(April 5, 2021). Earth, Wind & Fire vs. Isley Brothers. It just doesn’t get much better than this!
The two iconic Rock and Roll Hall of Fame bands went toe-to-toe (or perhaps more accurately hand-in-hand…it was a true love fest!) in a VerzuzTV battle for the ages Sunday evening (April 4).
Let me just start by saying that neither of the acts in tonight’s instant-classic episode of Verzuz were losers. As is often said after an epic matchup of legendary acts on this stage, we were all winners for having witnessed it, and the artists were both winners for having graced us with their presence for this Easter holiday.
Even the omnipresent TV personality Steve Harvey, who hosted the event, was star-struck at times.
Or maybe it was the entire time.
Harvey kicked off by issuing a warning that the Steve Harvey we were going to see tonight was not the host of Family Feud, nor was he the guy with the famous talk show.
After sending up a prayer for rapper DMX, who, according to reports, is hospitalized and in “grave” condition following a heart attack Saturday, the gregarious host placed the two competing bands into context and noted how their music was about “love, life and feelings,” adding that “Err’body up here (on this stage) can sang!”
He continued, “Before there was Instagram, or there was internet…Ask yo mama about this here music, (this was) before yo mama and them got saved. This here was baby-makin’ music…”
On stage with Steve were three founding members of EWF: Philip Bailey, Verdine White (brother of the late founding member and co-lead singer Maurice White) and Ralph Johnson. Representing the Isley Brothers were founder and lead vocalist Ronald Isley and his youngest brother, lead guitarist Ernie Isley (who didn’t join the group until 1973).
DJ D-Nice spun the tunes for the event, and boy did he have a list of classics to queue up for the better part of the next three hours (for 25 matches and 50 songs)!
Let’s get right to the matches:
Match One. Isley Bros: “Love The One You With” (1971) vs. EWF: “That’s the Way of the World” (live) (1975). Ron Isley began the proceedings by disclosing how his group released their cover version of Stephen Stills’ “Love The One You’re With” just three days before another cover by Aretha Franklin (from the Queen’s Live at Fillmore West album) came out in 1971. Verdine White told the story of how his mother cried when she first heard “That’s The Way Of The World” in 1975 because of its message and sheer beauty. I’m right there with you, Mom. Winner: EWF. Total: EWF 1 – Isleys 0
Match Two. Isley Bros. “This Old Heart of Mine” (1966) vs. EWF. “Let’s Groove” (1981). This was the first of many examples of songs from different eras unfairly paired against each other on this night. As big as the Isleys’ Motown-era hit was, it still doesn’t make you want to jump on your feet the way “Let’s Groove” does. It was also EWF’s last million-selling single in 1981, when it peaked at No. 3 and also became their last top-10 hit. Winner: EWF. Total: EWF 2 – Isleys 0
Match Three. Isley Brothers. “Hello, It’s Me” (1974) vs. EWF. “Keep Your Head to the Sky” (1973) – As viewers were chatting about “pregnancy vibes” in the comment section. Ron Isley gave us the first taste of his current vocal skills as he sang along to this Todd Rundgren remake from the Isleys classic Live It Up album. When EWF’s track followed, Phillip Bailey picked up the mic and returned the favor. Later EWF’s members recalled how singer Jessica Cleaves (of The Friends of Distinction) was a member of the group at the time “Keep Your Head To The Sky” was a hit. Winner: ISLEYS. Total: EWF 2 – Isleys 1
Match Four. Isley Bros.: “At Your Best You Are Love” (1976) vs. EWF: “Reasons” (live) (1975). Many viewers immediately paid tribute to the late Aaliyah, who famously remade the Isleys’ song in 1994. But nothing holds a candle to The Elements’ “Reasons” from their That’s The Way Of The World album, especially the live version (from Gratitude), which D-nice graced us with tonight. Winner: EWF. Total: EWF 3 – Isleys 1
