Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Ron Isley: The Names Isley

Ron Isley
Ron Isley Ron Isley Ron Isley Ron Isley

At 72-years-old, most folk may well be putting their feet up and spending time with the grandkids. The most energetic thing they get up to, is feeding the ducks at the local park. I know a pensioner who is nowhere near retiring, and who has an eight –year-old son to keep him young too

But Ronald Isley is no ordinary OAP. Ron really is a living legend and part of the fabric of soul and pop (ular) music. One of the Isley family dynasty, and with his brothers; part of the soundtrack to literally billions of people’s lives around the world.

His latest solo album “This Song Is For You” has just dropped here, and for Ron it is a chance to fulfil his dearest wish. To make history and add to the Isley’s amazing musical legacy. He predicts great things for his own record, including at least one gleaming Grammy trophy to add to the collection. Released on the German label Membran Records in Europe and Nashville-based eOne in the USA.

Speaking to me from his St Louis home, he told me: “This record is going to be one of the special albums of my career. This album is going to win all the Grammies and set the tone for R&B music. To show others what to do and where to go. Setting a benchmark from now on.”

“It defines me and my sound. It captures Ron Isley. I have a special gift from God, and I am really thankful for my voice, and that I can do everything I have done before with it. I pray to God every day for that. I do not take a day off, I think about music every day. I sing every day. Through the gift that God has given me, I want to make this Isley legacy go into history while I can still do it.”

“I want this album to be a Grammy-winning album. I want this to be special. I want this to be MY legacy.”

I ask Ron if it ever registered with him, how his voice is known to so many people globally. How lots of babies were probably conceived while his sweet voice was in the same room? “It is a fantastic feeling to know that you gave something to the people, and they feel that way about it. There’s no better feeling than that in this world to me.”

“Every day I wake up, I think about that. I am so proud of that, man. It is hard for me to explain.”

Ron and his brothers have been inducted into probably every "Hall of fame" on the planet. Won every award going, and been honoured time after time by the great and the good. But his personal life has not always been so shiny and perfect. He is what we would most definitely call, a soul survivor.

He has lost three of his brothers. Vernon was killed on his bike near their family home aged just 13 in 1956. O’Kelly had a heart attack while battling cancer and died in 1986. Marvin Isley's career ended after a bout with diabetes forced him to have both of his legs amputated in 1996, and he died in 2010. Rudy retired in 1989 to go into the ministry.

Ron was forced into bankruptcy and the IRS snatched his homes, his cars, his yacht and his money. He has had a long running legal battle with them ever since. But in 2007, he was jailed for 36 months for tax evasion. He was released in April 2010. He suffered a stroke while in London for a show in 2004, and has also had part of a kidney removed. A crippling back issue saw him undergo major back surgery. He is now fully recovered from his health issues.

He married background singer Kandy Johnson - 35 years his junior – in 2005 and they have a son, Ronald Isley, Jr. who was born in 2007. He was divorced from his former wife Angela Winbush, but stood by her side when she battled cancer.

It is remarkable that Ron has been part of major hits with his brothers and solo since 1959 over many decades. But for me, what is even more remarkable is the fact his voice is almost exactly as it was back in the day, when the guys were treating us to smash after smash from "Shout," "Twist and Shout," "This Old Heart of Mine," “Behind A Painted Smile,” "It's Your Thing," "That Lady," "Harvest for the World," “Summer Breeze,” "Fight the Power," "For The Love of You," "I Wanna Be With You" and "Don't Say Goodnight (It's Time For Love)."

That trademark falsetto and sweet soul vocal licks are still in tact, and he knows just what to do with them on the 13 songs on his latest CD. The first single, a smoochy ballad called "Dinner and a Movie,” has already had a top spot placing in one US chart. The record features Kem and Trey Songz (who wrote and duets on a song with Ron) and is not just a stroll down old skool memory lane. It ticks the boxes for contemporary R&B fans too.

"I'm so thankful for my history and so proud of my past. I also feel blessed to be able to change and to come up with new things. I think this record's going to make some history. I want everything I do to try to make some more history.”

We talk about the famed Motown days of course, and Ron tells me an astounding fact about why they left in 1968. “We did a lot of records there and a lot of people were jealous of our success, and complained to Berry Gordy that we were getting all the better songs. He took the records off us and gave them to other people."

“I first did the record Grapevine that Marvin did. He took it off me and gave it to Smokey, and he didn’t do it that well. Then Gladys Knight came along and she did a different version of it. Later on Marvin did the same version that I had done. The same thing happened with the Four Tops.”

“One of the records they were doing was Reach Out. We had it first. That was one of the reasons we were angry enough to say; ‘hey man, we don’t want to be doing this any more. We want to be doing our own thing. Then we came out and did ‘This Old Heart Of Mine’ and that hit right away.”

“Holland Dozier were so crazy about us, as all our records were hits. Then we left and Holland Dozier left, and that started the thing at Motown when everyone wanted to leave. The Temptations wanted to go, the different producers were leaving after we left.”

“Then we did 'It's Your Thing' on our own label T-Neck, and we were sued by Motown. I don’t know why he sued us. He believed that was one of the songs Holland and Dozier wrote, and we said he must be crazy. Friends of ours still at Motown would come to our house in New Jersey and talk about leaving the label.”

Motown argued that the group recorded the song while still under their Motown contract. A 1975 court decision eventually ended in the Isleys' favour.

Ron has mixed emotions about the Motown days, but is grateful for everything they learned there that stood them in good stead to run their own T-Neck label and steer their own career. And for the friends they made and still have, such as Stevie Wonder.

There are plans for UK shows next year, and Ron revealed he hopes to make a gospel record with his brother Rudy.

The album “This Song Is For You" is out now on Membran Records.


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