Ernie Isley, songwriter and guitarist with The Isley Brothers, chats with Kevin Cooper about celebrating the release of their single Shout! in September 1959, meeting Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix playing guitar with The Isley Brothers and their forthcoming tour.

Ernie Isley was born in Cincinnati, where his older brothers formed The Isley Brothers, first as a gospel group, then as a secular singing group.

In 1966 at aged fourteen he started to play the drums and played his first gig with his brothers. In 1968 he got his first guitar and played his first professional recording playing bass on The Isleys’ breakthrough funk smash, It’s Your Thing. He played electric and acoustic guitar and drums on the groups early 1970’s albums before he fully joined the group in 1973.

Ernie is a prolific songwriter, penning amongst others Harvest For The World and Brown Eyed Girl as well as co-writing That Lady, Between The Sheets and Take Me To The Next Phase. In 1984 he formed the group Isley-Jasper-Isley with his brother Marvin and Chris Jasper. They went on to release their number one album, Caravan Of Love. He has also had a successful solo career and in 1990 he released his first solo album, High Wire.

The Isley Brothers were inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 and they have also received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2020 Ernie was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame as a member of The Isley Brothers.

He and his brother, Ronald continue to work together and they are intending to tour with The Isley Brothers 60th Anniversary Tour when it is safe to do so. Whilst busy working on a new album and preparing to tour the UK, he took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Ernie, good morning how are you today?

Hi Kevin, I’m good thanks, how are you?

I’m very well thank you and before we move on, let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

It’s my pleasure, no problem man.

And let me tell you that you have made an old man very happy today.

(Laughter) well that’s good isn’t it (laughter). And just how have I managed to make you happy today?

I have been a life-long fan of The Isley Brothers since I first heard This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You) and Behind A Painted Smile on the Motown Chartbusters Vol. 3 album back in 1970. So, I have to tell you that this really is a very special moment for me.

Wow, that’s a very long-time man so thank you for all of your support over the years.

You are most welcome, and I have to ask you, just how is life treating you?

I have to be honest with you and say that life at this moment in time is treating me very well. In fact, all is good. It is so good that I have no complaints. I am pleased to inform you that today, I woke up on the right side of the grass (laughter).

You were originally intending to come over here to the UK last June in order to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Shout! which you originally released on September 21st 1959. However, Covid-19 put paid to that.

That’s right, we were. However, looking back on that, I think that it would have been more like sixty-two years (laughter). As you rightly say, the Pandemic put paid to all of our plans so unfortunately we couldn’t get over to the UK last year but believe me when I say that we are really looking forward to being back with the fans over there as soon as it is safe for us to do so. Our team is already working hard to get dates in the UK arranged for when we get the green light to go.

Are you looking forward to being back out on the road here in the UK?

Yes, I am, I really am. I personally find that being in England really is quite charming. I really appreciate the fact that you can drive the length of the country in one day, and I enjoy going down to London to see London Bridge. I always find Big Ben to be impressive; it’s great to look around the Castle where The Queen lives, and England really does have lots of history that has had an effect upon the world as we know it. So, it really is a fascinating place to be.

Shout! has been covered many times by various artists including The Beatles, Sir Cliff Richard, The Trammps, Joan Jett, Green Day, Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, Garth Brooks and Bruce Springsteen to name but a few. Do you have a favourite cover version?

Wow don’t pull any punches Kevin (laughter). To be honest with you, I can’t say that I do. However, what I can say is that whenever I am exposed to other people that have recorded the record that is always emotionally touching for me. For example, when President Elect Obama was sitting in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and Garth Brookes was performing, Garth Brookes put his guitar down, took his hat off, stood up and said, “We-eee-ll, you know you make me want to shout”. I thought, ‘Oh my god’ and everybody out there responded with, “shout, lift my hands up” (laughter). There was the President Elect, his wife, the Vice-President, together with the hundreds of thousands of people who were standing there looking at each other.

Every single one of them was thinking, ‘Garth Brookes is performing Shout!’ (laughter). And he is a so called Country and Western artist and there he was doing Shout! (laughter). So, whilst The Isley Brothers claim that song as our own, everyone has covered that song at some time; as you rightly mentioned Bruce Springsteen has done it, Stevie Wonder has done it, The Beatles have done it, and when Jimi Hendrix was with The Isley Brothers he would perform it. It’s great because everybody knows and loves that song.

Shout! helped to launch Lulu’s career here in the UK back in 1964 when she was only fifteen years old. What do you think to her version?

I liked it, I liked it very much because first of all it was being performed by a woman, and second of all, she got a lot of folks to line-up behind her when she was performing it. I like her version because she managed to make the song her own. It’s great that a song like that does that to people; it gets played at weddings, birthdays, Bar Mitzvah’s, sporting events; it is heard all around the world.

On the subject of cover versions, there are two which connect to you directly as a co-writer.

Okay, go for it.

Firstly, what did you think to The Christians 1988 cover of The Isley Brothers Harvest For The World?

Man, that was great. I was living in Los Angeles when I first heard that somebody had tried to cover that song. It was really wonderful that they did it. For me it was somewhat of a surprise and somewhat of a wow at the same time.

