For a group that charted more than 70 singles during six decades, The Isley Brothers are hard to get a handle on. Were they the hell-raising rockers of “Twist and Shout”? The bedroom-eyed smoothies of “Don’t Say Goodnight”? The militant funk band of “Fight the Power”? The gospel-folk of “Love the One You’re With”? The hits alone tell a bafflingly fragmented story. This mammoth 23-disc set returns them to the context of the band’s impressive evolution and shifting internal dynamics.
The first decade mentioned in the set’s title is represented only by the Isleys’ sole RCA album, 1959’s Shout!, and a collection of early-’60s singles on which the then-unknown Jimi Hendrix was their guitarist (a spell on Motown is omitted). This box’s story really begins in 1969, when the vocal trio of Ronald, Rudolph and O’Kelly Isley brought in their teen brother Ernie, became a tough funk band and quickly scored a string of hits, beginning with “It’s Your Thing,” released on their own T-Neck label. Another brother, bassist Marvin, and keyboardist brother-in-law Chris Jasper joined shortly after. Ernie, a Hendrix disciple, nudged the group toward its next identity — soulful rock — landing another smash with the guitar-drenched “That Lady.” As of 1975’s double-platinum The Heat Is On, The Isley Brothers played everything themselves, and were writing all their own songs again: half ferocious dance music, half lascivious slow jams.
The last few albums collected here had Jasper emerging as a singer and arranger. After one more platinum triumph (the potent cheese of 1983’s Between the Sheets) the sextet split in half, with the younger members spinning off as Isley-Jasper-Isley, and T-Neck closed down. The box’s liner notes are a bit scant, but it’s full of treats even for aficionados: recordings by side projects (like 1969’s psych-rock one-off “Tune On, Turn In, Drop Out,” credited to The Brothers Three), single mixes and Wild in Woodstock, an unreleased live-in-the-studio set from 1980 with Ronald’s falsetto hovering like a wasp and Ernie elegantly shredding. Hearing all this music together makes the wild variation in the Isleys’ style more understandable: They were always just ahead of the curve.
This story originally appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of Billboard.