The Non-Isley Isley Brother Who Made the Isleys Blow Up

Chris Jasper is a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and former member of the legendary Isley Brothers and, later, Isley, Jasper, Isley.

Today, September 19, he released his 14th solo album, Share With Me, on his own Gold City Music label, to add to the 15 albums he released as an official member of those aforementioned bands.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing him and getting his take on many topics, including his former bands, the music business, his spirituality, his life and music in general.

Believe me, he had a lot to say, and some of it was surprising even to this longtime Isley Brothers fan.  So read on to gain more insight into a very intense brother and one of the creative minds behind one of the most legendary groups of all time.

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Imagine it’s 1973 in the music industry…an era when bands ruled and when singer-songwriters were getting more and more respect in the biz.  It was a world only three years removed from the 1960s, a decade when self-contained bands – the type that wrote and produced their own music – were not nearly as prevalent (save for a few exceptions like the Beatles, the Stones and Beach Boys).  Most other bands – and musicians in general – relied on the services of in-house songwriters and producers to create their hits.

One such band was the Isley Brothers, a group of three brothers who hailed from Cincinnati, OH and later Teaneck, NJ.  They were clearly a product of their era, a band that bounced from one label to another during the sixties and sang songs written mostly by others while watching those publishing royalties line other people’s pockets.

The earlier version of the Isley Brothers, with oldest brothers O'Kelly, Rudolph and lead singer Ronald.
The earlier version of the Isley Brothers, with oldest brothers (from left): O’Kelly, Rudolph and lead singer Ronald.

It wasn’t until 1969, when the band left Motown’s Tamla label and its stable of writers and producers including Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier & Brian Holland and Barrett Strong & Norman Whitfield, that the Isleys – at the time a trio of just the older brothers O’Kelly, Rudolph and Ronald – went from on-and-off again, self-contained singer/songwriters to regularly writing and recording their own music.  Between 1969 and ’72, the brothers wrote and produced memorable early Isley hits, including “It’s Your Thing,” “I Turned You On,” “Pop That Thang,” “Lay-Away,” and “Work To Do.”

Then in 1973, something happened that transformed the already popular R&B-funk-rock trio into major megastars twice that size.  Two younger brothers, Ernie and Marvin, and one brother-in-law, Chris Jasper, were added as official members (after Jasper had contributed to the trio’s 1972 album, Brother, Brother, Brother by writing the ballad “Love Put Me On The Corner”).

The Isley Brothers' first album with all six members, including Chris Jasper.
The Isley Brothers’ first album with all six members, 1973’s 3 + 3, including Chris Jasper (back center).

With the addition of the three younger members, the trio became a superstar sextet.  But more importantly, they became a full-fledged self-contained entity: composing, conducting, producing and singing all their original material.  Sure, they threw in a few covers of others’ hits along the way, including memorable versions of tunes like Seals and Crofts’ “Summer Breeze,” or Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me.”  But the bulk of their material was their own.

And that material began to bear a sound that became uniquely theirs, with rock-sounding electric guitars, hard-hitting rhythm tracks and sophisticated keyboard and synthesizer riffs that were no doubt the work of the three new additions to the group.

And suddenly, the band went from having a few big hits in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, to regularly releasing gold and platinum albums and singles and creating a musical legacy that would ultimately land them in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1992) and earn them a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2014).

One of the biggest reasons for the band’s transformation and newfound success in the 1970s was the only member not bearing the Isley’s name: Chris Jasper.  The brother-in-law of Rudolph Isley, Jasper brought to the group a classic knowledge of music that the brothers had lacked.  In fact, Jasper was at times solely responsible for their biggest hits.  It may have been Ron Isley’s voice and face that became symbols of the group, but it was Jasper’s creativity that gave them songs like “For The Love Of You” and “Between The Sheets.”  In fact, despite the record label credits, Jasper has said that he wrote, produced and played all the instruments on “Between The Sheets,” a song that has since become one of the most sampled tunes in hip-hop history.

This was the kind of magic that Jasper created with the Isley Brothers from 1973’s 3 + 3 to 1983’s Between The Sheets.  In that ten-year period, the band released at least one album every year….sometimes two.  Seven of those albums reached #1 on the Billboard R&B chart, with several going top ten pop as well.  Many of them went platinum or double-platinum and they generated timeless classics that have been R&B staples in the many decades since.

1983's Between The Sheets album cover.
1983’s Between The Sheets album cover.