And secondly, what did you think to The Housemartins 1986 version of Caravan Of Love which you co-wrote and recorded as Isley-Jasper-Isley?

(Laughter) well I have to be totally honest with you and tell you that when I first heard The Housemartins version I really loved it simply because they had made that song their own. It was a case of you can’t know that something like that can happen until it happens (laughter). I personally feel that The Housemartins really did a professional job on that song.

You will be stopping off in Nottingham when it is safe to tour. What can we expect?

Oh man, you are in for a great night. You will hear everything, you will hear Shout!, Twist And Shout, This Old Heart Of Mine, It’s Your Thing, and Between The Sheets. You will virtually hear the whole catalogue.

I have to ask, just how is Ronald these days? Is he still banging out the hits?

Of course, as you no doubt know, Ronald is like one of those everlasting batteries (laughter). He never runs out of energy. He’s good and he can’t wait to see the fans over there in the UK.

Do you still enjoy touring and being out there on the road?

To tell you the truth, I think that I have always enjoyed touring. I think that in addition to enjoying touring, I like to treat it as an appreciation of our music, because we have been able to tour throughout the years and have the support of music lovers all over the world. So, it really is a joy and it is very much appreciated.

When I recently spoke to Burt Bacharach, he said that he felt that 9/11 had changed touring forever. Would you agree with that?

Yes, I would, totally. The whole culture of touring has been changed since that awful day on 9/11. You can no longer walk-through airports in order to board your flight. You have to sit for hours after being searched, sometimes twice, before you are allowed to board the plane. I would totally agree that touring has changed forever. It is no longer an enjoyable experience but, hey, it’s all part of the job so you just have to get on with it. Burt Bacharach, obviously, is one of the greatest songwriters of all time. He and Hal David wrote some of the greatest songs which as soon as you hear them you instantly recognise that you are listening to a song that has been written by Bacharach and David.

When I was coming of age, I spent hours listening to the songs that had been written by Bacharach and David, and they were so illuminating. They turned the light on in my head and showed me how to actually view a song and view a record. The only thing that I can say about their work is that they were outstanding, totally outstanding.

I have always considered The Isley Brothers to have had three directions within their career: firstly, there was Shout! which you recorded for RCA Victor. Secondly, we had the smooth soulful recordings with Motown and thirdly, there were recordings with a funkier edge with Epic / T-Neck Records. Would you agree with that?

To be totally honest with you, I feel that The Isley Brothers have had more than three directions in their music, but I totally understand where you are coming from. As you correctly point out, we recorded Shout! for RCA Victor back in 1959. Then, we recorded Twist And Shout for Wand Records in 1961. Then, we get to the period in our history that everyone relates to and recognises us for, when back in 1966 we recorded This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You) for Tamla. In 1969 we left Tamla and recorded It’s Your Thing for T-Neck Records, which was in fact, the label owned by the Isley Brothers. I would have to say that, in my opinion, It’s Your Thing was the very first funk record that the Isley Brothers wrote, recorded and released.

I have always thought that 7thAugust 1973 was the turning point for The Isley Brothers, when you released your 3+3 album, which I believe, took the band to another level. Would you agree?

Yes, I would I totally would. We had originally intended 3+3 to be the first album that we would record for CBS and we had intended it to be a departure from what we had done previously. For example, one of the things that CBS said to us when they first heard the album was, “That Lady certainly doesn’t sound like It’s Your Thing. We like it, but we think that you should put some saxophones on it” (laughter). However, after a few weeks, and a few meetings, they did finally concede and say, “we love the rock guitar on there, we certainly have never heard anything like that”. The bosses at CBS were wondering where they could pitch That Lady for radio play and we said, “just let it go, put it out there and see how it goes” which they did and man, did it go (laughter). That Lady crossed all manner of so-called genres; it was all over the place. And, as you know, it was a massive hit worldwide.

The album, 3+3 was, in my opinion, the start of a golden period for Isley Brothers albums in the 1970s; albums like Live It Up, The Heat Is On, Harvest For The World, Go For Your Guns, Showdown and Winner Takes All. Would you agree?

Yes, I would, absolutely. As you can no doubt imagine, we were, at that time on a roll on the back of the huge success of 3+3. It was a nice period for us, and I feel that during that period we created some of our best work. I remember that period fondly.

Are you finally going to hold your hands up and admit to being the man who put the funk into The Isley Brothers?

(Laughter) oh no, no, no, no, no (laughter). As you know, my last name is Isley; bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh, when they were recording Shout! I was seven years old (laughter). I was in the audience with members of my family, watching my brothers send a bunch of strangers crazy. It was fascinating for me to see that, and I was wondering if, when the time came, perhaps I could make a contribution and it turns out that was the case. For me, it was also a sense of discovery, and fun. For me, it is a continuing journey, and that is one of the reasons to look forward to coming over there to England, to allow us to share those songs with the audience.

Putting you firmly on the spot, do you have a favourite Isley Brothers album?

If I had to pick just one, then I would have to say Go For Your Guns. What about you, what’s your favourite?

