “I know Ron Isley -” I mean, if anybody can make “The Cow Jumped over the Moon” sound good, Ron Isley can. But you did a song called “The Cow Jumped over the Moon?”
Isley: I wrote that one, yeah. (Laughter) Yeah. “Cow Jumped over the Moon,” I remember that.
Tavis: It’s a long way from that.
Isley: Oh, man. The “Shout” was our first hit.
Tavis: The very first big hit, “Shout.”
Isley: (Singing) You know you make me wanna shout.
Tavis: Oh, we all know it, yeah.
Isley: Yeah, I wrote that in 1959.
Tavis: Yeah, and the “Cow” came out in ’57, I think.
Isley: Yeah.
Tavis: Yeah. That’s amazing.
Isley: You threw me off. I never knew – nobody, nobody would know that.
Tavis: We all know it now. (Laughter) First hit, “The Cow -” no, it’s not a hit, but anyway. (Laughter) So this new project, “Mr. I,” tell me about this one.
Isley: Oh, man, I tried to cover everything that we did well, and I’m so proud of this album. I can’t wait for it to come out so everybody can hear it so I can say, “Wow, now what do y’all think of that?” I had so much pressure on me when I was away, talking to all the guys what the album was going to be like and it’s got to be one of the top albums that we’ve ever done. It turned out to be just that.
Tavis: You got some collaborations on this thing, too.
Isley: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: You and Aretha Franklin?
Isley: Oh, man, me and Aretha – I just had so much fun doing that. Aretha and I – I worked with T.I., and T.I. did – it’s one of his best raps is on that, and it was supposed to be our first single, “Put Your Money on Me.” But he was not able to do the video, so I say I’m going to hold up until it comes out and just see what the people think, and it’ll probably be our next single.
Tavis: How have you, over these years, Ron, protected the voice?
Isley: God. Jesus Christ. That’s where I get my strength from, and he did everything for me. When I got sick and every – every hit record we ever had, we prayed to help that hit. Songs that are written, like “It’s Your Thing” and “Shout,” man, we were sitting around, all the brothers – Kelly, Rudolph, at that time, Kelly and Rudolph – and then we prayed. I prayed to have that hit.
“It’s Your Thing” was our biggest record, we did about five or six million on that, and ever since that day – well, “Shout” is our mega-hit.
Tavis: That’s classic, yeah.
Isley: But “It’s Your Thing” and “Shout.”
Tavis: Yeah, see, I’m just thinking, what did Jesus say when you said, “Lord, please bless ‘In Between the Sheets’ and make it a huge hit?” (Laughter)
Isley: That record, we tried to make that a love story and that record has been a big – like you said, it’s been done by so many people.
Tavis: Yeah, absolutely.
Isley: It’s still a love story. “In Between the Sheets.”
Tavis: How did your voice end up being such a wonderful marriage with romantic ballads?
Isley: Well, I always wanted to do ballads, but after we did the record, “Shout,” they wanted me to do other records – “This Old Heart of Mine” and all those type, which I loved doing. But we finally got a chance to come back and do “Hello, It’s Me” and “Lay, Lady, Lay” and those type of things, and from that day on our record sales went through the roof. So I just love doing it. I love doing – you know I love doing it.
Tavis: How did you like doing the Bacharach stuff?
Isley: Oh, man, it’s my favorite.
Tavis: I think that is one of the – anybody who – if you’re a Ron Isley fan and if you don’t know who Ron Isley is, first of all, shame on you. But that Burt Bacharach project that you did, I could not imagine what Ron Isley singing Burt Bacharach would sound like, but I thought it might work. When I heard it, it completely blew me away. I love that project.
Isley: It’s my favorite. It’s my favorite.
Tavis: Yeah, your favorite one. I love that project.
