Ronald Isley is 79 today. Not a round number, but never mind. A happy birthday to him anyway. Perhaps it’s because he’s been a member of a group for his entire career that he isn’t generally mentioned in lists of the greatest male soul singers. For he certainly is one, up there with Sam, Smokey, Marvin, Otis, Levi, Al, Bobby, Philippé, Teddy, Luther and whoever else you want to include. Listen to the Isley Brothers’ “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”, “Hello, It’s Me”, or “Harvest for the World”: no much doubt, is there? And if 3 + 3 isn’t in your collection, I beg you to do something about it.
My subject here, however, is an album I’ve been playing a lot in recent weeks: Ron Isley’s collaboration with Burt Bacharach, which dates from 2003 and is nothing short of a masterpiece.
The circumstances of the recording were, by modern standards, exceptional. At the behest of DreamWorks Records’ John McClain, the two men prepared for sessions which took place over a handful of days in Capitol Records’ Hollywood studios: an orchestra of more than 40 pieces with Bacharach at the conductor’s podium and Isley at the microphone. Thirteen songs: 11 Bacharach and David classics plus two new Bacharach songs with lyrics by Tonio K.
And everything done live. On the spot. Rhythm section, string section, horns, and lead and backing singers. Together. Breathing the same air, feeling the same vibrations, responding to the same cues in real time. The way it used to be done. (I’d be surprised if there weren’t some touch-ups, but the principle is the thing.)
From the moment strings and harp usher in the first words of “Alfie”, the opening track, you realise that something special is happening. The exquisite delicacy of the singer’s delivery at the dead-slow tempo and the exacting control of his emotions bring something new to what might very well be the greatest of all the Bacharach/David songs. It’s hard to spoil lines like “If only fools are kind, Alfie / Then I guess it is wise to be cruel,” but Isley brings them a new poignancy. Bacharach’s arrangement manages to be both majestic and somehow weightless.
And the set goes on from there, Bacharach constantly inventing new way of reinvigorating familiar songs — the flugelhorn figures introducing “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” and “The Look of Love”, for example. (Flugel and trumpet, a Bacharach trademark in his heyday, are used throughout as a counterpoint to the lead voice.) And the latter track has a light bossa/funk groove that you might feel you’d like to have running through the rest of your life. A solo alto flute introduces “Anyone Who Had a Heart”. Alone at the piano, Bacharach sings the opening lines of “The Windows of the World” in his husky tones before giving way to Isley’s polished virtuosity, like a weathered hand sliding into a fine kid glove.
The inclusion of the new songs might have been a quid pro quo for Bacharach’s agreement to participate in the project, but they pull their weight. “Count on Me” benefits from a lovely melody and “Love’s (Still) the Answer” has the qualities of a very good Sondheim song.
Most of all, though, there’s “In Between the Heartaches”, a great song hidden away on Dionne Warwick’s Here I Am album in 1965. Isley, who once dated Warwick, requested its inclusion; its composer had forgotten all about it. Neil Stubenhaus’s softly purring bass-guitar reminds me of Marcus Miller’s contribution to Vandross’s “Second Time Around”: there’s no higher praise. And when, on “Here I Am” itself, Ronald Isley adds flourishes of melisma, it’s never gratuitous: this is how it should be done.
Of course you’re not going to experience again the shock and the thrill of hearing Bacharach’s melodies and arrangements for the first time in the ’60s: a twangy guitar in the middle of silken strings, a fusillade of boo-bams, a sudden chromatic twist, a song whose first 11 words are all on the same note. But all I can say is that they’ve never sounded more gorgeous than this.
* The photograph is by the late, great William Claxton. Here I Am: Isley Meets Bacharach is on the DreamWorks label. Several songs from a PBS Soundstage concert in July 2004 are up on YouTube, including “Close to You” and “Here I Am”. There’s also a promo — with slightly compromised sound quality — for “The Look of Love”.