For mine, I have to go back to 24th January 1967 and Soul On The Rocks.

I have to agree with you and say that Soul On The Rocks was a very good record that the brothers recorded for Motown.

Are you and Ronald still busy writing?

Yes, we are. In fact, we are finishing off a few things for a new album as we speak. We have a few pieces that are coming together nicely.

There are still a few people out there who do not know that a young Jimi Hendrix was once a part of The Isley Brothers. Just how did that come to be?

(Laughter) well let’s try to set the story straight for the people out there. Back in 1963, I was eleven years old, and Jimi Hendrix was around twenty-one. It was at that time that Jimi was playing with The Isley Brothers and to be honest with you, he lived with us in our home for two years. Whenever I would hear Jimi playing, I would take my homework and go and hang out wherever Jimi was. Jimi’s very first recording session with The Isley Brothers was back in 1964 when he played on a song called Testify. At that time, he was not the Jimi Hendrix that we all know now, he was just Jimmy. I have to say that from the moment I heard him play, I knew that he was already an amazing player.

Having said that, I like to think of Jimi Hendrix as the person that I knew, rather than the icon. That’s how I knew him, even though I was just a kid. Whenever I got the opportunity, I really liked hanging out with him, and I could tell he really liked me, probably because I was really curious about what he was up to (laughter). He already had that signature E chord that he used later in Purple Haze and I know that I’ve said this before, but I know that if he’d been around when That Lady came out, he would have given me a bear hug and asked me, “Where in the hell did you learn that?” Of course, I would have said, “From listening to you” (laughter).

It’s strange because after Jimi went to England and became ‘Jimi Hendrix’ I remember all of my buddies coming up to me in school and asking me, “You know Jimi Hendrix?” (laughter). I am so proud to say that I did and tell everyone that he was both a genius and a gentleman. The funny thing is that my mom used to yell at him and make him breakfast! Not only was Jimi a part of our household, but he was also a part of The Isley Brothers band. When The Beatles were on The Ed Sullivan Show for the very first time, I was sitting on the left hand side of the couch, my brother Marvin was sitting on the right hand side of the couch, and Jimi was sitting in the middle.

Then, when Ed announced “ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles”, they did not know that at that time the person who was sitting in the middle of the couch was going to be an electric guitar deity when his time came. After the show, a few days went by, and we had a family meeting. My eldest brother, Kelly took the floor, and amongst other things he said, “that group is going to change everything, and I don’t know what it is going to be like, even for Elvis Presley himself”. He then went onto say, “I know that we are going to be alright because The Beatles are singing Shout! and Twist And Shout. They may have two guitar players, but we’ve got Jimi” (laughter). Kelly then looked over to Jimi who was grinning ear to ear (laughter). You did not need a crystal ball in order to see just how things would go; everything that Kelly said at that meeting was a hundred percent correct.

Whilst on the subject of The Beatles, I understand that you recently had a meeting with one of the world’s greatest singer / songwriters who you have admired from afar for quite some time now?

(Laughter) man, just who have you been talking to (laughter). We had finished playing a show recently and after I had come off the stage, my wife said, “Paul McCartney’s sitting over there.” Well, he was sitting three or four tables away and let me tell you, I didn’t need telling twice (laughter). So, I walked over to where he was sitting and tapped him on the shoulder. Before I could say anything, he stood up to his full height, gave me a bear hug which almost cut my wind off, and we were both shouting into each other’s ear. I shouted, “Paul, you, John (Lennon), George (Harrison) and Ringo (Starr) are just wonderful” to which he replied, “Ernie, if it were not for The Isley Brothers, The Beatles would still be in Liverpool.” Later that evening he got up on stage and repeated to everyone there what he had shouted in my ear, which was truly gracious of him.

The Isley Brothers and The Beatles performed Twist And Shout together for the very first time which I have to say was like ‘wow’. Back in 2014 both The Isley Brothers and The Beatles received The Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and I managed to get a few words with Ringo who said to me, “Ernie, The Isley Brothers, you guys helped us hit our stride” which I thought was a great gesture coming from a legend of the pop industry. Later, the same evening, I actually got to meet Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono who, I have to say, were both very gracious not only towards me, but also towards The Isley Brothers. It was great for me to finally meet them as I am a very big fan of The Beatles and how they changed the face of the music industry.

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

Wow man, just where the hell did that come from (laughter). I can see why you leave that question until the end of the interview. I would have to say that it very much depends upon what kind of mood I am in. However, there is always the chance that an emotional situation can creep up on you, for example the loss of life as it did when Kobe Bryant passed away together with the other people who died in the helicopter crash. Hearing people singing songs at his funeral would most probably be in that category, especially when you hear Usher singing Amazing Grace and Boyz II Men singing the National Anthem.

On that note Ernie, let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it really has been a pleasure.

Not a problem Kevin, thanks a lot for your time and more to the point, thank you for all your support over the years for The Isley Brothers. You stay safe and I will see you up there in Nottingham.

The Isley Brothers had to unfortunately cancel their tour in July 2021, but hope to re-arrange in 2022. All tickets will be valid for the new dates.