Ernie Isley Recalls Santana Project, Jimi Hendrix Friendship
Ernie Isley has stories to tell.
Isley was just a kid when his older brothers -- O’Kelly, Rudolph and Ronald -- started touring the country, making hits and working with a young Jimi Hendrix. But Ernie soon grew up, graduating from watching the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show to writing hits in the '70s with his brothers and recording Power of Peace with Carlos Santana last year. Ernie took a few minutes to talk about his relationship with guitar gods and his own talent for six-string magic -- like his scorching guitar on the Isley Brothers’ 1973 hit “That Lady.”
Even at 65, you seem to be having a lot of fun on the road. How is the current tour doing?
Pretty great -- we just played the Liberty Bowl, so that was a good time.
How have you made the band work through so many decades? You brothers started with “Shout” back in 1959, and you and Ronald just worked with Carlos Santana in 2017.
When you love it and it's in your blood, it's what you do. We've always loved it. And we've never been confined to any one musical category, we never confined ourselves. We always leave the door open to any style. We've been on shows with rock artists and we've been on shows with rappers, some of whom have sampled our catalog. But we like what we do, and that shows.
You weren't yet a musician when Jimi Hendrix was living in your house and playing guitar with your brothers in the band. But when you did pick up the guitar, was his influence still there all those years later in your playing?
Certainly. I was 11 years old and I had never heard anyone play the guitar like him. He was in the house for two years with us and every day he was playing. Sometimes there was a rehearsal and he was playing. But he would be playing before the rehearsal and after the rehearsal and on the days when there was no rehearsal. He was already so good, I didn't understand why he needed to be playing so much. Then years later when I heard the Are You Experienced album and "Manic Depression" for the first time, I said, “Yep, that's him, that's his sound.”
So even back when he was living with you he had that unbelievable Hendrix feel that we all know?
Yes, he was already unlike any other musician of the time. All electric guitar players have a flashlight, but Jimi Hendrix had a neon flashlight. It didn't look like anybody else's.
What was it like to have him in the house during the ’60s when music and culture were changing so quickly?
When the Beatles played Ed Sullivan, I was on the left side of the couch, my younger brother Marvin was on the right side of the couch and Jimi Hendrix was in the middle. Of course nobody can see the future, so we didn't know it was going to happen. But the Beatles weren't hype, they were genuine, and they were a continental change. My older brother O'Kelly said to me, “Now, I don't know what's going to happen with this new British band, but I think we'll be okay because they do 'Shout' and 'Twist and Shout' like us. And even though they have two guitar players, we have Jimi.” And when he said “We got Jimi,” I looked over and Jimi was grinning ear-to-ear at that remark.
A few months later, Jimi did leave the band, but did the family remain on good terms with him?
When Jimi left, my brother O'Kelly said to me that he always appreciated our hospitality and was so thankful to work with us and record for the first time. But he said Jimi has other things he wants to do. So they parted on good terms. He did ask my brother for one favor and that was to take the Fender with him. So we gave it to him as a parting gift.
He didn't live long enough to see you become a great guitarist. What do you think he would have thought about your guitar work on “That Lady”?
He probably would have given me something between a bear hug and a tackle after he heard it. [Laughs] He would have known that the playing was me because I was always in the room when he was playing, sometimes pretending to do my homework, but I was listening and he knew I was listening. I might have had my social studies book in front of me, but I certainly wasn't doing social studies. I was checking him out and I was never bored listening.
Can you talk a little bit about how the Santana collaboration came together? Based on the sound that came out of the studio, those sessions seemed like a blast.
Carlos has always been a fan of the Isley Brothers. He has always been particularly taken with Ronald's vocal tone. And so he wanted us to get together and do a few songs. And of course I'm a guitar player as well, so that was an added bonus for both of us. It was really a treat. The man can play. And his band, wow, his band is fabulous and Cindy Blackman, his wife and drummer, is out of here.
I can't believe that you cut the record that fast. You did the whole thing in about four days, which seems like an insane pace for musicians of any age.
Ronald and Carlos came up with a list of songs that we might do. Santana's band was ready to play them, and once I tuned up, I was ready to play them. We just put a microphone in the front of the room and -- bam! -- that was it. It went so fast. These are songs I had heard so many times before, but with the arrangements and hearing Ronald sing them, hearing him sing something like “What the World Needs Now” or “God Bless the Child,” it was like the first time I heard them. I would want to be lingering and maybe play it again, but Carlos would say, "Next!,” and be ready to go on the next tune. [Laughs] By the time I looked up, we had done four or five songs. That's just the way it went.
Did you and Carlos have fun talking technique and approach?
I told Carlos that when he was on the stage at Woodstock, I had a guitar but had playing for less than a year. By the time we got around to “That Lady,” I'd been playing approximately four and a half years. He thought that was pretty impressive.
Was Santana a big influence on you when you learned to play?
Yes. In the late ’60s, his music and posters were in every dorm. Abraxas and “Evil Ways” and “Everybody's Everything” -- his sound was everywhere. So to have him talk about “That Lady” and our version of “Summer Breeze” and ask me about how I got the tones on them, that was pretty cool.
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