(October 14, 2023).  You might remember Rudolph Isley for those outrageous but period-appropriate outfits he wore on his band’s 1970s album covers.

Expensive-looking furs, heavily studded and sometimes very shiny matching pant-shirt combos, open-button shirts revealing a tuft of chest hair accessorized by heavy gold chains (back when only he and Isaac Hayes could be so bold, and long before hip-hop made the gold chain a rite of passage), tall platform shoes (which Rudy apparently didn’t need).

And those pimp-daddy canes that none of his brothers dared try to pull off…lest they risk suffering a beatdown at the hands of their imposing-looking, second-oldest brother whose expression alone suggested he wasn’t about playing games.  

In the era of Shaft and Sweet Daddy Williams (Good Times fans will get that latter reference), Rudolph Isley was that guy personified.

Whether he was decked in full gold from head to toe for the brothers’ 1976 Harvest for the World album, an all-black ensemble with rhinestones and golden rope-chain for 1975’s The Heat Is On, a flared-out, all-red getup (with heavy gold chains and three-inch platforms) on 1974’s Live It Up, or rocking off-white matching pant-shirt sets while hoisting a cane as he did on both 1973’s 3+3 and ‘78’s Showdown, Rudolph Isley was the epitome of Isley’s coolness and fashion.

On those iconic album covers, Rudolph was never far from front or center, and was almost always prominently placed, with the other brothers flanking him.  Even eldest brother (and fellow founder) O’Kelly always seemed to take a backseat to Rudolph, as did the much more famous Ronald, fellow founder whose tenor/falsetto/baritone voice graced all of the band’s biggest hits.

Rudolph Isley, who also went by Rudy, was the oldest living of the famed Isley Brothers (after late eldest brother O’Kelly died in 1986).

Rudy died suddenly on October 11, 2023, from what has been attributed to a heart attack. His passing leaves only Ron and Ernie as the remaining Isleys, with brothers Vernon (the group’s first lead singer who died in a car accident at the age of 13 in 1955), O’Kelly (heart attack, 1986) and Marvin (diabetes, 2010) having preceded Rudy in death.

The legendary Isley Brothers had an impressive string of hit albums and singles throughout the 1970s and early ‘80s, mostly as a sextet featuring five Isleys—O’Kelly, Rudy, Ron, Marvin and Ernie—plus Rudy’s brother-in-law of the past 65 years, Chris Jasper (Rudy was married to Jasper’s sister Elaine from 1958 until his death this week).

Even during the ‘90s and beyond, the band reinvented itself—mostly fashioned as a duo featuring lead singer Ron (at times in his alter ego as Mr. Frank Biggs) and brother Ernie—with songs like 2001’s “Contagious” and, as recently as 2022, the re-recorded “Make Me Say It Again, Girl” (originally from ‘75’s The Heat Is On) topping Billboard charts.  

Rudy, who’d left the group in 1989 to pursue the Christian ministry, was not part of the group’s ‘90s reincarnation. 

But their success actually began with Rudy, Kelly, and Ronald in the 1950s and their iconic breakout hit, “Shout.”  Recorded when Rudy was barely out of his teens (and Ron was still in his), “Shout” grew out of an impromptu call-and-response segment the brothers performed whenever they sang Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops” at concert performances.  

After being fashioned into its own song with the three founding brothers receiving writers’ credits, “Shout” became a moderate chart hit (reaching No. 47 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop list in 1959).

The hits were very scarce after that…at least during the 1960s. 

The Isleys wouldn’t chart again after “Shout” until 1962 when their cover of the Top Notes’ song “Twist and Shout” reached No. 2 soul and No. 17 pop.  The Beatles would famously cover that iconic rock-and-roll tune and turn it into a No. 2 pop chart hit in 1964 (with their version being inspired by the Isleys’ take).

Except for a modestly charting followup single called “Twistin’ with Linda,” which peaked at No. 54 pop, the Isleys didn’t reach either the soul or pop charts again until 1966 when they signed with Motown’s Tamla label.  That’s when they hit with the Holland-Dozier-Holland tune “This Old Heart of Mine,” which gave them their biggest pop hit to that date (No. 12 on the Hot 100) and another top-10 placement on the soul chart.  

But the hits again dried up after that and The Isley Brothers left Motown in 1969 to reform their own earlier label, T-Neck Records, a play on the name of the brothers’ chosen city of residence, Teaneck, NJ. (they were born and raised in and around Cincinnati).

It was with T-Neck that the Isleys began to exert full creative and artistic control with albums that increasingly experimented with guitar and keyboard-driven rock, thanks mainly to the addition of Ernie Isley as a session guitarist after he’d previously played with (and was inspired by) rock guitar god Jimi Hendrix.

Related Reading: Where do the Isley Brothers’ best four albums in a row rank among other R&B artists’?

The first single out of the gate for the persistent Isleys was “It’s Your Thing,” a No. 1 soul and No. 2 pop hit in 1969 that gave the group their first certified million-seller and began a hit streak that would see them place songs on the charts every year for the next fourteen.

It was around this time that Ernie (who played lead or bass guitar) and, later, youngest brother Marvin (bass) and Rudy’s brother-in-law Chris Jasper (keyboards) began regularly contributing to the band’s recordings.  By the time they released their seventh studio album, 1969’s The Brothers: Isley, the two younger Isleys and Jasper were being credited for their instruments in the liner notes.

The Brothers began to experience even more commercial success with successive albums.  The 1971 album Givin’ It Back (the first album I remember my mom playing during my formative years) took the Isleys even deeper into rock territory as it featured all cover songs mostly made famous by white rock artists, including the likes of James Taylor (“Fire and Rain”), Crosby, Stills & Nash (“Ohio”), Bob Dylan (“Lay Lady Lay”), Eric Burdon (“Spill the Wine”), and Stephen Stills (“Love the One You’re With”).

