- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 9, 2001

NEW YORK — The fact that the Isley Brothers' latest disc, "Eternal," is nearing the platinum mark is impressive by most standards.

It becomes nothing short of remarkable, though, when one considers that the Isleys posted their first hit 42 years ago and their more senior member has more in common with the AARP generation than the teen-obsessed pop world.

"We know that we started in '59 and had the record 'Shout,' and 'Shout' is still on television at every baseball, basketball, football [game]," says lead singer Ronald Isley, who's not shy about hyping the group's achievements, including induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

"If you count from '59 till now no group since the microphone has been invented has done that, black or white, single, group or duet, whatever," he brags. "No one in the history of the business has done that. So that's a gift to us, to be able to say, 'Hey we were there at the end of '59, and we're No. 1 today.'"

Though they're not exactly giving 'N Sync a run for its money, the success of "Eternal" is still formidable: Figures show it has sold about 800,000 copies, boosted by the success of the single "Contagious." That hit gives the Isley Brothers the distinction of being the act with the longest chart span on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart at 42 years, according to the magazine.

The brothers began a two-month nationwide tour Oct. 5.

"This is turning out to be our year," says 49-year-old Ernie Isley.

"We're at the top of our game our competition is Lil' Bow Wow," remarks Ronald, who turned 60 earlier this year.

Indeed, the R&B group finds itself competing with the likes of Jay-Z, Mary J. Blige and Alicia Keys some of whom weren't even born when the Isleys posted some of their biggest hits, such as "Twist and Shout."

Not that the hip-hop generation isn't familiar with the Isleys' catalog of hits; their songs have been sampled heavily by Notorious B.I.G. and Ice Cube, among others. Among the hits they have charted along the way: "It's Your Thing," "Fight the Power," "Between the Sheets" and "Choosey Lover."

"I think Ernie and Ronnie, especially Ronnie, are in touch with what's still contemporary and what's hot," says Gail Mitchell, R&B editor for Billboard magazine. "They always kept a pulse into the four decades."

Ronald is the older of the two, the leader and certainly the more talkative Ernie preferred to let his brother do most of the talking during a recent interview.

When the Isleys formed, though, Ronald was a junior member. The group gained fame in the late '50s as a trio featuring brothers Rudolph and O'Kelly. (Ernie didn't officially join until a decade later; he left in the 1980s but returned to the fold).

At one point, there were five Isley brothers in the group, including Marvin. O'Kelly died at 48, and Rudolph, 62, and Marvin, 48, have retired. (Rudolph has become a minister.)

• • •

The brothers, who spent much of their youth in their native Cincinnati, were encouraged to perform by their parents, who sought to mold them in the form of another singing family.

"They wanted us to have a career that would last that long, and of course, the Mills Brothers were known for singing everything country and Western, gospel, this, that and the other, and they taught us that way," Ronald says of his parents.

Over the years, the Isleys developed a smooth, seductive sound that became their trademark, featuring Ronald's plaintive wail and Ernie's searing guitar licks over slow grooves.

(The Isleys are protective of that sound several years ago, they took Michael Bolton to court, alleging he stole the 1966 Isley Brothers tune "Love Is a Wonderful Thing" for his 1991 hit of the same name.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court let a $5.4 million judgment against the singer stand.)

Even veterans need to change for the times, however. On "Eternal," the brothers enlisted the help of Grammy nominee Jill Scott, singer-songwriter Raphael Saadiq, producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and frequent collaborator R. Kelly to help craft a hip sound that would appeal to today's youth without alienating their older audiences.

"They're very open to listening to new music, and I think they always have been," says Mr. Saadiq, perhaps best known for his days with the group Tony Toni Tone. "[But] I didn't try and reinvent the wheel. It is the Isley Brothers. It has a little twist on it but not that much."

Perhaps even more than their updated sound, their popularity was boosted by "Mr. Biggs" an old-school gangsta character created for Ronald in a video collaboration with R. Kelly.

Ronald Isley has become so identified with the character, featured in songs and in the group's latest video, "Contagious," that it has become his alter ego. In fact, the cover of the latest disc reads, "The Isley Brothers featuring Ronald Isley, aka Mr. Biggs."

"If I walk through the airport with you, you're going to see kids come up like, 'Hey, Mr. Biggs' with their mommas, and their mommas are like, 'That's Ron Isley.' That's bridging that gap," he says.

The Isleys even have incorporated some of the hip-hop generation's attitude on their latest disc.

"I try to put myself into the character of the song and what they're talking about in the street, and how they would say it," Ronald says.

He also says they were careful not to stray far from the sound and image people have come to know for decades. Ronald recalls one album in which they tried to do something different and got a negative response.

"We got rapped real bad," he says. "So we knew not to ever do that again. So we just do ourselves. And we've been able to maintain that newness of not losing our sound, and just getting better at what we do."

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