What follows is my interview with Chris Jasper, the man behind many of those hits, who famously left the Isley Brothers in 1984 and – with Ernie and Marvin – formed Isley, Jasper, Isley.  It’s Jasper’s voice that you hear on most of their singles, with 1985’s “Caravan Of Love” being the biggest of those.

Since 1987, Jasper has been recording solo – with 14 albums (including four gospel ones and his latest, Share With Me, an album containing his signature mixture of funk and ballads released today).

Here’s what Chris Jasper had to say to me earlier this month about his legacy with The Isley Brothers, with IJI, and his solo career, as well as the state of music both then and now.

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DJRob:  So Chris, I must tell you that I’m honored to have this privilege of interviewing you. Your vast legacy speaks for itself.  So tell me what you’ve been doing lately?

Chris Jasper:  Right now, I’m recording music on my own label Gold City Music.  I’ve had the label since IJI disbanded back in 1987.  I’ve been doing my own music since then. I’m working on a project with my son, Michael, who wrote a script for a movie and we’re doing a soundtrack for it.  I have a new project on the way that I just wrapped up a week ago.  I’ve released a single from it, the classic “You Are So Beautiful.”  A lot of recording has been going on.

DJRob:  You mean the “You Are So Beautiful” made famous by Joe Cocker?

Chris:  Yes, the hit by Cocker, written by Billy Preston.  My wife actually suggested that I do that one.  A lot of times we’ll hear one of the cover tunes that I did with the Isley Brothers, like “Hello It’s Me” or “Summer Breeze” and she said “why don’t you do a cover of something?” because she knew I was very instrumental in doing the arrangements for the Isley Brothers’ covers back then.  So the more I worked on “You Are So Beautiful,” the more I liked my arrangement.  I don’t just like doing the (cover) song the way it’s been done before.  I like to put my own interpretation on it.  I hadn’t done a cover tune since Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” (on the 1994 Deep Inside album).

DJRob:  So, speaking of “Summer Breeze” and “Hello, It’s Me,” what made you take on those pop songs with the Isley Brothers back in the 1970s?

Chris:  They were popular top-40 tunes back then and I liked those songs.  It’s not that common now that people do covers anymore.  Nowadays, flattery is done in the form of samples.  But back then, covering others’ tunes was the norm.

DJRob:  So tell me more about your specific role in the Isley Brothers. I’ve noted that all six members – the five Isleys and you – were credited as songwriters, but I understand your role was more significant.

Chris:  As teenagers, Marvin, Ernie and I formed the Jazzman Trio.  The older brothers saw us performing, liked what we were doing and wanted us to play with their band.  We did, ultimately replacing their normal musicians.  I wrote some stuff for the Brother, Brother, Brother album before we joined.  Ernie and I then wrote the bulk of the material after we joined the band in 1973.  Once in a while, Marvin would have an idea but it wasn’t always developed.  I’d help him develop it.  The other names got on the label because (the six of us) were supposed to be business partners.  But in actuality, the songs came from either me or Ernie.

I was also classically trained in music, (having gone to Julliard in New York), and the older brothers recognized that and they trusted my judgment.  I was totally hands-on with that music.  In addition to keyboards, I would play bass parts, guitars.  If there was a string arrangement that was needed, I would write out the parts, then conduct the session.  From beginning to end, from inception to the masters studio, I was involved.  I would mix the music.  Ernie and I would do guide vocals so that Ron could sing what we sang since he didn’t know the songs (that Ernie and I had created).

DJRob:  Do you regret not getting more credit for your contributions to the group?

Chris:  It was a family situation.  My sister, Elaine, married Rudolph and the Isleys and the Jaspers (both originally from Cincinnati, OH) were close before I was born.  It was as if I was working with my own brothers.  My regret is that they (the Isleys) didn’t appreciate my contributions more.  All (they’d) have to say is “thanks, Man.”  I don’t know that they fully appreciated what went into creating those songs…what has to go on in your mind to write some of that music.

DJRob: Do you still have a relationship with the Isleys?

Chris:  Before Marvin (the youngest brother) passed (in 2010) – and that was very sad – I used to talk to him the most.  I don’t know what it is but sometimes you think you know people and then you don’t.   When things are going great, everybody’s a certain way.  And then when you get to a snag in the road, you find out people’s true nature – and that was very disappointing for me.  I thought everybody felt like I did, and they didn’t.  But it is what it is and I went ahead and did my own thing, started my own label and I’m very happy doing what I’m doing.

DJRob:  So talk to me about the transition from the Isley Brothers to Isley, Jasper, Isley.