Match Five. Isley Brothers: “Harvest For the World” (1976) vs. EWF: “Got To Get You Into My Life” (1978) – Sorry fellas, as much as I love the Elements’ remake of this Beatles hit, “Harvest For The World” was one of my favorite jams growing up. Still is today! As much as EWF’s song grooves, their hit was included on the ill-fated Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie soundtrack. And while that didn’t stop it from going top-ten pop and No. 1 soul in 1978, I’m still giving the edge in this match to the Isleys. Winner: ISLEYS. Total: EWF 3 – Isleys 2
At this point in the proceedings, host Steve Harvey directed D-nice to “gimme four love songs in a row…,” going back and forth between the two groups. D-Nice obliged with these bedroom burners:
Match Six. Isley Brothers: “Groove With You” (1978) vs. EWF: “Love’s Holiday” (1977). As far as ballads go, this was about the most evenly matched pairing D-Nice came up with all night. Still, few songs could top EWF’s classic with the late Maurice White crooning the refrain “would you mind?” and harkening back to a day when men actually respected women enough in song to ask for permission. Winner: EWF. Total: EWF 4 – Isleys 2
Match Seven. Isley Brothers: “Summer Breeze” (1972) vs. EWF: “Be Ever Wonderful” (1977). The Isleys covered this Seals and Crofts classic the same year the original came out. Regarding “Be Ever Wonderful” from 1977’s All ‘n’ All album, D-Nice let that one play a little longer because he knew. Even Ron Isley did a little adlib for the EWF classic because, well, he knew. Winner: EWF. Total: EWF 5 – Isleys 2
Match Eight. Isley Brothers: “It’s Your Thing” (1969) vs. EWF: “Devotion” (live) (1974). When the opening guitar riff to “Its Your Thing” came on, I just knew the Isleys had this one. After all it is their biggest-selling single – as Ron noted – reaching No. 2 on the pop chart back in 1969. But then EWF broke out the anthem “Devotion” from their 1974 Open Our Eyes album. Damn, why are they making this so hard? Winner: TIE. Total: EWF 5 – Isleys 2 – Tie 1
Match Nine. Isley Bros.: “Make Me Say It Again Girl” (1975) vs. EWF: “After The Love Is Gone” (1979). My bias gave this one to the Isley Bros. and the song from their legendary No. 1 album The Heat is On, which gave life to Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s 1996 No. 1 smash “Tha Crossroads” and Mariah Carey’s 1997 hit “Breakdown.” But the IG/Triller comments clearly had EWF winning this one. Imma call it a toss-up (y’all can spray bullets at me in the comments below). Winner: TIE. Total: EWF 5 – Isleys 2 – Tie 2
Match Ten. Isley Bros.: “Footsteps in the Dark” (1977) vs. EWF: “Shining Star” (1975). Aside from being another in a long line of masterfully crafted ballads, The Isley’s song famously served as the foundation for Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day,” a No. 1 R&B/Hip-Hop jam in 1993. Steve couldn’t conceal his enthusiasm about “Shining Star” before misremembering which album it came from. He attributed it to EWF’s 1973 Head to the Sky album. It actually was released two albums later on the Thats The Way of The World LP, as EWF’s members reminded him. Still, don’t curb your enthusiasm, Steve! Winner: EWF. Total: EWF 6 – Isleys 2 – Tie 2
Match Eleven. Isley Bros.: “Twist and Shout” (1961) vs. EWF: “Boogie Wonderland” with the Emotions (1979). Many people forget that the Isleys recorded “Twist and Shout” before the Beatles covered it in 1964 and took it to the top two. “Boogie Wonderland” is another personal guilty pleasure of yours truly (among my five faves by The Elements!). But history prevails here and the win goes to the Isleys. Winner: ISLEYS. Total: EWF 6 – Isleys 3 – Tie 2
Match Twelve. Isley Bros.: “Choosey Lover” (1983) vs. EWF: “On Your Face” (1976). My preference is the EWF jam, which was pulled from their 1976 Spirit album. Plus, Ron Isley admitted that “Choosey” was lifted from an earlier EWF song. And speaking of sampling, “On Your Face” was the sample source for Queen Pen’s “Party Ain’t A Party,” released more than two decades later. Winner: EWF. Total: EWF 7 – Isleys 3 – Tie 2
After a long intermission, Steve, D-Nice and the bands returned for the second half of this epic battle.
