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Ronald Isley at 80: Behind A Painted Smile lies a voice for the ages

Updated: May 22, 2021

Phil Shaw

OK, so who’s the oldest singer or musician from the rock ‘n’ roll era onwards still performing?

When the question was posed at a pre-pandemic gathering I attended of music nuts, all somewhat the worse for wine, nominations included Dion, John Mayall, Ian Hunter, Marty Wilde and Bill Wyman.

During the long cold winter of Covid, Tom Jones, Joe Brown, Dionne Warwick, Aaron Neville, Joan Baez, Eric Burdon and Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers have turned 80. Next week, the octogenarian all-stars will have two new recruits. On 24 May, Bob Dylan turns 80, a landmark that has already prompted thousands of words.

On 21 May 1941, three days before Robert Allen Zimmerman entered the world in Hibbing, Minnesota, Ronald Isley was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. Like Dylan, he has an extraordinary body of work behind him, is still taking his music on the road (viruses permitting) and still reinventing himself.

Dylan’s albums over the past 60 years have been tagged within the categories of folk, rock, folk-rock, country, blues, gospel and swing, the sound and vision endlessly evolving. Ron Isley has been at the coalface even longer. In 1959, when the young Zimmerman was expressing a passion for Little Richard in his high school yearbook, he co-wrote, with siblings Rudolph and O’Kelly, the rousing, ageless up-tempo rocker Shout.

As the Isley Brothers – who had been together, incredibly, since 1954 – they took it to No2 in the US singles chart. A 1964 cover by Lulu reached the UK Top Ten. The Beatles played it on a TV show the same year, their version appearing on Anthology 2.

The sons of Sallye Isley, organist at the First Baptist Church of Cincinnati, didn’t rest on their laurels. Their style kept developing – from the rock ‘n’ roll of Shout (which included call-and-response elements from gospel), to guitar-based rhythm and blues (the young Jimi Hendrix was in their touring band), through great dance numbers for Tamla Motown, to funk, on to arguably the finest rock-soul fusion ever achieved, and eventually to disco.

They have also given us socially conscious songs, such as Harvest For The World, and politically militant music, notably Fight The Power.

The current configuration of the Isleys – Ron and kid brother Ernie, 69 – have collaborated with rapper Snoop Dogg on their current single, Friends And Family. They are also due to play in the UK this summer if circumstances allow.

As the group changed – one brother, Vernon, died young, while another, Rudolph, became a church minister, to be replaced from within the family – one aspect remained constant: Ron’s instantly recognisable, golden voice.

Technically speaking, he is a counter-tenor, i.e. capable of going higher than a tenor. I’ve seen him described as singing falsetto. It’s definitely strong, pure and soulful. No wonder he evoked a show of emotion when he performed at the funeral of Aretha Franklin in 2018.

Ron not only mastered a series of genres he has also sung the modern American songbook. Invoking that phrase, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Rod Stewart crooned the standards of Broadway, Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley, from Cole Porter to Johnny Mercer via Irving Berlin and the Gershwins.

No mean songwriter in his own right, Ron has also given us definitive versions of classics penned for the Motown production line by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland, as well delicate reinterpretations of ballads by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

With the family firm he interpreted the work of Todd Rundgren, Carole King, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Steve Stills, James Taylor, Little Richard and Dylan (Lady Lady Lay). In at least two instances, Love The One You’re With and Fire And Rain, they lent a brilliant harmonic twist to the originals.

Choosing one song to represent Ron is an impossible task. I’ve cheated and picked three which illustrate the full range of his vocal prowess.

The Isley Brothers’ years with Tamla, 1965-68, are often dismissed by critics; it’s said that label boss Berry Gordy tried to straightjacket them with the ‘house’ production values. Yet the liaison produced some storming singles.

This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You), which helped soundtrack my mid-teens, is probably the most outstanding. In truth, though, it could be the Four Tops, so I’ve chosen Behind A Painted Smile from 1967. Unlike the bigger hit, it’s a song that Rod Stewart simply wouldn’t have the vocal agility to cover.

Written by the remarkable Motown musician and lyricist Ivy Joe Hunter (who co-wrote Dancing In The Street, the Tops’ Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever and Ask The Lonely plus The Marvelettes’ I’ll Keep Holding On) with Beatrice Verdi, its theme is the familiar one of dying inside while putting on a brave face. Tears Of A Clown and The Great Pretender exemplify this mini-genre.

It begins with plaintive, almost mournful flute and piano. Then the drums crash in, just ahead of a minor-keyed guitar line which mimics the electric sitar sound prevalent on many of the era’s finest tracks.

Ron’s urgent vocal is a tour de force, soaring above his siblings’ refrain of ‘Darling I hide the tears that I cry’ as he admits, in an astonishing leap into heart-rending falsetto towards the end of the song, that:

My life is a masquerade

Since you took your love away

Whenever you’re near, I hide my tears

Behind a painted smile

Talking of the ending, it’s the antithesis of the measured fade-out. The snare drum powers on alone for a few seconds before performing a dramatic emergency stop. For all the sadness of the sentiments, the single can still fill a dancefloor. It also reached No5 in the UK, testament to good British taste since it flopped in the US.

That said, the Isley Brothers’ first release for their own T-Neck label, named after where Ron lived in Teaneck, New Jersey, and for which they recorded from 1969-84, enjoyed greater success in the States than here.

The majestic, muscular funk of It’s Your Thing sounds, on first hearing, like the setting of African-American argot to music. (Aretha Franklin had made the phrase ‘sock it to me’ a key element of her cover of Respect, and its writer Otis Redding had injected the words into his version of Try A Little Tenderness.)

It’s your thing

Do what you wanna do

I can’t tell you

Who to sock it to

In the final moments of the song, however, Ron tells us ‘It’s my thing/ I do what I wanna do’, sounding very much like a riposte to Berry Gordy (who unsuccessfully took them to court claiming they had recorded it while under contract to Motown). A declaration of Isley independence, it also chimed with the Black Power tropes of the time.

Whichever way you interpret Ron’s lyric – and it may well be about freedom within a relationship – his assured vocal and a swaggering brass arrangement featuring Wilson Pickett’s touring band have made it a go-to song for television and film.

It’s Your Thing was the first cut on which Ernie, then 16, played. He was on bass for that session, but his stunning, barrier-breaking lead guitar work as part of a six-piece Isley Brothers took their music to a new level in 1973.

My colleague Stan Hey wrote on Here Comes the Song about the enduring splendour of Summer Breeze, another Isleys cover that transcended the original (by Seals & Crofts). Closing the same innovative album, 3 + 3, was the ballad The Highways Of My Life, written by Ron, O’Kelly and Rudy with three new members, their brothers Ernie and Marvin, and cousin Chris Jasper.

Jasper’s beautiful, understated piano/synthesiser intro has echoes of Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions album, unsurprising since they were recorded simultaneously at the Record Plant in Los Angeles, with recently departed synth pioneer and all-round creative genius Malcolm Cecil involved in both.

Unlike the similar, if deceptive start to Painted Smile, the reflective mood is sustained as Ron ponders which road he will take now that ‘there’s no love between us that remains’.

Reading all the signs along the way

Knowing where I am, not what they say

My destination’s closer day by day

So I can’t be concerned with the other side of the road

The song also resonated because America, mired in the Vietnam War and riven by political and generational conflict at home, was very much wondering which road to take.

Yet the part of the song that gets me, every time, is the section where, as Ron sings ‘Down the highways’, the rest of the band harmonise with an intricate, delicate ‘dadada-da-da’.

Even when he strays into gibberish, Ronald Isley remains a singer for the ages.


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