Ronald Isley’s cool factor doesn’t have an expiration date. At 70 years-young, his immaculate voice conjures memories for those who came of age during the soul era and his sleek Mr. Biggs persona has allowed him to continue creating baby making music for the hip-hop generation.
Solidified through theatrical-like collaborations with R. Kelly, Isley also remains connected with the youth through hip-hop and R&B producers who have made him one of the most sampled artists of all time. But years before any hip-hop enthusiast took notice, Isley, along with brothers O’Kelly, Rudolph, Marvin and Ernie, assembled an illustrious career that earned him a place in the prestigious Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Since breaking into the music industry in 1959 with the single “Twist and Shout,” Isley has released a hit record in every decade. However, Isley also endured several major setbacks over the years that caused him to re-evaluate his personal and professional life.
In 2006, Isley was sentenced to 37 months in prison for tax evasion and he was released one month before his younger brother, Marvin, died due to complications from diabetes. Shortly after his brother’s death, Isley returned to music with the release of his solo album, Mr. I. But due to changes at his record label, Island Def Jam, and creative differences with label head L.A. Reid, the album failed to generate a significant buzz with fans.
So Isley decided to return to the basics of making great love songs. He has reconnected with his brother, Ernie, for a new album that will likely feature R. Kelly, Kanye West and Tricky Stewart. Isley’s timeless efforts make him an anomaly in the ever-changing music industry that breeds on the vitality of youth. Artists of this generation would be wise to study how Isley evolved musically without allowing personal demons to fester and destroy his career.
Isley reveals the secret to longevity in the music industry, adapting to change, and the genius of Mr. Biggs. Take notes. Class is in session.
You will be performing at Chastain Park in Atlanta along with El DeBarge on Saturday, Sept. 3. What can fans expect from the show?
I try to do it all. I’ve had so many successful albums that sometimes it’s easy to leave some things out. But I will try to do songs from back in the day, and the new songs that are out right now.
There aren’t many artists who have a catalog that is as extensive as yours. Considering the artists who are out today, which ones do you believe could achieve longevity?
Some of the musicians are still growing. Artists like Maxwell, Alicia Keys, Chris Brown, and Trey Songz. A lot of them are still finding their place. They are all friends of ours, but it will take time to prove if they can have longevity. You have to do whatever it takes. It’s a certain point you have to prove to make the people say, “wow.” That gives you energy to prove yourself.
There are artists who dream of being in the music industry. For the artists who are just starting out, what should they expect?
When you’re young, you never know what’s ahead of you. You can sometimes miss out on important things if you don’t pay attention to what’s going on around you. But it’s going to take a little bit of time to see how those new artists are able to adapt to the changes that will occur in their personal and professional lives.
When it comes to hip-hop, a lot of the producers have sampled your voice and music. How do you feel about being one of the most sampled artists in hip-hop history?
Being one of the most sampled artists in hip-hop is a compliment. It feels great that they have noticed the music that we have done after all these years. And that their audience has gravitated towards our music. All of that feels good.
Your work with R. Kelly also allowed a new generation of music lovers to become familiar with your music. Why were you guys able to connect musically?
Mr. Biggs was the first of its kind in music. It was like we were doing a stage play with the songs “Down Low,” and “Contagious.” It was very successful. It’s hard to duplicate that kind of music with any other artist. But it’s something that R. Kelly and I can duplicate at any moment. We’re in the studio now working on my next album.
R. Kelly joined you on stage when you received a tribute and the Legend Award at the Soul Train Awards. How did it feel to be honored?
Sometimes you don’t know what your going to do during those moments. It was such a long night. You see so many great artists at one time. I didn’t know what I would do or say. Those nights, you never know what will happen. But it turned out well.
I’m sure you are always thinking of ways to make a new hit song or album. But do you ever sit back and reflect on the great things that you have accomplished?
I think about it all the time. We know that our gifts are all from God. Before we became famous, we prayed for all of the success that we have had. It’s been a prayer that has been answered for us. This has all been a tremendous feeling.