It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
Though it's rarely mentioned in the same breath as Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, Curtis Mayfield's Superfly, Funkadelic's Maggot Brain, Sly and the Family Stone's There's A Riot Goin' On, or anything Stevie Wonder waxed in the first half of the decade, the Isley Brothers' 3 + 3 deserves to be included in any discussion of great soul and funk albums of the 1970s.
Like all the aforementioned albums, 1973's 3 + 3 held a mirror up to the turbulent times that birthed it. But the reflection it captured had less to do with the difficulties of urban life than the challenges facing adult Americans as they grappled with the changes wrought by the social upheavals of the 1960s. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the U.S. divorce rate went up nearly 40 percent between 1970-75; taken in that context, it's not surprising that four of 3 + 3's five original songs — the exception being the album's summery leadoff hit, "That Lady (Part 1&2)" — take a distinctly adult look at romantic relationships, most notably "You Walk Your Way," which sweetly lays out the breakup of a long-term love thang with a clarity that's as devastating as it is even-handed.
And yet, 3 + 3 isn't a "divorce rock" bummer, but rather an album that's positively radiant with the sheer joy of existence, and which is sung and played by an outfit that has been audibly revitalized. Already into their 30s by the time of the album's recording, O'Kelly, Rudolph and Ronald Isley weren't just re-assessing their romantic relationships — they were also re-positioning themselves in the black music firmament. Since the early 1950s, the Isleys had evolved stylistically through gospel, doo-wop, R&B, soul and funk, scoring some big hits along the way, like "Twist and Shout," "This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You)," and "It's Your Thing." The 1970s were destined to be their biggest decade yet; but in order to fulfill that destiny, the Isleys needed an infusion of new blood.
Younger brothers Ernie (guitar) and Marvin (bass) and brother-in-law Chris Jasper (keyboards) had all made individual contributions to Isley Brothers recordings dating back to 1969; but as the album's title implied, 3 + 3 marked their official introduction as full-fledged group members, and gave them a greater presence in the mix. Ernie's Hendrix-influenced leads, Marvin's effortlessly funky bass lines, and Jasper's arresting clavinet and synthesizer flourishes not only meshed beautifully with Ronald's soaring lead vocals and O'Kelly and Rudolph's smooth harmonies and modernized the group's sound, but their considerable chops also allowed the group to weave more contemporary influences from the pop and rock side of the dial into their music. The Isleys cover four songs by white artists on 3 + 3; and in every case — the funkified fuel injection of Doobie Brothers' "Listen to the Music," the transformation of Jonathan Edwards's "Sunshine (Go Away Today)" into a statement of black pride and independence, the bare-chested slow-jamification of James Taylor's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight," and the blasting of Seals & Crofts' "Summer Breeze" into the outer reaches of the cosmos — the results are superior to the original.
An album where soul, funk, folk rock and hard rock collide, where "Yacht Rock" sails hand in hand with state-of-the-art synth experiments, 3 + 3 brought the Isleys some well-deserved crossover success. But while it set the group up for a steady run of hit singles and albums that would last well into the 1980s, they would never quite match its 39 minutes of soulful perfection.
The Influential Former Roommate
A Isley Brothers sideman for much of 1964 — he can be heard playing on their two-part single "Testify" — Hendrix lived for a spell at the Isley family compound, sharing a room with a young Ernie Isley. Hendrix's influence upon Ernie's guitar playing was profound, and he and his brothers paid tribute to Ernie's late mentor on their 1972 concert recording The Isleys Live, which featured a searing rendition of Band of Gypsys' "Machine Gun." The last Hendrix album released while during his lifetime, Band of Gypsys saw the guitarist incorporating his six-string heroics into funkier, more soul-oriented material than he'd previously released, with the help of bassist Billy Cox and drummer/vocalist Buddy Miles. Though Hendrix and Miles parted ways before they could launch any further joint expeditions into the funk, Ernie's took the lessons of Band of Gypsys and ran with them, as evidenced by his swirling, effects-drenched leads on "That Lady," "What It Comes Down To" "Sunshine (Go Away Today)" and "Summer Breeze."
The Divorce-Rock Forebear
The ultimate "divorce rock" album, King's introspective and painfully honest Tapestry struck a chord with millions listeners, proving that there was a sizeable audience out there for a pop album with truly adult themes. Big fans of King's work, the Isleys covered Tapestry's "It's Too Late" (as well as her "Brother, Brother" and "Sweet Seasons") on their excellent 1972 album Brother, Brother, Brother; but while they didn't cover any King songs on 3 + 3, they still managed to infuse the complex emotions and bittersweet ruminations of Tapestry into much of the album's original material. "You Walk Your Way" could easily be a sequel to "It's Too Late," while both "If You Were There" and "What It Comes Down To" sound like the cousins of "Where You Lead." But it's "Highways of My Life" — with its stripped-down arrangement, and its protagonist's pledge to keep moving forward despite everything that's already gone down — that really nails both the form and feeling of Tapestry.
Ever mindful of the need to keep their sound current, the Isley Brothers were continually checking out their competition, and adding elements of others' successful experiments into their own work. For 3 + 3, they enlisted the help of synthesizer gurus Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil — the pioneering electronic music duo also known as Tonto's Expanding Head Band — who'd worked with Stevie Wonder beginning with 1972's Music of My Mind. Recorded at the Record Plant in LA at virtually the same time as Innervisions (both albums would be released in August '73) 3 + 3 abounds with similar clavinet and MOOG/ARP sounds, thanks to Margouleff and Cecil's work with Chris Jasper. But the pair also helped Ernie "Hendrix-ize" his sound via an introduction to Roger Mayer, who had previously built guitar effects for Jimi. The resulting raygun shootouts between Ernie and Jasper on "That Lady," "What It Comes Down To" and "Sunshine (Go Away Today)" sounded stunningly contemporary at the time, and still sound insanely funky today.
The Unlikely Cover-Song Material
Of the four pop/rock songs covered on 3 + 3, none is as surprising (or as mind-frying) as the Isleys' reworking of this 1972 album's title track. A true "Yacht Rock" anthem, the original version of this acoustic-driven paean to domesticity is about as un-funky as it's possible to get without involving Pat Boone. But the Isleys completely overhaul the song's groove, rolling it like a gently flowing river towards the sunset, and Ronald uses his falsetto to draw out and caresses the lyrics like they're printed on a bolt of the finest silk — on an album full of stellar vocal performances, this is undoubtedly the highlight. All of which would be enough to make this version a must-add to any summer soul mix; but then Ernie revs up his guitar at the 3:50 mark, taking song on a trip around the sun with a fret-melting solo that'll blow through the jasmine in your mind, and then some.
The Bedroom-Oriented Protégé
It may be hard to recall in the wake of his sex-tape scandal and Trapped In The Closet goofiness, but in the mid '90s, R. Kelly was the man when it came to bedroom-oriented R&B. Having already worked with Michael Jackson on the latter's "You Are Not Alone," Kelly clearly could have had his pick of collaborators when it came time to make his second, self-titled album in 1995 — so his choice of Ronald and Ernie Isley to guest on "Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)" was instructive, an unmistakable shout-out to the influence of the Isleys' music upon his own. While that song — which launched yet another comeback for the Isleys — is the most obviously Isley-fied thing on R. Kelly, cuts like "I Can't Sleep (If I), "Religious Love" and "Trade In My Life" deliver a canny mixture of the carnal and the complicated that more than slightly echoes the contents of 3 + 3.