Isley: Yeah. Just working with Burt, man, that was something I wanted to do all my time. I spent a lot of time with Dionne Warwick when he was working with her, and I was thinking to myself, wow, I would like to sing songs like that. At the time, I had the song “Twist and Shout” out, and I was supposed to do “Make It Easy on Yourself.”
Someone changed the words to it, and so never got a chance to record that. We sort of recorded it, but he didn’t like it. So I talked to him about that years – we had so much fun. Burt is a great friend of mine now. So when I got the chance to do “Alfie” and those type of songs, I really wanted to show him what I could do.
Tavis: And you did, you showed him. (Laughter) That thing worked. Speaking of doing some research on you, this is like unheard of in the record business these days. You just signed an eight-record deal?
Isley: Yeah, well –
Tavis: Eight – eight. Nobody signs anybody up to an eight-record deal these days.
Isley: Well, I might not be around. (Laughter)
Tavis: How old are you now, Ron?
Isley: I’m 69.
Tavis: So you’re almost 70 years old.
Isley: Yeah. (Laughs)
Tavis: You are almost 70 and you just signed an eight-record deal.
Isley: That’s crazy, that’s crazy, man. That’s crazy. (Laughter)
Tavis: That leaves me almost speechless. Seriously, it just doesn’t happen in the business these days. You got that much stuff left in you, for eight more records?
Isley: I hope so. I think so. I really hope so and I think so.
Tavis: That is amazing. You still enjoy the touring thing?
Isley: I love it. I love it.
Tavis: A lot of folk at 70 get sick of all that running around and jumping around on stage and all that.
Isley: Man, I can’t wait to do it. I can’t wait for my fans to see it, and I love the travel. The whole nine about it, I like that.
Tavis: Yeah.
Isley: Yeah. I love the people, and that’s your way to say to all your fans and people, “Yeah, I’m here, and I love you all and thank you.” Well, I’ve got to do that for as long as I can, as long as Frank Sinatra tried, and I’m going to try to –
Tavis: (Laughs) They’ve got to carry you out, huh?
Isley: Oh, they’re going to carry me out. (Laughter)
Tavis: I don’t think the fans have a problem with that. He said he loves the fans and the fans love him, and we’ve been waiting for Ron Isley to get back to doing what he is awfully good at doing. The new project from Ron Isley is called, appropriately, “Mr. I.” You’re losing letters here. It was B-I – “Mr. Big,” now you dropped the B. (Laughter) You’re losing letters, man.
Isley: My friends here in California, my manager and the people that work for management, they call me Mr. I every time I answer the phone. So we had trouble with the album. They said, “What are we going to name the album?” I said, “Why don’t you call it ‘Mr. I?'” And they said, “That’s great.” (Laughter)
Tavis: That’s how Hollywood works – it’s great when you give them back their own idea. They tend to like that kind of stuff.
Isley: Let me say Marcus King and LaRhonda (sp) and Henry.
Tavis: Yeah, that was them?
Isley: Those were the three people that refer to me as Mr. I.
Tavis: All right, they got their shout-out. They got their shout-out. (Laughter) Ron Isley, you’re sharp as ever, too, man.
Isley: Oh, man.
Tavis: (Unintelligible) the Board of Health. Look at you.
Isley: I knew I was coming to your show, so I got to do something. (Laughter)
Tavis: I’ve got to get me one of those. Let me have that, man. Yeah, there you go. (Laughter) This is what I’m missing, right here.
Isley: That’s over 100 years old. My –
Tavis: This is? Ooh, I didn’t mean to hit it that hard, then.
Isley: My brother carried that on every –
Tavis: Over 100 years old?
Isley: Yeah. He carried that on every one of the albums that we did, Rudolph Isley, who’s a minister and his wife now, and he carried this cane on his album. He gave it to me for my birthday, and every time I do a show I walk out with that cane like he did or I take a picture with him, to keep that cane.
Tavis: Well, I’ll let you walk out with it, but can I say goodnight with it? (Laughter)

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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm