(In addition to the GRAMMY Awards, The Recording Academy presents Special Merit Awards recognizing contributions of significance to the recording field, including the Lifetime Achievement Award, Trustees Award and Technical GRAMMY Award. In the days leading up to the 56th GRAMMY Awards, GRAMMY.com will present the tributes to the 2014 Special Merit Awards recipients.)
The Isley Brothers have been making music for almost six decades. Nearly 60 years in music is tribute enough, but there are artists with long careers whose music never resonates with fans the way theirs has.
When I think about the Isleys' legacy, and what it has meant to me as an artist, I'm reminded of a hot, Kool-Aid-deprived day on Detroit's northwest side, just off of 8 Mile Road. I was holed up in a back bedroom at a friend's house, my face pressed against the speaker of a cassette player, my finger wearing out the rewind button. I played "Don't Say Goodnight (It's Time For Love)," one of their chart-topping singles from 1980, over and over. I was 9 years old, and regardless of it being Saturday, Ronald Isley was taking me to school. That was one of my first lessons on the importance of melody, and I was being taught by a master.
Fast-forward to 2013. I'm sitting at the board in a Detroit studio with none other than Ron Isley. Recording a song with him is the fulfillment of a dream. And here he is, in the vocal booth, hitting all the licks. The memory nearly brings tears to my eyes. That session was a moment for me, the closing of a circle through which a student was rewarded with an opportunity to honor a master.
You forget how many hits the Isley Brothers have had until you find yourself in the audience at a sold-out show: "Shout." "Voyage To Atlantis." "Harvest For The World." "Summer Breeze." "For The Love Of You." The Isley sound is rooted in gospel, and can be traced to the early 1950s in Cincinnati. But their good news has spread through doo-wop, disco, soul, R&B, and various fusions of sound. An Isley record is to music what The Godfather is to film. You've seen it a million times, you know every word by heart and, even if you don't catch it from the beginning, you're captivated until the end.
The last two active members of the the Isley Brothers are Ron and Ernie, but their career has truly been a family affair, with many an Isley helping to build the group's legacy, including Rudolph, and late brothers Vernon, O'Kelly and Marvin. They were also aided by the early encouragement of their father, a professional singer himself, and their mother, a church pianist who accompanied her sons' early performances. Oh yes, and a young Jimmy James played in their band in the '60s (you know him better today as Jimi Hendrix).
When in their presence, I get the sense that for them it has been, and will always be, about the music. In fact, Ron once told me, "We didn't really know it was going to turn into all this. We were just making music the best way we knew how."
How fitting, that at the core of the legacy, and the larger-than-life character Mr. Biggs, there's just a guy who likes to sing, and another who loves to play guitar. Should we be amazed that this perspective made the Isley Brothers' music the unofficial soundtrack to conception? That they've done it masterfully longer than most popular artists have been alive? That they really are your favorite artist's favorite artist? Their resilience, craftsmanship and ability to survive generations is not the result of commercial machination, but of the love of the music.
(A two-time GRAMMY-nominated singer/songwriter, Kem was featured on Ron Isley's 2013 single "My Favorite Thing," which is featured on Isley's album This Song Is For You.)