Match Thirteen. Isley Bros.: “Voyage to Atlantis” (1977) vs. EWF: “Brazilian Rhyme (Interlude)” (1977). Two epic album cuts from 1977 classic albums. It was a pleasure seeing EWF perform that interlude for the first time (I’ve seen them five times in concert and have never seen them perform any of their famous album-filling interludes from their heyday). Hard to top “Atlantis” though. ‘I’ll always…come back to you.” Winner: ISLEYS. Total: EWF 7 – Isleys 4 – Tie 2
Match Fourteen. Isley Bros.: “Here We Go Again” (1980) vs. EWF/Ramsey Lewis “Sun Goddess” (1975). This was a pairing featuring a lesser known Isleys track from their 1980 album, Go All The Way. The song reached my personal charts in late 1980/early 1981, but couldn’t hold a match to the more classic Ramsey Lewis single featuring the Elements of the Universe. “Sun Goddess” had many of us scatting the refrain “way-ohh, way-ohh. bop, bop way-ohh, way-ohh-ohh” throughout the summer of 1975. Winner: EWF Total: EWF 8 – Isleys 4 – Tie 2
Match Fifteen. Isley Bros.: “Work To Do” (1972) vs. EWF: “I’ll Write a Song For You” (1977). This just isn’t fair. Ron sang his ass off for the Isley’s track, but how can it compete with what is perhaps Philip Bailey’s best studio performance in a treasure chest of many gems? If you weren’t in tears after EWF’s song played, you aren’t human. Winner: EWF Total: EWF 9 – Isleys 4 – Tie 2
Match Sixteen. Isley Bros.: “Between the Sheets” (1983) vs. EWF: “Serpentine Fire” (1977). Personal bias aside, I’m gonna give this one to the Isleys. “EWF’s “Serpentine Fire” is another personal favorite from an album that easily ranks as one of the best of the 1970s, All ‘n’ All. Plus the song topped the soul chart for seven weeks in 1977, while the Isley’s “Between the Sheets” got stuck at No. 3 for six weeks in 1983. But it’s hard to compare these two, which are of completely styles – and arguably different eras. Plus “Sheets” is one of the most sampled tunes in hip-hop history. Winner: ISLEYS. Total: EWF 9 – Isleys 5 – Tie 2
Match Seventeen. Isley Bros.: “For The Love Of You” (1975) vs. Deniece Williams/EWF: “Free” (1976). Let me just start off by saying you’re not gonna top “For the Love Of You” by the Isleys no matter what you play. So EWF went with a Deniece Williams track instead of one of their own. Philip Bailey introduced the track from Niecy’s debut album while the dreamy intro played in the background, reminding us that EWF had everything to do with her song except sing lead vocals. Winner: ISLEYS. Total: EWF 9 – Isleys 6 – Tie 2
Match Eighteen. Isley Bros.: “Don’t Say Goodnight” (1980) vs. EWF’s “Can’t Hide Love” (1976). The Isleys’ “Don’t Say Goodnight” was the lead single from their 1980 LP Go All The Way. It hit No. 1 on the soul chart and crossed over to the pop top 40 that spring. EWF’s “Cant Hide Love” – one of four new studio tracks from the 1976 live album Gratitude – also crossed to the pop top 40. With those classic four-note horn bursts that start the song and carry it through the coda, it would be hard to top the Elements here. Girl, I Betcha! Winner: EWF. Total: EWF 10 – Isleys 6 – Tie 2
Match Nineteen. Isley Bros.: “Smooth Sailin’ Tonight” (1987) vs. EWF: “Fantasy” (1977). A late-1980s ballad from the Isleys didn’t have all of the spark that their earlier albums did (several of the brothers and brother-in-law Chris Jasper had left the group by then). “Fantasy” was another Philip Bailey vocal masterpiece. Another stellar track from EWF’s All ‘n’ All album, it had no problem taking the match. Winner: EWF. Total: EWF 11 – Isleys 6 – Tie 2
Match Twenty. Isley Bros.: “Sensuality” (1975) vs. EWF: “Getaway” (1976). Another No. 1 soul single by EWF vs. another sultry baby-making cut from the Isley’s No. 1 album The Heat Is On. Clearly an unfair comparison pitting the frenetically uptempo “Getaway” vs. the slow-groove that is “Sensuality.” The Isleys get this W though (although I’m a huge “Getaway” fan), if for no other reason than the shout-out that Ron gave songwriter and former member Chris Jasper during the song’s second verse. Winner: ISLEYS. Total: EWF 11 – Isleys 7 – Tie 2
