In 1962, the Isley Brothers, then best known for their raucous 1959 hit, "Shout," were in the midst of recording "Make It Easy on Yourself," when one of the ballad's songwriters, Burt Bacharach, heard that a producer wanted to change a lyric. Fiercely protective of his work, Bacharach withdrew permission for the Isleys to record the song.
Dejected but undaunted, the brothers instead recorded what would have been the song's B-side - "Twist and Shout."
"After that hit," says singer Ronald Isley, "no one wanted to hear us singing slow songs."
Yet, Isley never forgot "Make It Easy on Yourself," which had been a hit for R&B singer Jerry Butler, or how much he wanted to record the music of Bacharach and lyricist Hal David, widely considered the greatest American songwriting duo of the latter 20th century.
More than 40 years later, Isley finally got the chance not only to sing songs from the legendary Bacharach/David canon but to record with Bacharach, the multiple Grammy and Academy Award-winning producer, composer, and arranger. Their lovely first collaboration, "Here I Am: Isley Meets Bacharach," hits stores Tuesday and features 11 Bacharach/David songs including "A House Is Not a Home" and "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head." There are also two new Bacharach compositions, "Count on Me" and "Love's (Still) the Answer," both written with Tonio K.
For some, a musical union between Isley, one of the all-time great soul and funk singers, and Bacharach, the sophisticated co-creator of such luscious pop gems as "(They Long to Be) Close to You," and "Do You Know the Way to San Jose," would seem unorthodox. Still, it took Isley only a song or two to convince Bacharach that their collaboration "could be incredible," Bacharach says.
"In his musical choices, he is so correct," the composer adds from his California home where he and Isley were rehearsing for performances in New York and Los Angeles. "Nothing Ronnie does is in bad taste. His ad-libs are perfect, and he's brave and courageous in the choices he makes. He does what other singers could never think about doing."
Especially in the presence of a 40-piece orchestra. Whereas most musicians record tracks piece by piece - Bacharach joked that some artists can spend an entire day finagling with a single bass line - here the songs were captured live with Isley, Bacharach, and the orchestra recording together.
"Everyone could see me, and we could all see Ronnie in the booth," Bacharach says. "It was a tremendous responsibility, but the spontaneity was very exciting."
Their first song together was "Alfie," made famous by Dionne Warwick, the singer with whom the Bacharach/David canon is most associated. Isley, who as a close friend of Warwick's observed some of her original 1960s recording sessions with Bacharach, nailed the song in a single take.
"When I look back on it, it was a special kind of magic," Isley says of the recording sessions that took place in July. "Plus, on that first day, the day I recorded that song, Denzel Washington, who's a friend of mine, was visiting the studio, so I didn't want to mess it up."
Though the Isley Brothers have always written their own songs, including "Fight the Power," "That Lady," and "Between the Sheets," Isley has always had a knack for wrapping his shimmering tenor around the work of other composers. His versions of such songs as Seals & Crofts's "Summer Breeze," James Taylor's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight," and Todd Rundgren's "Hello It's Me" have become R&B staples.
What makes him so effective, Bacharach says, is Isley's ability to respect the integrity of the songwriter's vision while leaving his own interpretative imprint.
"He has a tremendous respect for music, and I've always been impressed with his singing," he says. "He's very sophisticated in how he approaches a song. I was very comfortable with what he wanted to do with these songs."
Such as remaking "Raindrops Keeping Falling on My Head," originally a jaunty pop song sung by sweet-voiced B.J. Thomas, into a sultry ballad. Isley says he never thought about how the public would accept such a radical reinvention of the much-beloved song, which won Bacharach and David an Oscar for best song in 1970. (It was memorably used in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." "Burt's a genius, so sitting in rehearsals and working on the songs, he'll pick up on any good suggestion," Isley says. "Burt's always been my favorite arranger, producer, and songwriter. I wouldn't want to be doing the songs if he weren't arranging and producing because that's the epitome - to have him working there with you, because I want to know what he thinks on every note."
Both Bacharach and Isley have enjoyed career revivals in recent years, especially Isley. The latest Isley Brothers album, "Body Kiss," a collaboration with R. Kelly, entered the Billboard album chart at No. 1 earlier this year. And a new generation has gotten to know Isley as "Mr. Biggs," a shifty, sartorially splendid character who first appeared in the 1996 R. Kelly video "Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)."
It's been a thrill for Isley, but for this project with Bacharach, he doesn't mind putting the smooth criminal on a temporary vacation.
"I love the Mr. Biggs thing, but I want to show them what I'm all about," he says. "I want to be the person to take that step and show the younger generation what this music, these melodies, is all about."