Their next album, 1972’s Brother, Brother, Brother, included more rock covers (including three classic songs by Carole King) interspersed with original Isley Brothers tunes, including the hits “Pop That Thang” and “Lay Away.”

These albums saw increasing contributions from Jasper and the two youngest Isleys, Ernie and Marvin, with an occasional vocal spotlight for brothers Kelly and Rudy. 

But lead vocals belonged almost exclusively to middle brother Ronald, whose distinctive tenor could effortlessly morph into a falsetto and back to a gruff baritone sound, sometimes in the same song.

Rudolph’s rarely exercised but similar tenor would show up on an occasional album track, like the ballad “I Got to Get Myself Together” (with Ron providing background), from the album The Brothers: Isley, or the similarly themed “I Got to Find Me One” from their next album, 1970’s Get Into Something.

Rudy Isley rarely sang lead on Isley Brothers tunes, but he did on this song from their 1969 The Brothers: Isley album.

Otherwise, Rudy was relegated to backing vocals with the vocally stronger Ron taking over, unless the brothers shared joint leads, such as on later rock-oriented tunes like 1975’s “Fight the Power,” 1977’s “Livin’ in the Life” and “The Pride,” and 1978’s “Climbin’ Up the Latter,” where Rudy, Ron and Kelly performed all the verses and choruses in unison.

The Isley Brothers’ 1973 3+3 album featuring (from left): Ernie, O’Kelly, Ron, Chris Jasper, Rudolph , and Marvin

That was during The Isley Brothers’ most successful “3+3 era,” which began in 1973 when the band officially comprised the three eldest brothers and the three younger members on famous ‘70s albums like 3+3Live It UpThe Heat Is OnHarvest for the WorldGo for Your GunsShowdownWinner Takes All, and ‘80s LPs like Grand Slam and Between the Sheets.

Those albums—mostly million-sellers—produced classics like “Fight the Power,” “For the Love of You,” “At Your Best (You Are Love),” Live It Up,” “Midnight Sky,” “Who Loves You Better,” “Harvest for the World,” “The Pride,” “Voyage to Atlantis,” Groove With You,” Take Me to the Next Phase,” “I Wanna Be With You,” “Don’t Say Goodnight,” “Here We Go Again” “Between the Sheets,” “Choosey Lover” and so many others.

The album The Heat Is On was one of three No. 1 pop albums by Black male groups in 1975 (the others being Earth Wind & Fire’s That’s the Way of the World and Ohio Players’ Fire). Collectively, they represented the first three albums by Black male groups to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200 list.

With Rudy often sharing album production credits with Ron (or the group in its entirety) and songwriting credits split between all six members on virtually all of their original tunes from 1973-83, Rudy’s actual creative contributions—and that of Kelly, Ron and Marvin—came into question after Chris Jasper revealed that most of the Isleys’ biggest hits during the 1970s and early ‘80s were penned by himself and youngest brother Ernie.

It was through a mutual agreement early on that the sextet had agreed to share all songwriting credits equally, Jasper asserted, which meant all royalties from publishing rights were split equally six ways, regardless of how much an individual member actually contributed to writing the songs.

This arrangement was later lamented by Jasper, including in an interview he gave yours truly in 2016, where he wondered how much richer he’d have been had the credits reflected the songs’ true writer(s).

One might argue, however, that it was through his sister’s marriage to Rudy that Jasper was afforded the opportunity that no doubt made his pockets a little deeper, and it was Rudy’s group after all, along with cofounders Kelly and Ron.

The arrangement also worked out for Rudy, who shared credits for the many Isley Brothers song samples (by the likes of Ice Cube, The Notorious B.I.G., Da Brat and others) that emerged during the hip-hop era.  

Rudy left the rock-and-roll life in 1989 to devote himself to the ministry, something further inspired by older brother Kelly’s passing three years earlier.

Rudy’s departure from the band–after Jasper, Ernie Isley and Marvin Isley had left the group in 1984 to form Isley/Jasper/Isley—left Ronald to carry on the band’s musical legacy.  Ron would be later rejoined by Ernie and Marvin before Marvin left in 1997 due to failing health. 

Thus began the dubious phase of Rudy’s connection to the legendary band he helped found more than four decades earlier.

Three years after his exodus, the eldest surviving Isley didn’t appear with remaining members to accept their 1992 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Then came Jasper’s revelations about who actually deserved credit for most of their biggest hits.

And finally, Rudy and Ron entered into litigation earlier in 2023 about ownership of the Isley Brothers name, with Rudy claiming he should—as one of the two surviving founders—own fifty percent of the rights, along with the earnings since 1990 that come with them. 

That litigation wasn’t settled before Rudy’s unfortunate passing on October 11.

His death now leaves Ron and Ernie to—once and for all—carry on the Isleys’ famous name.

One thing’s for certain: before there was ever a Mr. Biggs, the flashy kingpin-like character Ron Isley reinvented himself as in the 1990s, there was the fashion-forward Rudy, the flyest, most stylish member of them all, at least on those album covers.

Rudolph “Rudy” Isley (April 1, 1939 – October 11, 2023) may you rest in peace.  

And thanks for all the musical memories—as well as the incredibly fashionable album covers that went with them.


DJRob (he/him/his), a lifelong Isley Brothers fan who continued buying their albums after Mom stopped, is a freelance music blogger from the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop, rock and (sometimes) country genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @djrobblog and on Meta’s Threads.

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