For R&B's Ron Isley, Music Is 'Just Like Magic'

Jul 16, 2013
Originally published on September 10, 2013 11:53 am

R&B legend Ron Isley says that he knows "right away when it's a special song, if you feel it's going to be a hit song." For more than half a century, Isley has been writing and performing some of the most iconic R&B music with the group the Isley Brothers and as a solo artist.

R&B has grown in popularity since Isley and his brothers started their careers back in the '50s with the song "Shout." But even though the sound of R&B has changed, he and his brothers have been able to stay ahead of the curve with hit songs like "Between the Sheets" and "Contagious." For his new solo album, This Song Is for You, Isley continues his quest to deliver a progressive sound that his fans have enjoyed over the years.

Isley recently spoke with Tell Me More host Michel Martin about his music and the ups and downs he endured through his career.


Interview Highlights

On when it's a hit song

"Well, if I am doing a love song like 'Summer Breeze' or something like that ... I'll hear it one time and I'll know. Or a song like 'Hello It's Me,' and I heard that song and said I want to do that song but I wanted to say 'Hello- Hello.' 'Hello' over and over and over."

On serving time over tax issues

"It wasn't no jail or anything like that. It was like a camp, and it had about a couple hundred people there maybe. And, the Day 1 when I went there I was treated like a king. ... It was depressing somewhat to me because when you can't do what you wanna do it's kind of depressing. But it's the same as being at home with them saying you're on home arrest. ... You're at home but you can't go here, you can't go there. You can't travel to Hawaii. You know things that you love doing."

On creating music that helped create new fans

"You wouldn't believe how many people have come up and said, 'I was born because of your record.' Ya know? And I am not talking about hundreds I am talking about thousands of people."

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Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In today's fast-moving world, especially in the world of music, the shelf life of many artists seems to just a few years. But every once in a while, there is a star who defies time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS SONG IS FOR YOU")

MARTIN: That is none other than Ron Isley singing "This Song is for You." It's the title track from his new album. For more than 50 years, Ron Isley been a king of R&B, first as one of the Isley brothers, and then through his solo career. And he's here with us now. We hope he'll share some thoughts and maybe some wisdom about how he's maintained that longevity in this business. Ron Isley, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

RON ISLEY: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Congratulations.

ISLEY: Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you.

MARTIN: Do you like this one?

ISLEY: Oh, yeah. I love it. I love this one.

MARTIN: What do you love about it?

ISLEY: You know, that was the title cut of the

you know, "This Song Is For You." And that's special for me, you know. The guy wrote it in California and, you know, I said, well, that's going to be one of the songs that we use in our show every time we do a show.

MARTIN: But what do you love about it? I mean, my goodness. How many songs have passed through your hands over the years? I mean, do you just know right away you're going to love it?

ISLEY: Yeah. You know right away, when it's a special song you feel it's going to be a hit song, you know - the lyrics and the music and the beat and everything was important, you know. Right away, when I played it for my wife and friends and relatives and everybody, they said, hey, that's the one.

MARTIN: How do you tell right away? How can you tell that a song is for you, because I bet that a lot of people listening to our conversation might say, that is a Ron Isely song. But how do you know?

ISLEY: Well, if I'm doing a love song like "Summer Breeze," or something like that, I'll - you know, I'll hear it one time and I'll know, or song like "Hello It's Me." And I heard that song and I said I wanted to do that song, but I wanted to sing hello, hello...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELLO IT'S ME")

ISLEY: Hello over and over and over and over. And that was special for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELLO IT'S ME")

MARTIN: Do you remember when you first realized what your sound was? Do you recall how it is that you developed your sound? When you could say to yourself, that's me.

ISLEY: Yeah, I did a song called "Lay Lady Lay."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAY LADY LAY")

ISLEY: And that was - you know, if you were talking about love songs, you know...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAY LADY LAY")

ISLEY: And we were taught as kids to be able to sing everything. Gospel, we started off singing gospel - Country and Western, popular songs, just everything. My father wanted us to learn how to sing everything.

MARTIN: Well, let's play - I'll tell you what, why don't I play just a couple of your earlier hits or just to give people a sense of the range that we're talking about.

ISLEY: OK.

MARTIN: Here it is. I think I would be cheating your fans if I didn't start by playing just a few of your notable hits. Here they are.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONTAGIOUS")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BETWEEN THE SHEETS ")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BETWEEN THE SHEETS ")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOUT")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOUT")

MARTIN: And for the few people who don't know, that of course, was "Shout" from 1959. I think there might be a law that you cannot have a wedding reception without "Shout" in it. I think it's somewhere in there.

ISLEY: I think that's true.

MARTIN: Right, and then there's "Between The Sheets" from '83, and then "Contagious" from 2001. So just like you were talking about, just - all these different styles some, sort of, gospel infused and then, you know, a lot of people would think of as the classic R&B style, are the lyrics very important to you?

ISLEY: Very important.

MARTIN: Like what kind of lyrics? How so?

ISLEY: You know, my son is 6 years old, and he has the same feeling that I had. You know, he can hear a song and he said, take that off, that makes me want to cry. It makes me think about my grandmother. And I look at him and I said, you know, that's a pretty song, you know. Well, and he says, no, it just makes me feel real sad. It makes me miss my grandmother. And it's just music, it's no lyrics. That's the way I was.

MARTIN: What is it? Is it just - you just love, you know, the melodies or do you love telling stories? What is it about it that you like so much?

ISLEY: It's both of them, the melodies and I love telling stories. It's like meeting someone, you know, it's somewhat hard to describe, you know. The melodies and the words and the whole thing - it's like magic with me.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about the new album. The first song I want to talk about is "Dinner and a Movie," and here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DINNER AND A MOVIE")

MARTIN: Subtle. Very subtle.

