Rudolph Isley, who held dual roles in the influential vocal group the Isley Brothers as lead singer and co-writer of many of their biggest hits, died Wednesday at his home in Chicago. He was 84.
He died in his sleep, his brother Ernie said, adding that he was not aware of any medical problems his brother might have had.
Mr. Isley spent most of his three decades with the Isley Brothers harmonizing with his brother O’Kelly to back up Ronald Isley’s lead vocals. But he also sang lead on some notable tracks. On “I need to pull myself together,” recorded in 1969, his gentlemanly tone gave the song an air of grace. He also lent a gentle lead to the group’s soaring entrance into the disco field, “It’s Disco Night (Rock Don’t Stop)” which was a club hit in the United States in 1979 and reached the Top 20 in Britain.
The Isley brothers have always been fashionable, and in the 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Isley made a fashion statement wearing hats and furs and carrying a bejeweled cane, which added swagger to the Isleys.
He and his brothers wrote a string of seminal hits, beginning with “Shout,” the group’s 1959 breakthrough, which applied the call-and-response dynamics of gospel music to a pop context. They also wrote the enduring political anthem “Fight the Power,” a top five Billboard hit, as well as a top 10 pop hit. “It’s Your Business” and “The lady.”
Sixteen Isley Brothers albums have charted in the Billboard Top 40, 13 have been certified gold, and nine have gone platinum or multi-platinum.
In 1989, Mr. Isley retired from the mainstream music industry to pursue his long-delayed dream of a career in ministry, although he continued to sing in church. He also recorded several gospel songs and released a religious album in 1996 called “Shouting for Jesus: A Loud Joyful Noise”. He and his brothers were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.
Rudolph Bernard Isley was born on April 1, 1939, in Cincinnati, the second of six sons to Sally (Bell) and O’Kelly Isley. He began singing in church as a child, and during his teenage years he and three other older Isleys performed and toured local towns.
“I have some very special memories of listening to music with my brothers when we were young,” Mr. Isley told the music journalist Leo Sacks in the liner notes to the 1999 box set Mr. Sacks produced, “It’s Your Thing: The Story the Isley brothers.” He added, “Billy Ward and Domino, that was the group. We idolized them. We put our own thing together because we never lost that harmonious group dynamic.”
In the early days of the group, eldest brother Vernon sang. He was killed at age 13 when the bike he was riding was hit by a car, and Ronald became the lead singer.
The Isleys were still quite young when Rudolph, O’Kelly and Ronald moved to New York to land a record deal. Contracts with small labels led to a deal with RCA, one of the biggest in the business, in 1959, and the Isleys wrote and recorded “Shout” shortly after. It sold over a million copies and became an acclaimed rock’n’roll classic, spawning covers by Dion, Bruce Springsteen, Garth Brooks and many others. (Also heard in “National Lampoon’s Animal House” and other films.)
In 1962, the Isleys had a Top 40 hit with their cover version “Twist and Shout,” written by Bert Berns and Phil Medley and originally recorded a year earlier by Top Notes. Their recording provided the blueprint for much more popular version recorded by the Beatles in 1963.
For a short time in 1964, the Isley Brothers included a young guitarist named Jimmy James, who later became known as Jimi Hendrix.
The Isleys signed to Motown in 1965. But despite the label’s reputation for generating hits, they only had one in their short tenure, “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)” written by the label’s top songwriting team of Lamont Dozier and Brian and Eddie Holland (with Sylvia Moy). It reached number 12 on the Billboard charts and number 3 in the UK. Frustrated with Motown’s controlling attitude, the brothers, in an unusual move for an African-American act at the time, left the label to form their own, T-Neck Recordsnamed after Teaneck, NJ, where they were based.
Moving to a more raw and funky style influenced by James Brown and Sly Stone, the trio found a new dimension and a new commercial connection. Their 1969 single “It’s Your Business” peaked at #2 on the Billboard chart and #1 on the magazine’s R&B chart.
In the early 1970s, the group expanded to include the two youngest siblings, Ernie and Marvin, along with Rudolph’s brother-in-law Chris Jasper; all three contributed instrumentals and Mr. Jasper also sang. The result was a mostly solo band, another rarity for black artists at the time. Together they created a unique rock’n’roll-tinged brand of funk and soul. Over the years, their music has covered a wide range of genres, from doo-wop to gospel to quiet stormy ballads.
From 1973 to 1981, all of the group’s albums went gold, platinum, or multi-platinum. Most of the songs on these albums were co-written by Mr. Isley and the other members.
The group also went platinum in 1986 with “Between the Sheets,” the title track of which offered their sultry response to Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.” Rudolph Isley shared lead vocals with his brother Ronald on two of the album’s tracks, the spacey funk number “Way Out Love” and the sultry grind “Slow Down Children”.
With the rise of hip-hop, the Isleys’ classic material provided the source of more samples than any act other than James Brown and George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic.
O’Kelly Isley’s death from a heart attack in 1986 hit Rudolph particularly hard. The band’s next album, “Smooth Sailin'” (1987), featured just him and Ronald on the cover and was dedicated to O’Kelly. Two years later, Rudolph left the music business.
Still, this ever-inventive and forward-thinking group persevered and made a successful comeback in 1996 with the album “Mission to Please”, backed by the production and writing of R. Kelly. Rudolph Isley reunited with his brothers for one night in 2004 when the group won a lifetime achievement award at the BET Awards.
In March, Rudolph sued his brother Ronald, claiming that he was trying to trademark the band exclusively under his own name. The suit claimed that the founding members had “always” been a “common law company”.
Marvin Isley died in 2010 of complications from diabetes.
In addition to his brother Ernie, Rudolph Isley is survived by his wife, Elaine Jasper, whom he married in 1958; their children, Rudy Jr., Elizabeth, Valerie and Elaine; his brother Ronald; and several grandchildren.
“Music and faith, it’s just in our blood,” Mr. Isley said in the liner notes to “It’s Your Thing.” “I may have stopped singing pop music, but I will forever be an Isley Brother.”
Bernard Mokam contributed reporting.