Happy 45th Anniversary to The Isley Brothers’ Givin’ It Back, originally released September 25, 1971.
Nothing informs great art like that thing called experience.
The Isley Brothers—Ronald, Rudolph, and O’Kelly—were already seasoned veterans at the dawn of the seventies. The Cincinnati, OH natives had a proverbial Ph.D. in the rough and tumble discipline of paying dues: after entering the charts in 1959 with the force of nature that was “Shout,” the siblings released a number of sides but couldn’t secure a consistent batch of hits. Though their raucous stage show thrilled audiences across the country, only “Twist and Shout” and “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)” managed to crack the pop Top 20 in those early years. The latter, a Tamla 45 that should have signaled an upswing in their fortunes, wasn’t enough to lift them from the infamous second-tier standing that hobbled many Motown artists operating outside the realm of its marquee attractions. Not surprisingly, the Isleys soon chose to bounce.
Once they were free of that burdensome by-the-numbers assembly line approach, they moved into a bold, rock-inspired direction that would lay the foundation for the next several years. Under the T-Neck banner, LPs like 1969’s The Brothers: Isley and It’s Our Thing saw the group stretching out as writers and producers, eventually bringing in kid brothers Ernie (guitar) and Marvin (bass) and brother-in-law Chris Jasper (keyboards)—who would soon join them on the front line to form the iconic 3+3 lineup—to expand their sound.
It was all a sign of the greatness to come, and when the sexy “It’s Your Thing” landed at radio amid the simmering, emotionally charged ethos of 1969, there was no doubt the Isleys had reached higher ground. Funky and to the point—I can’t tell you who to sock it to!—the song topped the R&B chart and parked at number two pop, the trio’s best showing yet. It would go on to win the Grammy for Best R&B Performance by A Duo or Group with Vocal, a victory that placed the Isleys in the company of several mishandled Motown signees—including the Spinners, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and the Four Tops—who would make Berry Gordy and company look silly by finding greener creative and commercial pastures at other labels.
Coming off of a run that played such a seminal role in the mainstreaming of the nascent art form the world would come to know as funk, the 180-degree turn the group took with 1971’s Givin’ It Back was probably a bit jarring for some longtime fans. Right down to the cover, it was an exercise in the sublime. Ronald, Rudolph, and O’Kelly, known for matching suits that gave way to ornate, flowing costumes, were immortalized in a simple sepia-toned portrait. Afros strong, guitars poised for new energies, facial expressions comfortable and relaxed. It was unmistakably black and entirely beautiful, much like the music itself.
When the album was reviewed in Billboard a week before its September 25, 1971 release, it earned raves alongside a mélange of pop and soul LPs, including Untouched, the underrated sophomore LP from The Emotions, the pre-disco Bee Gees’ Trafalgar, and the soundtrack for the concert film Soul to Soul. Noting the chameleonic trio’s shift toward pop, the magazine touted the brothers’ ability to embrace the heart of material while sprinkling in their own flavor. “The Isleys barely change the script, yet they inject an ecstasy of involvement that can only be described as ‘soul,’” they wrote.
And what a script it was. The album featured selections written by the likes of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Stephen Stills, James Taylor, Bill Withers, and Neil Young, which yielded a collection that embodied the anger of protest and the confessional hues of romantic innocence. Though it featured no original Isley compositions, Givin’ It Back was 100 percent an Isley affair.
The seven self-produced cuts that comprised the original LP were stripped down without coming off as hollow, with the Isleys always-impeccable blends wrapped around a small instrumental nucleus. Full advantage of the blossoming album format was taken here, as nothing on the first side clocks in under five minutes. The results were stirring. “Ohio/Machine Gun,” a medley of the Young and Hendrix compositions, takes a young Ronald from a whisper to a scream, capturing the angst and sadness of the Kent State tragedy and the Vietnam War to chilling effect. Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” a watershed moment in early seventies pop, receives a part gospel, part psychedelic soul treatment here, complete with a 90-second echo-infused introduction. As the brothers glide into Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay,” it’s hard to not get lost in its swirl of lovely acoustic guitars, rim shot, and sweet, understated vocals. The single edit of the song became a modest chart hit, but the freeform essence of the 10-minute album version is a revelation.
“Spill the Wine,” originally done by Eric Burdon and War, opens side two with an intricate, Latin-tinged groove faithful to the original that became another hit single. The brothers rocked out on Stills’ “Nothing to Do But Today” and Bill Withers’ still-relevant “Cold Bologna,” but it was the vibrant, “Love the One You’re With,” which featured congas from jazz legend Buck Clarke, that became the album’s defining moment. The Isleys took Stills’ infinitely hooky, soulful creation and minted a smash that reached number three R&B and number 18 pop. It—like the album as a whole—remains a great example of radio-friendly black pop, and a measuring stick for R&B singers who seek to bend and shape categories and move into new territory.
While Givin’ It Back charted at a solid number 13 on the R&B chart, it stalled at number 79 pop, a soft figure for an album that housed three hit singles. It hardly mattered, as the Isleys soldiered on in a variety of incarnations, amassing a pile of gold and platinum plaques along a streak that lasted into the millennium. From the Quiet Storm splendor of gems like “Groove With You” and “Between the Sheets” to “It’s a Disco Night (Rock Don’t Stop)” and the Bad Boy-era jam “Floatin’ on Your Love,” the Isley influence never lost its luster. Even as recently as 2003, Ronald pulled another fast one on fans, recording a thrilling album of favorites with Burt Bacharach aptly titled Here I Am. This bloodline does it all, and does it well.
During an appearance on Soul Train to promote Brother, Brother, Brother, the 1972 follow-up to Givin’ It Back, a member of the Soul Train Gang asked the group how working as brothers impacted their dynamic. “Due to the way we were raised, we find it more convenient being brothers,” O’Kelly told the kids. “Basically, the way we made it was the unity that our mother and dad taught us, and it really kept us together. That’s what we all need, you know? We all gotta be together.”
That, in the final analysis, is what makes Givin’ It Back so remarkable. An R&B act refashioning pop hits or standards was hardly a novel concept in 1971, but this particular album was a prime example of bringing together all that’s right with two identifiable genres and creating an intimate, conversational experience. It could be argued that only Energy, the 1978 rock-soul covers outing from the equally versatile Pointer Sisters, comes close to matching its grace and lasting appeal.
Drawing from their own history and the burgeoning singer-songwriter movement, the Isley Brothers created a statement record that proved context does not need to water down musical integrity or messaging. Such honesty remains a virtue even today, as the world is as mercurial, if not more so, than it was during the years these songs were written and introduced to restless, wandering youth.
And 45 years later, the Isley Brothers are still giving back the gift of togetherness.