Saturday, April 24, 2010

April 24: The Isley Brothers, "It's Your Thing"

Artist: The Isley Brothers
Song: "It's Your Thing"
Album: It's Your Thing (single)
Year: 1969

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There are certain songs in history that have become so classic, so iconic, that many cannot remember the original artist, or even a time when that song did not exist.  Many of these songs emerged during the musical explosion that occurred as the 1960's transitioned into the 1970's, and nearly every genre found new ways to reinvent itself, yielding some of the most fantastic music in history.  While many bands were still firmly rooted in the "old school" sounds, there were a number of artists that took that sound and fused it together with the more "free" and aggressive sounds of the era.  Having already made their name as one of the finest acts to come out of Motown Records, in the late 1960's, The Isley Brothers left the label under rather negative circumstances, and it was then that they found they had a rather significant following in England.  After spending months in England, the band returned to the U.S., but they had found a new sound, and it was with this behind them that they entered the studio to record their first non-Motown songs.  With a far funkier, brighter sound that was a noticeable diversion from the Motown sound that they had become known for, this was clearly a "new" band with something to prove, and they accomplished this quite quickly.  Though their first single as a "new" band would become an anthem for the rights of countless minority groups, one can also hear the song as a "formal" statement against their former record label, and the amazing musical hook and brilliantly crafted lyric is what makes The Isley Brothers' 1969 classic, "It's Your Thing" one of the greatest songs ever recorded.

In truth, while "It's Your Thing" became the rallying cry for the women's rights movement of the alte 1960's and early 1970's, those "in the know" were quite aware of the songs' underlying theme, and the subject matter, combined with the songs' success, led Motown founder Berry Gordy to file a lawsuit against The Isley Brothers in an attempt to bring them back to Motown.  Though this legal battle would stir for nearly a two decades, a judge eventually ruled that the song was recorded after their Motown contract had lapsed, and The Isley Brothers went on to become the first former Motown act to win a Grammy when "It's Your Thing" took home the 1970 award for "Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group."  While their musical approach had no doubt changed with this song, perhaps the most significant change in The Isley Brothers is that "It's Your Thing" is the first of their songs to feature the then seventeen year-old Ernie Isley on bass guitar.  His work is clear immediately, as it is his grooving bassline that kicks the song off, playing alongside the notorious piano hook from Everett Collins.  That simple piano hook is without question one the most heavily sampled piece of music in history, most notably used by hip-hop divas, Salt N' Pepa.  The rest of the music brings the classic sound that made The Isley Brothers one of the most talented acts of the Motown era, and the arrangement by Ronald, O'Kelly, and Rudolph Isley is unquestionably one of their finest, with bright horns punctuating each measure.  Finishing off the brilliant sound is the almost ska-esque guitar work of Charles "Skip" Pitts, and the massive wall of sound that dominates the track is unforgettable and absolutely extraordinary.

With the bright, funky grooves behind him, the vocals of Ronald Isley are equally fantastic, and the soulful, funky way in which he delivers them is nothing short of amazing.  Though he never truly screams on the song, the power that emanates from his voice gives that perception, and it is this small characteristic that truly pushes the lyrics into something special.  Even with the more aggressive vocal approach, there is a wonderfully smooth quality to Ronand's voice, and the way in sets against the horns is nothing short of musical bliss.  Jumping all over the vocal spectrum, Ronald sings with a tight, funky swing, and there has truly never been another vocal track that even comes close to the unique sound he achieves on "It's Your Thing."  Along with the sensational music and top-notch vocal work, The Isley Brothers gave the world some of the most memorable lyrics in history, and the way in which they can be applied to countless situations is the key to their longevity.  It is the songs' chorus which can be interpreted most widely, as the lines, "'s your thing, do what you wanna do...I can't tell you, who to sock it to..." has become one of the most iconic refrains in music history.  Taken by many disenfranchised groups as their rallying cry, one can also clearly see the lines as a stand against the restrictions The Isley Brothers felt during their time at Motown Records.  Many infer that it was these very lines that ignited the lawsuit, and yet it is the same lines that turned the song into such a classic and make it instantly recognizable more than forty years later.

In every aspect, from the music to the lyrics, few songs in history are as instantly and widely recognizable as The Isley Brothers' 1969 classic, "It's Your Thing."  Flawlessly blending together the classic sound which they solidified in their years at Motown, with a bright spin that they developed from their touring in England, the song represents a true "rebirth" of the band, and it is the song for which they are best remembered.  The deep, yet upbeat groove makes "It's Your Thing" one of the most irresistible dance songs in history, as the second the song begins, it is impossible not to bob your head or shake your butt.  This, in essence, is the true key to a great song; one that is just as enjoyable after countless listenings, and few bands mastered the craft as perfect as The Isley Brothers on "It's Your Thing."  Though Charles "Skip" Pitts is perhaps best known for his playing on Isaac Hayes' "Shaft," his diversity in playing is highlighted here, and the saxophone from George Patterson creates an unrivaled balance in the musical presentation.  Bringing together all of these different musical elements, and then adding in the youthful aggression of Ernie Isley, "It's Your Thing" was destined for greatness, and the song is a shining example of how much adversity can lead to amazing accomplishments in artistic endeavors.  The song also serves as a turning point in music, as one can make the case that the song provides early traces of disco, and it was this later form that grew from the roots of the funk-soul fusion.  A truly perfect song in every aspect, one simply cannot picture a world in which The Isley Brothers' monumental 1969 song, "It's Your Thing" did not exist.

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