Match Twenty-One. Isley Bros.: “Fight the Power” (1975) vs. EWF: “Mighty, Mighty” (1974). Given my bias toward the elements of the universe, this would be tough a tough match to score under most circumstances. But it’s hard even for me to deny the sheer power and relevance of the Isleys’ classic top-five pop and No. 1 soul smash from (again) The Heat Is On album. Winner: ISLEYS. Total: EWF 11 – Isleys 8 – Tie 2
Match Twenty-Two. Isley Bros. feat. Ron Isley as that gangsta Mr. Biggs: “Contagious” (2001) vs. EWF: “In The Stone” (1979). “Contagious” and the song “Busted” are the only entries from either act that were recorded in the 21st century (both written and produced by R. Kelly) with “Contagious” released from the Isleys’ 2001 album Eternal. “In The Stone” is from The Elements’ 1979 opus I Am. In the 42 years since its release, the song has become an anthem for HBCU bands everywhere, and their representatives were definitely amped when this one kicked in. Winner: EWF. Total: EWF 12 – Isleys 8 – Tie 2
Match Twenty-Three. Isley Bros. feat. Ron Isley as Mr. Biggs: “Busted” (2003) vs. EWF: “Magic Mind” (1977). Phillip Bailey had a hard time recreating the lyrics and the timing of several songs on this night (especially the ones originally sung by the late Maurice White), but on “Magic Mind” he flat-out admitted it, appearing at one point to ask whether it was even EWF’s song. I’m an old old-school guy, and the album All ‘n’ All containing “Magic Mind” is one of my all-time faves, but I have to give this one to the more contemporary hit (and cleverly written soap opera of a song) by Mr. Biggs. Winner: ISLEYS. Total: EWF 12 – Isleys 9 – Tie 2
Match Twenty-Four. Isley Bros.: “Shout” (1959) vs. Philip Bailey’s “Easy Lover” with Phil Collins (1985). Default: The Isleys’ original version of “Shout,” recorded 62 years ago, deserves this W. “Easy Lover” was a Philip Bailey solo classic on which Collins was a guest, recorded a quarter century after “Shout.” Two different eras, two different impacts. Only one group in this matchup: The Isleys. Winner: ISLEYS. Total: EWF 12 – Isleys 10 – Tie 2
Match Twenty-Five. Isley Bros.: “That Lady” (1973) vs. EWF: “September” (1978). Brother Ernie Isley gave us an old-school lesson on how to play lead guitar and a reminder of why he’s still considered one of the best to ever play it. The Elements closed with their signature tune “September,” the song that holds special meaning for yours truly: my mom’s birthday is on the “21st night of September.” You’d be surprised to know that “That Lady” was actually a bigger hit on the Billboard Hot 100 than “September,” with the Isleys’ tune peaking at No. 6, and EWF’s dance nugget topping out at No. 8. This is a toughy. Although that guitar Ernie shredded onstage should tip the scales in the Isleys’ favor, “September” is a timeless classic. I consider both songs winners, so I’m going with the tie. Winner: TIE. Total : EWF 12 – Isleys 10 – Tie 3
Final tally (song for song): Earth, Wind & Fire 12, Isley Brothers 10, with 3 ties.
In the category of showmanship, the Isley Brothers clearly won the night as Ronald Isley’s falsetto was much more in command than Phillip Bailey’s. Plus, it appeared that Bailey had forgotten some of the timing of his band’s lyrics, and none of EWF’s members came to play any instruments (Verdine could have brought his bass), unlike the youngest Isley brother, Ernie, who jammed out his guitar on almost all his group’s tracks.
Plus, as practically everyone noted in chat boxes, Ron Isley looked damn good for 79 years of age (he was rocking that fur coat with a gray beard to match)!
If I give the Isleys two bonus points – one each for showmanship and stage presence, then we actually end up in a tie for the night. EWF: 12 Isleys: 12 Tie: 3
And that’s perhaps as it should be!
Congratulations to the folks at Verzuz and Triller for bringing to viewers what was easily the series’ best episode yet!
DJRob is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
You can also register for free to receive notifications of future articles by visiting the home page (see top for menu).