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.