The Isley Brothers – “Inside the group, it was like a police state”

Band members and engineers recall 'Harvest For The World'

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Originally published in Uncut’s September 2015 issue (Take 220)

“Harvest For The World’ refers to a peaceful gathering,” explains songwriter Ernie Isley, “where every human being is invited, and where no-one will be hindered in any way from participating.”

Originally a vocal trio comprising brothers O’Kelly, Rudolph and Ronald, by the early ’70s, the Isleys (expanded to include Ernie and Marvin Isley and Chris Jasper) were releasing an album a year and scoring a host of hits along the way. “Harvest For The World” stands out as one of their finest, an open-hearted call for equality across the planet. But beneath the luscious, sparkling veneer of the recording, engineered by Stevie Wonder collaborator and synthesiser pioneer Malcolm Cecil, there lies a stranger tale: of briefcases full of money; of Jimi Hendrix’s enduring influence; of older brothers packing powerful handguns and running the band “like a police state”; and of a group of wealthy superstars still rehearsing in their mother’s suburban basement.

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“There was no fooling around or running in the studio to speak of,” says Robert Margouleff, who worked with the Isleys and Cecil from 1973’s 3+3 to The Heat Is On two years later. “These guys all dressed to the nines every day. There wasn’t a day that someone came in wearing a slouchy pair of jeans.” As all involved acknowledge today, the message of “Harvest For The World”, propelled into the charts with help from Cecil’s crisp sound, is still an important one. “It’s a very nice thought,” says Ernie Isley, “and hopefully one day that peaceful gathering will happen.”

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CHRIS JASPER (songwriting, keyboards): We did some covers on 3+3 – “Summer Breeze” and “Listen To The Music” – but, as time went on, Ernie and I started writing more. We worked together very well. The band would be on the road part of the year and the other part we’d be recording and writing, so it was a very busy time, to say the least.

MALCOLM CECIL (engineer)): The actual art and the performing in that period was very much between Chris Jasper and Ernie and Marvin Isley. The older brothers were mainly concerned with the vocals. They left the younger brothers to do the main tracking, and relied upon them for the funk and the beat.

JASPER: We all wrote at the Isleys’ mom’s house in Englewood, New Jersey. We had the equipment set up downstairs in the basement, and I left my piano and my keyboard set up and amplified. The bass amp was down there, Ernie’s guitar amps were down there. It was kind of a tight squeeze sometimes. But that’s where we did a lot of our rehearsing and writing.

ERNIE ISLEY (songwriting, guitars, drums): I wanted to get a 12-string guitar, so I went down to a music shop in Manhattan and picked up a Guild 12-string – which I still have – and it sounded really good. I brought it home and started trying it in the basement and happened to come up with the lines, “All babies together/Everyone a seed/Half of us are satisfied/Half of us in need…” Inspiration is everywhere and if anybody happens to have their antenna up and you are fortunate enough to be inspired, you can come up with all kinds of stuff.

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