Times Staff Writer

When the Isley Brothers split a few years ago, what really happened?

Gossips are still buzzing about the breakup of the veter& B band known for the classic singles “Shout” (1959) and “Twist and Shout” (1962), as well as a string of million-selling albums in the ‘70s with a unique R & B/rock fusion.

There are many versions of the group’s split. What basically happened is that the old guard--brothers Ronald, Rudolph and the late Kelly--moved to Warner Bros. Records while the younger faction--which now perform as the group Isley, Jasper, Isley--stayed at CBS Records.

All this should be old news but, now that the Isley Brothers--reduced to Ronald and Rudolph--seem to be reborn on Warner Bros. Records with a promising album, “Smooth Sailin’, " the old split is a hot gossip topic in some music circles again.


Again, what really happened? No one still knows for sure.

Was the split, as was often rumored, a nasty, knock-down affair? Was it caused by record company politics? Were the younger members fed up with working with the band’s “old codger” contingent? You often now hear that the youngsters--brothers Ernie and Marvin Isley and brother-in-law Chris Jasper--don’t speak to the veterans. Did the death of the eldest brother, Kelly, last year help patch things up between the two factions?

During a break in a recording session one night in a West Hollywood studio, singer Ronald Isley, 45, in a rare interview, gave the Isleys’ side. They’re considered the villains. Supposedly, they repressed the three youngsters, driving them to form another band.

Of course, Isley, renowned as one of the real gentleman of the music business, didn’t do any mud-slinging. It’s hard to imagine this gentle, low-key man saying a nasty word about anybody, particularly a member of his family.


“Don’t believe everything you hear on the street,” Isley cautioned. “If people are saying the split was nasty and it caused bad blood in the family, they’re wrong. We talk. We always did. In fact, I talked to my younger brothers earlier today.”

What really happened, according to Isley, is a version of the conflict that hasn’t been widely circulated. It all started, he explained, in 1984, when CBS Records executives wanted two Isleys albums--one featuring all six members and one with the three youngsters, the band’s instrumentalists since 1974.

“It was the wrong time for two Isley albums. It seemed like too much product at one time. We thought it would hurt our career to flood the market with Isley records. We really wanted the younger members to record a separate album. I don’t care what you’ve heard. But we didn’t want them to do it then.

“There was a lot of politics--some of it unpleasant. I won’t point any fingers. That’s not how I do things. But when the dust cleared the three younger members stayed with CBS and older members--me, Kelly and Rudoph--went to Warner Bros.”

But wasn’t part of the problem that the younger members were simply fed with being background figures?

“They probably couldn’t do--really do--what they wanted musically when they were with us,” Isley admitted. “The group wasn’t structured for that. And I was probably guilty of being too bossy to them--too much like a father, saying ‘Do this and that but not this.’ Eventually they were going to go off and do what they wanted. They had things they had to get out their system. But when they left to form their own group, it was all very friendly.”

Isley, Jasper, Isley--made up of brothers Ernie (guitar) and Marvin (bass) and Chris Jasper (keyboards)--has had an up-and-down career on CBS. The first album didn’t do well but the second, “Caravan of Love"--featuring a hit title single--sold over 500,000. But their current album, “Different Drummer,” is struggling.

The Isley Brothers’ “Smooth Sailin”'--a much better album than “Different Drummer"--also shapes up as a bigger hit.


Two years ago, the Isley Brothers seemed past their peak. Their first Warner Bros. album, “Masterpiece,” was anything but. It was mostly soppy pop--Ronald’s unsuccessful attempt to muscle in on Lionel Richie’s turf.

“There were a lot of ballads, some with a big orchestra” said Isley. “Maybe it was the wrong time for that but it seemed like the right time. Lionel was doing that kind of thing and it was paying off for him.”

It wasn’t just this album that seemed to signal the end of the Isleys. In March of last year, 48-year-old Kelly--the eldest Isley--died of a heart attack.

“People wondered whether we’d go on after that, especially when we didn’t go into the studio right away,” he recalled. “But we couldn’t quit. We’re not ready yet. Music has been our life--and it still is. Rudolph and I had to go on without Kelly.”

The second album, the current “Smooth Sailin’ "--boasting the duo’s sleek, falsetto vocals--is closer to the old Isley style--slow, sensuous R & B. Angela Winbush, formerly of the duo Rene and Angela, co-produced and co-wrote the album.

It’s still too early to call “Smooth Sailin’ "--No. 65 after a month on the Billboard magazine pop album chart--a big hit. But it has already accomplished something vitally important--establishing the two remaining Isley Brothers as a viable musical force.