The Isley Brothers’ first studio album, in 1959, made listeners want to Shout! with its soulful blend of doo-wop, R&B, jazz, rock and roll, and gospel. Ronald, O’Kelly and Rudolph Isley followed up that RCA Victor LP with tenures at labels including Wand, United Artists, Atlantic, and most notably, Motown, before setting up shop at their own T-Neck label. The Isleys’ line-up would expand and alter over the years, but their marriage of soul, funk and rock would keep them at the forefront of popular music for decades. In 1985, following the revolutionary T-Neck years (recently anthologized on a must-have box set from Legacy Recordings), The Isleys returned to their original trio configuration for the first time since 1973, and signed with Warner Bros. Records. The Isley Brothers’ first two albums under the Warner imprimatur have recently been reissued in remastered and expanded form by Cherry Red’s Robinsongs label. Masterpiece/Smooth Sailin’ spreads nine bonus tracks over two CDs.
In 1985, younger brothers Ernie and Marvin Isley made the decision to stick with O’Kelly’s brother-in-law, Chris Jasper, to form Isley-Jasper-Isley. The splinter group remained with T-Neck distributor CBS, leaving the original Isleys to pursue their own new directions. For Ron, O’Kelly and Rudolph, that meant embracing the synth-heavy sounds of the eighties on their Warner Bros. debut Masterpiece. In addition to serving as producers, the Isleys also arranged the rhythm tracks, ceding the orchestral embellishments to veteran arranger Gene Page. Top-of-the-line musicians including Robbie Buchanan (keyboards), Randy Kerber (piano), Paul Jackson, Jr., David T. Walker and Don Huff (guitars), Freddie Washington (bass), John Robinson (drums), Paulinho da Costa (percussion), Plas Johnson, Chuck Findley, Jerry Hey and Ernie Watts (horns) were all enlisted.
The brothers wrote the album opener “May I” but the rest of the album consisted of songs by outside writers. Skip Scarborough’s “My Best Was Good Enough” was previously recorded by Patti LaBelle. Phil Collins introduced his “If Leaving Me is Easy” on his 1981 album Face Value. Even further off the beaten path was Billy Sherrill, Norro Wilson and Rory Bourke’s “The Most Beautiful Girl,” a crossover smash for country superstar Charlie Rich. Stevie Wonder and Carmine Coppola’s “Stay Gold” was plucked from the soundtrack of The Outsiders. Despite the sleek production, top-drawer musicianship and eclectic range of songs, Masterpiece only reached No. 19 on the Billboard R&B survey and No. 140 on the Billboard 200. Robinsongs expands the album with both the single edit and instrumental version of the contemporary, drum machine-driven funk workout “Colder Are My Nights.”
Sadly, O’Kelly Isley, who had been fighting a valiant battle with cancer, succumbed to a heart attack on March 31, 1986. Ronald and Rudolph pressed forward despite the loss of their brother and dedicated 1987’s follow-up album Smooth Sailin’ in his memory. Ron’s romantic partner (and future wife from 1993-2002) Angela Winbush came on board as a co-producer and writer or co-writer of all but one of the album’s eight tracks. Winbush’s productions were in a sleek, dynamic and modern groove, emphasizing Ron’s powerful, sensual leads on both Quiet Storm ballads and uptempo dancers. She played keyboards and synthesizers on the LP, joining Paulinho da Costa as well as Tony Maiden (guitar), Rayford Griffin and Andre Fischer (drums), Nathan East (bass), Greg Phillinganes (bass synthesizer), Jeff Lorber (synth) and others.
The nominal title track, “Smooth Sailin'” tonight was penned by Winbush and featured Ron at his most resonantly romantic. The Isleys were rewarded with a No. 3 R&B hit. “Come My Way,” introduced by Winbush and her onetime musical partner Rene Moore (as Rene and Angela), was covered on Smooth Sailin’ and resulted in a No. 71 R&B placement. The third single from the album, Raymond Reeder’s ballad “I Wish,” charted similarly at No. 74. Winbush’s infusion of sleek, keyboard-driven tracks resulted in a popular success. Smooth Sailin’ reached No. 3 on the R&B chart and No. 64 on the Billboard 200. Robinsongs’ expanded edition boasts seven of the various single remixes and edits released alongside the original album.
The Isleys remained at Warner Bros. for another two LPs before moving to sister label Elektra for a 1993 live set. Subsequent releases followed for labels including Island, Dreamworks and Def Soul. Members came in and out of the band; by the time of 2001’s double-platinum comeback Eternal, the line-up was just Ron and Ernie. Masterpiece/Smooth Sailin’ features remastering by Alan Wilson and liner notes by Charles Waring. This two-for-one reissue captures the rebirth of The Isley Brothers as they adjusted to the changing sounds of pop and R&B. It’s available now at the links below!
CD 1: Masterpiece (Warner Bros. 25347, 1985)
- May I?
- My Best Was Good Enough
- If Leaving Me Is Easy
- You Never Know When You’re Gonna Fall in Love
- Stay Gold
- Colder Are My Nights
- Come to Me
- Release Your Love
- The Most Beautiful Girl
- Colder Are My Nights (Edit) (Warner Bros. UK W 8860T, 1986)
- Colder Are My Nights (Instrumental) (Warner Bros. UK W 8860T, 1986)
CD 2: Smooth Sailin’ (Warner Bros. 25586, 1987)
- Everything is Alright
- Dish It Out
- It Takes a Good Woman
- Send a Message
- Smooth Sailin’ Tonight
- Somebody I Used to Know
- Come My Way
- I Wish
- Smooth Sailin’ Tonight (7-Inch Single Version) (Warner Bros. 7-28385, 1987)
- It Takes a Good Woman (Remix/Edit) (Warner Bros. 7-27954, 1987)
- Come My Way (7-Inch Single Version) (Warner Bros. 7-28241, 1987)
- I Wish (7-Inch Single Version) (Warner Bros. 7-28129, 1987)
- Smooth Sailin’ Tonight (Instrumental) (Warner Bros. 7-28385, 1987)
- Come My Way (Instrumental) (Warner Bros. 7-28241, 1987)
- It Takes a Good Woman (Dub Mix) (Warner Bros. 0-20884, 1987)