Chris:  IJI really wasn’t much of a transition for us.  The sessions went on the same way.  We recorded the music pretty much the same way we had done it with the Isley Brothers.  The only difference was Ronald wasn’t singing anymore.  Whatever the guide vocals would have been, that ended up being the lead vocals in IJI.  Since we couldn’t use “Isley Brothers,” we had to use our own names and I think CBS Records did a good job (marketing us).

DJRob:  If you had to pick one, what is your greatest music composition – with any of your entities?

Chris:  My favorite album that I created was my previous solo album, The One.  It combines everything that I’m about…heavy funk, ballads.  I played every instrument on it.  I just listened to it the other day and I really, really like that album just from a musical standpoint.

DJRob:  What about with the Isleys?

Chris:  The 1975 album, The Heat Is On, which had “Fight The Power” and “For The Love Of You” and “Sensuality.”  That was our most complete album, song for song.  The albums Showdown (1978) and 3 + 3 (1973) are up there, too.  3 + 3 was the first one that the six of us appeared on as a group and it had “That Lady,” which pretty much started it off for our era of the group.

If I had to pick a favorite song, it would have to be “Caravan of Love.”  The song’s positive message, the fact that it’s the first one that I sang that went to #1.  It was nicely composed and arranged, and the sound of it is really nice.  It kind of established IJI as a group.  That would have to be my favorite song of any of the Isley entities.

DJRob:  Your keyboard and synthesizer playing was very instrumental to the Isley Brothers’ success, tell us more about how you picked up those instruments, particularly the famous Moog synthesizer.

Chris:  The first time I saw a synthesizer was when I was attending Julliard.  It was this huge contraption with patch cords sticking out of it and a keyboard attached, and I was like, ‘how is anybody gonna learn how to work this thing?’  It was so complicated looking.

My professor was an avant-garde guy; he was into atonal music.  That’s what he was demonstrating with the synthesizer.  But I saw it differently.  I saw it as an unlimited thing we could use as if in an orchestra.  Stevie Wonder saw it the same way with his 1971 album Music of My Mind.  I heard that and thought, ‘yeah, that’s how I see it being used.’

Also, the synthesizer had another dimension, which was you could play funk with it.  Listen to “Take Me To The Next Phase” (off the Showdown album).  That funk you hear is an ARP 2600 synthesizer – that bass synthesizer that keeps ripping through that song.  In “Fight The Power” that bass moving under that funk is the synthesizer.

The ARP 2600 synthesizer, an instrument used on many classic hits written and produced by Jasper.
The ARP 2600 synthesizer, an instrument used on many classic hits written and produced by Jasper.

Before the synth, you essentially had a standard rhythm section, with horns and strings added, but that’s basically where it stopped with rock and roll.  Sure, you could add some fuzz tone to (the guitar) and get some distortion in it, but the synthesizer created something totally different.

The synthesizer had so much versatility to it that it did affect my songwriting because I didn’t have to just rely on a bass guitar tone or a rhythm guitar tone.  I could change the tone of what I would normally play on a bass.  It was limitless in what you could do with it – I could use it in the way I would use an orchestra – especially for ballads.

It essentially changed the way I envisioned a song sounding like. It worked out very nicely.

(Editor’s note: I don’t know much about the ARP 2600 synthesizer, but I did replay those songs after the interview and I would have to agree with Chris, it all worked out very nicely!)

DJRob:  I understand you’ve also done some gospel music in your solo career.

Chris:  Yes, I’ve done four gospel albums since IJI, including Praise the Eternal (1992), Faithful and True (2002), Amazing Love (2005) and Invincible (2007).  I thought it was important to do those albums because I try to live my life by God’s principles; even the more commercial or secular songs are still within those principles.

Those are the parameters within which I’m writing now.  They’re instructive in a way.  Some gospel songs are only praise-oriented, which is good.  But I’m trying to go more in-depth.  I try to give life instructions and give my audience the principles of God, but I also go more into the Scriptures.  I do all this while trying to keep the basic soul elements in the music.  I didn’t get a big choir and change the way my music sounds.  It still sounds like the stuff I’ve always done.

Four gospel albums recorded by Chris Jasper
The four gospel albums recorded by Chris Jasper

And I always put at least one inspirational song on every album.  This time I did a remake of “How Great Thou Art” on the upcoming album.

DJRob:  So what gives Chris Jasper inspiration?  Who have been some of your biggest musical influences?

Chris:  Right off the bat Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, especially vocally.  When I was a little kid I was walking around singing those artists’ songs.  Even Ray Charles and Jackie Wilson.  Those were the guys that I tried to sound like growing up.

