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Ernie Isley: Nobody invites you to the big music biz party

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 2, 2013 - The St. Louis area has produced dozens of musicians who have grown up here and served their musical apprenticeships, then moved on to work in other cities where they gained international fame.

Jazz legends such as Miles Davis, Clark Terry, Lester Bowie, Oliver Lake, David Sanborn and others all paid their dues here, then left. The same happened with rock and pop stars such as Michael McDonald and Jeff Tweedy.

But believe it or not, there have been major music stars who weren’t born here who now make St. Louis their home — among them, Ernie and Ronald Isley of the famed Isley Brothers.

The Isley Brothers started out as a gospel vocal quartet in their hometown of Cincinnati in 1954, and first hit the big time in the early 1960s, when brothers Ronald, O’Kelly Jr. and Rudolph recorded "Twist and Shout."

After relocating to New Jersey and starting their own T-Neck label, the Isleys recorded hits such as "It’s Your Thing" later in the ’60s. Then, they reinvented the band with the addition of younger brothers Ernie and Marvin on guitar and bass, and cousin Jasper on keyboards in 1970. The resulting band blended R&B with rock influences — especially Ernie’s guitar playing, which was influenced strongly by Jimi Hendrix, who played in the Isley’s band for a time in the ’60s.

After the death of O’Kelly Isley Jr. in 1986, and the retirements of Rudolph to join the ministry in 1989 and Marvin in 1996 due to complications from diabetes, the Isleys are now recording and performing as a duo. Ronald and Ernie are backed by a touring band. Both Isleys now live in metro St. Louis, and have been here since the late 1990s.

Recently, I caught up with Ernie on the phone at his West County home, in between a festival performance in the Las Vegas area, an upcoming date in the Washington, D.C., area and plans for an upcoming two-month tour.

"My brother, Ronald has got his 72nd birthday coming up on May 21, and we’re still going strong,” states Isley. “But no matter how much travelling we might be doing to play, I still love to get out and do things here in St. Louis, if it’s not a conflict in my schedule."

One such area event featuring Ernie Isley is set for 7 p.m., Thursday at the Mozingo Music location in O’Fallon, Mo. (4689 Highway K, 63368). It’s billed as "Ernie Isley: An Evening of Music and Discussion," and according to him, that’s exactly what it will be.

"I’ve done similar events over the years at other music stores in the area like Fazio’s," Isley said, "and it’s been a very enjoyable experience. Essentially, I talk about my life in music over the years, and I play some guitar to help illustrate what I’ve learned along the way in terms of my own music."

As someone who has attended one of those Ernie Isley "Evenings" a few years ago, I can attest that it’s a fascinating, entertaining and highly educational look into the musical evolution of one of the more underrated guitar players in popular music.

Ernie Isley is a world-class guitarist as well as a gifted songwriter, and he has the ability to communicate and connect with an audience on an intimate level at these events.

And you don’t have to be an aspiring guitarist to enjoy Isley’s comments — or his guitar virtuosity. For example, Isley’s stories about Jimi Hendrix hanging out with him at the Isley household while Ernie was still in his teens, and having Jimi show him guitar licks is worth the price of admission by itself.

"This is something that I just really enjoy doing," Isley says. "I’ve done it here a few times, and I’ve also been to Berklee School of Music in Boston — the last time in 2010 — to talk to students there. And especially with young musicians who are thinking of a career in music. It’s important to communicate with them about the business side of things in addition to the music itself.”

In the course of our phone conversation, Isley explains some of the basic ideas about the music business he tries to communicate during his talks:

"I tell people trying to get into the entertainment business that it’s a huge party that absolutely no one receives an invitation to attend. Nobody invited Chuck Berry. No one invited Elvis Presley … or the Beatles. They all had to figure out ways to crash the party. It’s a business that calls for persistence, a certain amount of courage and a fire in the belly to try and make it all possible — in addition to talent to start with.

"But once you do get in, that’s just the beginning," he said. "Then, after you’ve had some initial success, you have figure out almost immediately what you’re going to do next — or else you’re going to have to leave the party. That’s the really hard part!"

According to Isley, one of the easier parts of making a living as a musician for both him and his brother Ronald has been the decision to relocate in St. Louis.

"My brother Ronald moved here first because his wife had her roots here," Isley says. "And when I came to visit him, I decided to move here too. We grew up in Cincinnati, so we have Midwestern roots. And we were living in Los Angeles at the time, so a move to St. Louis was like coming back home to a real down-to-earth feeling.

"Besides, I moved in 1999, right when the Rams were getting ready to win the Super Bowl. And since they had moved here from LA, I had some real braggin’ rights when I went back there for visits!"

Isley is also a big fan of the St. Louis-area music scene.

"There is just a great musical environment here," he says. "And there are so many talented musicians here as well. It’s just a great environment to live in and be part of. I really enjoy St. Louis."

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