Ronald Isley

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The longtime voice of the Isley Brothers, Ronald Isley has helmed the influential family group since the mid-’50s, a period spanning multiple generations of bandmates and cultural shifts heralding natural transformations through gritty soul, blistering funk, atmospheric quiet storm ballads, and plush contemporary R&B. Outside the confines of the group, Isley has teamed with Burt Bacharach for Here I Am (2003) and released a couple purely solo albums, namely the wholly contemporary Mr. I (2010) and the retro-modern This Song Is for You (2013). Ronald and brother Ernie have continued to lead the Isley Brothers into the 2020s.
Ronald Isley was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on May 21, 1941. As a preteen, he joined siblings Rudolph, O'Kelly, and Vernon to form the earliest incarnation of the group. After Vernon’s 1955 death in a bicycling accident, Ronald was tapped as the remaining trio’s lead vocalist. Early singles stiffed, but “Shout” — their 1959 debut for RCA — sold a million copies, despite failing to crack the Top 40. Only after the Isleys left RCA for the Wand label did they have another hit, this time with their seminal 1962 cover of the Top Notes’ “Twist and Shout.” After recording for their own T-Neck label, they signed to the Motown subsidiary Tamla in 1965, joining forces with the famed Holland-Dozier-Holland writing and production team. The Isleys’ first single, the shimmering “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You),” was their finest moment yet and barely missed the pop Top Ten.
The group still felt straitjacketed by the Motown assembly line production formula, and in 1969 they exited Tamla to resuscitate the T-Neck label. Their next release, the muscular and funky “It’s Your Thing” (featuring a bassline by Ernie Isley, the guitarist’s first recorded appearance) hit number two on the U.S. charts in 1969 and became their most successful record. In 1973, the Isleys scored a massive hit with their rock-funk fusion cover of their own earlier single “Who’s That Lady,” retitled “That Lady.” The album 3 + 3 also proved highly successful, as did 1975′s The Heat Is On, which spawned the smash “Fight the Power.” As the decade wore on, the group again altered their sound to fit into the booming disco market; while their success on pop radio ran dry, they frequently topped the R&B charts with singles like 1977′s “The Pride,” 1978′s “Take Me to the Next Phase,” 1979′s “I Wanna Be with You, Pt. 1,” and 1980′s “Don’t Say Goodnight.”
In 1986, O'Kelly Isley died of a heart attack and brother Rudolph left to join the ministry soon after; Ronald forged on, however, continuing with younger siblings Ernie and Marvin for a handful of albums, including Smooth Sailin' (produced by his then-future wife Angela Winbush; 1987), Mission to Please (1996), Eternal (2001), Body Kiss (released just after Isley and Winbush’s split; 2003), and Baby Makin' Music (2006). He also released a trio of solo works: Here I Am: Isley Meets Bacharach (2003), Mr. I (2010), and This Song Is for You (2013). These albums were followed by Power of Peace (2017), a collaboration between Ronald, Ernie, and Carlos Santana. Ronald and Ernie returned in the 2020s and previewed a new album with a pair of collaborations. First was “Friends & Family” (with Snoop Dogg), which arrived in April 2021. A remake of “Make Me Say It Again Girl” (featuring Beyoncé) followed in August 2022. ~ Jason Ankeny