I was also heavily influenced by Motown…the whole Motown sound.  I studied piano as a young kid but I also studied composition.  You know, I was lucky enough to have this professor from a conservatory that taught me how to put songs together.  So when I heard Motown I appreciated how good they were at doing that.  My first love was stuff I played by ear from the radio, like that soul music.  And I love it to this day.  I’m not changing, that’s who I am.

DJRob:  What about today’s artists – who do you admire?

Chris:  I don’t know that I have any influences from now.  Now I appreciate good songs; I get into the song before I even know who’s singing it.  If I hear a good song, then I’ll ask who is that.

But I hear music from a compositional standpoint.  If it’s well produced, well sung, that’s what gets it for me.  The more creative the artist is, the more I’m into it.  I like some stuff that John Legend’s done.  If it’s just a sample of something, that’s nice but I’m not drawn to sampling.  I’m drawn to more creative stuff – like even some of the stuff that Alicia Keys has done – where it took a little thought to do this, rather than just following a bandwagon and sounding like  everybody else.  Because that seems to be the trend now – everybody’s trying to sound like everybody else.

John Legend and Alicia Keys, two artists cited by Chris Jasper among this generation's favorites.
John Legend and Alicia Keys, two artists cited by Chris Jasper as being among this generation’s favorites.

I’d like to see more variety in songs, in talent.  The corporate structure of record companies has directed artists to one way of sounding.  Contrasted with (the seventies) when you had so many artists that sounded different – Aretha, James, the Isleys, EWF, Isaac Hayes, Sly Stone,  Philly Int’l and Motown…just within one genre (R&B).  The variety was incredibly enriching.  And that’s what today’s music is missing…that variety.

DJRob:  Do you think that’s why artists sampled so much of the music from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s…because of the variety that existed?

Chris:  Sampling was an easy way to make money.  It was simple, it didn’t take much studio costs to produce the record, and the possibility of it selling was high, because people were playing it.  So from a business standpoint once they saw that the music sold, they said lets run with this.  There was a higher profit margin involved, rather than building R&B bands and having to pay musicians.

Also, schools were taking music out of curriculums and people weren’t learning how to play instruments.  Society as a whole stopped playing them.

Playing instruments was much more commonplace when I was growing up.  In every house, someone would have a piano, and someone in the house could play it.  It was part of our culture.  That part went away for some reason.  I don’t know why.  But it made making hip-hop and rap easier to do when you didn’t have to learn to play an instrument – that part wasn’t required.

Whenever something gets going like that (sampling), it’s okay, but the other part (real music) should not be forgotten.  R&B is an American music – just like jazz, the blues – created by African-Americans.  It’s a gem that should not be something you just toss to the side.  Everyone around the world is trying to get their hands on it, but Americans – because we have so much sometimes – we are too quick to move on to something else.

I’m not going to stop recording it because that’s who I am.  My best and strongest thing in music is doing what I’ve done for years.

Three huge rap singles containing heavy Isley Brothers samples.
Three huge ’90s rap singles that heavily sampled Isley Brothers songs.

DJRob:  Some of those songs you did years ago are among the most sampled ever in rap music.  Stuff like “Between The Sheets” (“Big Poppa” – The Notorious B.I.G.), “Make Me Say It Again Girl” (“Tha Crossroads” – Bone Thugs-n-Harmony) and “Footsteps In the Dark” (“It Was A Good Day” – Ice Cube) factored into some of the biggest rap songs of all time.  What do you think about that?

Chris:  I feel great anytime anyone wants to cover or sample something that I had to do with creating.  I think it’s great!  Out of the thousands and thousands of songs, they picked mine.  It’s also proof that if you record something really good, especially in R&B, another generation is going to like it, too.  Maybe some people didn’t realize that “Big Poppa” was “Between The Sheets,” but the groove was good.  They liked it just like the previous generation who got into (our song).  That’s why I say with R&B there’s something to that music, it will never go away, all radio has to do is play it.

Just look overseas.  Europe can’t get enough of R&B.  I don’t know that the same corporate influences have taken over there as they have here in the U.S.  The conglomerate corporate factor – with record companies and radio stations being owned by fewer entities – isn’t the same there.  There aren’t even a lot of major labels remaining (in the U.S.).  Decisions that are made here don’t have anything to do with music or the quality of it, just profit.  Before, the focus was music.  Berry Gordy was a music guy, he was a songwriter.  Everything he did was focused on music, and that’s why you had this beautiful thing called Motown.