ISLEY: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: You know, it's also, though, it's the first single out from the album and it's also been very much requested in just in the time that it's been out. And I wonder what you think it is that people are responding to.

ISLEY: To the story, to the feeling that I'm bringing to the story, and to the words. You know, that's what I responded to, you know.

MARTIN: But what we keep hearing, though, is that kind of courtliness is missing from a lot of dating relationships these days. I mean, a lot of people say dating, what's that, you know. It's either - it's like meeting on social media on Match.com or whatever, or people are hooking up, or something like that. And that this kind of slow, getting to know a person, being very deliberative, and you know, gentlemanly about it is somewhat missing. Do you hear that, too?

ISLEY: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.

MARTIN: Do you think this song might encourage people to take it a little slower, you think?

ISLEY: I definitely think that. I definitely think that, you know, "Dinner and a Movie" is, you know, just - the main thing you should be thinking about when you meet an attractive woman or someone you want to be with or someone you want to get to know. You know, why not take her to dinner and a movie?

MARTIN: How do you decide who you want to work with? You have a number of collaborations on this album that I noticed. How do you decide?

ISLEY: You know, I met Kem maybe a couple years and a half ago, you know, and right away we start talking about the songs he had did and the songs that I had did. And I said, you know, one day I want you to write one of your songs and it's got to be one of your best songs for me. And we laughed about it. And so a year and a half later - and we talked about it on the phone, I would call him every month or he would call me, and he finally said, you know, I came up with this song, you know.

MARTIN: All right, well, let's play it. This is a song that features singer-songwriter Kem and he's also been a guest on the program. It's called "My Favorite Thing." Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY FAVORITE THING")

MARTIN: Sweet potato pie, huh?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Was that your line or his line?

ISLEY: That was both of us. You know, sweet potato pie. You know. Everybody loves that.

MARTIN: Let's hope. If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with one of the kings of R&B, Ron Isley. We're talking about his new album "This Song is for You," and whatever else is on his mind. On a serious note, though, you've had such a long career, but you've had a number of, you know, you've had some obviously ups - big ups, but you've had some really tough moments. I mean, losing, you know, first one brother and another brother. One brother early on, very early in your career and then losing another brother just after a new - one of your albums had come out.

And then, you know, a lot of financial problems that you've had that have been public. How do you think that you've kept it going, you know, all these years? I think that would be enough to discourage a lot of people.

ISLEY: My faith in God, you know, first, you know. My brothers had a bad case of diabetes and so he's in heaven now and we are happy that he's there and, you know, my financial troubles - I really don't feel that I've had any financial troubles. That has never been my problem.

MARTIN: Was it management difficulties?

ISLEY: No.

MARTIN: What was it? I mean.

ISLEY: You know, I had a case against the government - the government had a case against me. And I went in and they wanted me to say I was guilty and I said, hey I'm not going to plead guilty 'cause I don't feel that I am. But they won their case.

MARTIN: Did you feel you got bad advice or you just - what? You just think you were misunderstood?

ISLEY: I got bad advice as far as dealing with the government. You know, but it wasn't no jail or anything like that. It was like a camp and had about a couple hundred people there maybe, and the day one, when I went there I was treated like a king.

MARTIN: How long were you there? Three months?

ISLEY: I was there for two years.

MARTIN: Two years? Well, that could not have been fun.

ISLEY: It was depressing somewhat, to me, because, you know, when you can't do what you want to do it's kind of depressing. But it's the same as being at home with them saying you're on home arrest. You're at home but you - you know, you can't go here, you can't go there, you know, you can't travel to Hawaii and, you know, things that you love doing.

MARTIN: Do you feel, though, there's something that you could pass on to other artists to avoid that experience? I mean, we hear so much these days about - especially around financial issues, tax issues and so forth.

I mean, we've been hearing a lot about, you know, different artists and also athletes sometimes getting into difficulties. We were hearing recently about - well, there's another major star who's apparently having some tax difficulties. I don't want to embarrass her by calling her name, but you know what I'm talking about. Is there something you think you could pass on by way of wisdom that might avoid the situation for other artists?

ISLEY: Yeah, you know, have someone handling your business that's really in your corner and, you know, like those stars and you're making so much money, you can think somebody's in your corner and doing something right for you and they're not, they're doing something wrong.

MARTIN: So how are you doing now?

ISLEY: I'm doing just as fine as I was doing before. You know, didn't nothing happen to me. You know, my brothers and our family is a close, close family and we have, you know, what we have, you know, which is wonderful.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations on the new album and what you've been able to accomplish.

ISLEY: Thank you, baby.

MARTIN: What do you want people to take from this album?

ISLEY: Well, there's the songs that - are like "It's Your Thing," it had its own message - it's your thing, do what you want to do. I can't tell you who to sock it to, you know. That was a message and they took that the way they wanted to take it. "In Between the Sheets," it was another message, you know. Every...

MARTIN: Yeah, I think we get that message, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I think that one's pretty clear.

ISLEY: ...And so a lot of people, you know, and icons or - you wouldn't believe how many people have came up and said, I was born because of your record. You know. And I'm not talking about hundreds of people, I'm talking about thousands of people.

MARTIN: Your own little population boom.

ISLEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: What song do you want to go out on? What should we play as we say goodbye?

ISLEY: Well, "Bedtime."

MARTIN: "Bedtime." OK.

ISLEY: Since we're talking about this...

MARTIN: Since we're talking about that subject, yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEDTIME")

MARTIN: Ron Isley is a singer and songwriter. His new album "This Song is for You" is out today. He joined us from our studios in New York City. Ron Isley, thank you for speaking with us.

ISLEY: Michel, I love you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEDTIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.