Classics: The Isley Brothers – Climbin’ Up The Ladder (Part 1 & 2) (T-Neck Records)
“Climbin’ up the ladder, I keep pushin’ and I’m bound to know. Climbin’ climbin’ the ladder. Though it be shakin’. Ain’t it up that I gotta go? Keep me in the backroads. Why should I stay down? I keep tryin’, tryin’ my best now baby. To reach that solid ground…”
Like it or not, the uplifting ‘Climbin’ Up The Ladder’ is a brilliant illustration of what The Isley Brothers became. Turning themselves from a Doo-Wop cool formation into a rockin’ groove machine. Is it Soul? Is it (still) Funk? Who da hell cares at the end! It rocks, even tougher than some reputedly Rock groups themselves. Thus in a unique style where versatility, energy and deepness prevail.
The infectiously insane ‘Climbin’ Up The Ladder’ brings us in a place with no real boundaries. In like that no man’s land as a matter of fact where one could find at times luminaries like Santana or Lenny Kravitz. If not Jimi Hendrix!
I’ve been dealing with music during 5 decades, as a DJ, a reviewer and/or a compiler. And The Isley Brothers have always felt like apart to me. But, in the meantime, embodying what music is about. In other words a whole with no boundaries nor limits, where anything can happen. And this just for the sake of the emotion as a matter of fact. As it’s first and foremost what we recall at the end.
The Isley Brothers are among those rare artists who’ve pushed the superlatives to rare limits. With one of the “longest, most influential, and most diverse careers in the maturation of Contemporary (Black) Music. Already in activity, as a Doo-Wop formation in the mid-50’s. And developin’ a unique style from then while incorporating elements of Rock, Soul and Funk into their impressive repertoire. Able to come up with the fiercest grooves on one hand, and some of the most vibrant ballads one can ever think of on the other.
Hailing from Cincinnati, OH, the group first appeared as a vocal trio. Thus consisting of brothers O’Kelly, Jr., Rudolph and Ronald Isley. As a matter of fact, they were initially meant to be a fortet with Vernon. But the latter tragically died in 1956, aged 13 after a car bumped him, leavin’ his brothers devastated and soon after disbanding.
The brothers resurfaced the year after, relocating to the Big Apple, with Ronnie assuming the lead vocals. The eventually released a handful of singles on various indie labels before signin’ with RCA and meet the glory for the very first time with the memorable ‘Shout’, back in… 1959! A cut which, although only peaking at a modest #47 position in the charts, sold over one million copies. Unable to reproduce the same success, they would soon after switch from RCA to Scepter Records via Wand, after a short round with Atlantic. With success comin’ up once again with ‘Twist And Shout’ in 1962.
Unable to comfort their position at the time, the brothers created their own structure by the likes of T-Neck Records two years after. From that period, O’Kelly got said by his brother Ernie to have discovered a then homeless Jimi Hendrix. This prior to offer him a job in the group. Playing on two of their singles by the likes of ‘Testify’ and ‘Move Over And Let Me Dance’ respectively in 1964 and 1965. But also distributing his first nationally-released recordings.
With Hendrix leavin’ the group soon after, the band signed with Motown and eventually scored their second hit by the likes of ‘This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You)’. But, then again, happened to be once more to solidify their position which got them to leave Motown in 1968. Reactivating their T-Neck label the year after and securing a distribution deal with Buddah Records before releasing ‘It’s Your Thing’ which became their biggest success at the time.
By 1971, the younger brothers Isley, Ernie and Marvin along with brother-in-law Chris Jasper progressively added their musical input to the band’s music and eventually broadening its spectrum. The Isley Brothers scoring another couple of hits back then. Beginning with their outstanding cover version of Steven Stills‘ ‘Love The One You’re With’. Then, when switching from Buddah to Epic in 1973, Ernie, Marvin and Chris became official members of the group. This with the release of the ‘3+3’ album. An effort that spanned the classic ‘That Lady, Pt. 1 & 2’, in addition to ‘What It Comes Down To’ and a cover of Seals & Crofts‘ Folk hit, ‘Summer Breeze’…
From then onwards, the 70’s would see The Isley comin’ up with an impressive series of solid albums. Beginning with ‘Live It Up’ in 1974. But also ‘The Heat Is On’ the year after. An effort featuring the seminal ‘Fight The Power’ which also showcased the aptitude of the group to compose incredible ballads such as ‘For The Love Of You’, ‘Sensuality’ and ‘Make Me Say It Again Girl’. 1976 seeing them delivering ‘Harvest For The World’ and the album of the likes. A cut which The Christians eventually covered back in 1988.
‘Go For Your Guns’ followed the year after. Confirming the inclination of the group for cool vibes with gems such as ‘Footsteps In The Dark’ and ‘Voyage To Atlantis’. But also marking a stronger emphasis on Rock vibes in cuts such as ‘Climbin’ Up The Ladder’ and ‘Livin’ In The Life’ than they had on previous albums. With the same applying to its follow-ups. In other words, ‘Showdown’ in 1978 then ‘Winner Takes All’ in 1979. The latter featuring sparkling tracks such as ‘Liquid Love’, ‘Life In The City’ and ‘It’s A Disco Night (Rock Don’t Stop)’ to light up the floors. And a bunch of extra outstanding ballads like ‘How Lucky I Am’ and ‘You’re The Key To My Heart’.
Alas, although their 1983 ‘Between The Sheets’ album sold over two million copies, it happened to be their last under their six-member line-up. Ernie, Marvin, and Chris soon after leaving to form Isley-Jasper-Isley, later responsible for the hit, ‘Caravan Of Love’. On their side, O’Kelly, Rudy and Ronnie signed a deal with Warner Bros. and eventually released the ‘Masterpiece’ album in 1985.
Sadly enough, O’Kelly died the year after of a heart attack, aged 48, on March 31, 1986 while battling cancer. Then Rudy retired in 1989 and followed life in the ministry.
Ronnie eventually revived the group with Ernie and Marvin in 1991 though. Comin’ back inder the spotlights five years later. This while sharing the bill with R. Kelly on the memorable ‘Down Low (Nobody Has To Know)’ and eventually givin’ birth to the character known as Frank Biggs (or Mr. Biggs) in the video clip. Thus helping the brothers’ 1996 album ‘Mission to Please’ to reach platinum status.
That same year saw Marvin‘s career sadly comin’ to an end. This after he had both of his legs amputated due to diabetes. Reduced to a duo, Ronnie and Ernie met once again the success with their 2001 ‘Eternal’ album. An effort which saw them working with an impressive line-up of producers. From Raphael Saadiq to Angela Winbush and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. Not to mention R. Kelly who crafted the Top 20 hit single ‘Contagious’. And, by that, makin’ of The Isley Brothers the only act to have reached the Top 50 during six different decades…
The ‘Eternal’ album, credited to The Isley Brothers featuring Ronald Isley aka Mr. Biggs, givin’ birth to two follow ups during the comin’ years. This with ‘Body Kiss’ in 2003, then ‘Baby Makin’ Music’ in 2006.
More recently Ernie and Ronnie have shared the bill with Carlos Santana. This resulting in the release of ‘The Power Of Peace’ album back in July 2017.
Marvin Isley sadly died, aged 56 on June 6, 2010. This from complications of diabetes at the Seasons Hospice within Weiss Memorial Hospital in Chicago, IL.