(Today), executives at the top have lost that focus.  As a result, the product you get – there’s no variety to it, a lot of it sounds the same and everyone’s trying to ride the same horse.  That approach doesn’t work with creative businesses.  You have to go back to what is the purpose of this (music) business?  When you get away from the purpose of a business, any business, you lose something.  The purpose is to create good music.  If you don’t do that, then a lot of people miss out – including the audience.

I wouldn’t have had such a rich musical background if the companies back then had a different focus.  We wouldn’t have had all that variety.  We wouldn’t know anything about Earth, Wind & Fire and some of those other groups that came up then.  They were so different from everybody else, they were struggling.  They were kind of jazzy (when being jazz wasn’t popular).  Nowadays they would be saying “they’re too jazzy and we can’t deal with that.”

I’m glad the focus was music back then because I benefitted from all those groups that were around.  (Again) that’s what the audience is missing today – the variety.

DJRob:  Speaking of Earth, Wind & Fire and other bands (like your former ones), why do you think there are no more R&B groups?  I’ve studied Billboard charts for years and lately all you have are solo artists collaborating with other solo artists – no R&B groups are charting.

Chris:  It goes back to what I was saying earlier.  Look, in my own family, my mother knew how to read music, she played piano.   Her brother was a first-chair concert violinist.  He worked at the post office, she was a nurse, but they both knew how to read and play music.  There were people who weren’t in the music business, but they knew how to play music.  They may have played in a church or something, but they could play nonetheless.  It was part of the culture.

How people stopped doing that, I don’t know when that happened.  I believe it started when they took music out of the schools.  People don’t understand that when you learn how to read music, it’s almost like learning a new language.  The ability to calculate – you have to recognize the notes, the sharps and the flats, a lot of things your brain is doing when you’re reading and writing music.  It helps you in other ways – it helps your mind.  There’ve been studies that show people who read music learn quickly, they learn faster.

I haven’t seen one person who reads music who isn’t really bright.  People who run education don’t understand that.  In their view, if it’s not math or science, then it’s not of value.  They don’t understand what music does for your mind.

DJRob:  Speaking of your mind, many people don’t know this, but you have your Bachelor’s degree in Music Composition and your JD from Concord University School of Law.  Tell me more about that aspect of your life.

Chris:  My wife went back to school and she’s a lawyer.  And so, dealing with this record business, I figured it wouldn’t hurt me if I understood copyright law and contracts a little more.  That was my motivation to go back and get my degree.

I always feel you should keep learning.  Knowledge will not hurt you.  The Bible says, “for the lack of knowledge, people perish.”  So the lack of knowledge will hurt you.

A lot of people look at going to school and studying as a hardship.  But it’s not a hardship at all, they’re just looking at the world wrong.

The Bible says: “Study, to show yourself approved unto God.”  He wants people to have knowledge.  The more knowledgeable you are, the more rational decisions you’re gonna make.

With my knowledge of contracts and copyright law, I’ll never go into the pitfalls that some people do, simply because I know more about it.   A lawyer can’t fool me because I know the law, too.

What you know levels the playing field, and that’s what needs to be taught to a lot of youth today.  They think it’s something else on the exterior that does, but it’s what you KNOW that levels it.  There’re no tricks.  Do you know who Charles Hamilton Houston is?  He got the Civil Rights thing off the ground.  He was Thurgood Marshall’s mentor.  He got a lot of the cases that made segregation illegal.  So when MLK started doing what he did, he was already on solid legal ground.

So Houston leveled the playing field with his mind, and more people should know who he is.

DJRob:  I feel you on that.  So Chris, do you have any regrets?  Anything you’d do differently in your career?

Chris:  I wish I knew more about music law (copyright law and contracts) a lot sooner.  My son Michael is going to law school now (he turns 23 on the 19th).   I wish I had done that.  Because you wouldn’t have seen six names on those records, you would have seen the truth on there.  And I would be a lot richer (laughs heartily).

I regret that I didn’t know a lot about that, you know.  I kinda depended on the older guys to guide us through that, and I wish I hadn’t done that.

DJRob:  Any parting comments?

Chris:  Throughout my career, people have supported the projects.  Even now on Facebook they tell me they appreciate the music.  I just really appreciate the people who buy and listen to the music and I cannot thank you enough for all of that, because that’s how I keep going.

Oh, and if they want to contact me, chrisjasper.com is where you go…you can hear all the music, where to buy it and everything.

DJRob:  Well, sir, this has truly been an honor and I thank you for this opportunity and for all the music you’ve brought to us over the years.

To my readers:  You can gain access to the new Share With Me album via this soultracks address: http://www.soultracks.com/listening-room-chris-jasper-share-with-me.

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