By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — The annual series of free outdoor concerts at San Francisco’s Stern Grove comes to a close this Sunday with the festival’s Big Picnic fundraiser featuring soul greats the Isley Brothers.
This year’s 82nd Stern Grove Festival hosted one of the best line-ups in recent memory, presenting shows that featured jazzy hip-hop favorites Digable Planets, indie rock singer/songwriter Mitski, a rare co-headlining concert with reggae legends Toots Hibbert and the Maytals alongside soul act Lee Fields and the Expressions and an appearance by British band the Psychedelic Furs in addition to traditional performances with the San Francisco Ballet and the San Francisco Symphony.
While The Big Picnic Benefit and Concert that raises funds for the festival and its associated programs was held on Stern Grove’s opening Father’s Day weekend for many years, this year the event brings the festival to a big finish with R&B icons Isley Brothers. Tickets for the benefit have long sold out, but the Grove will still be open to the public for the concert.
One of the most durable and successful acts in pop music history, the Isleys have been producing hit songs for six decades. Founded in Cincinnati, Ohio, the Isley Brothers started out as a gospel singing group with siblings O’Kelly, Jr., Rudolph and Ronald backing lead vocalist Vernon in 1954 when they were teens. The death of Vernon after he was hit by a car while riding his bicycle at the age of 13 tragically ended the act for a time, but the surviving brothers would regroup with their parents’ blessing to pursue secular R&B music with Ronald taking over lead vocals.
The brothers relocated to New York and had a few regional hits before finally striking chart gold in 1959 with their first smash, “Shout.” The frenetic soul tune became the Isleys’ signature song and one of the most covered tunes of the following decade with acts like the Beatles, Lulu, Dion, the Shangri-Las and the Kingsmen making their own versions. The Isley Brothers eventually followed up that hit with another R&B classic, “Twist and Shout.” while the group’s version wasn’t the first released take of the song, the Isleys put their indelible stamp on the tune.
Alongside contemporary soul acts like James Brown, the Isley Brothers toured the so-called “Chitlin Circuit” relentlessly, establishing the group as one of the premiere acts in the country with a variety of backing musicians, including at one point a guitarist who would later go on to significant fame in his own right: Jimi Hendrix (he played on the band’s 1964 hit “Testify” that they released on their own T-Neck label). The Isleys rose to even greater success after signing to Motown and scoring with “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)” two years, but had trouble matching the heights reached by that hit, eventually leaving to re-establish T-Neck and pursue a different direction.
The band released the harder, funkier track “It’s Your Thing” — the first to featuring a then 16-year-old Ernie Isley — and had their biggest pop hit yet, scoring the Isleys their first Grammy. The addition of younger brothers Ernie on guitar, Marvin on bass and brother-in-law Chris Jasper on keyboards brought new blood and a fresh sound to the group. The band would chart a string of singles through the ’70s that mixed original tunes (“Pop That Thang,” “That Lady,” “Fight the Power”) with funked-up rock and pop covers (“Summer Breeze,” “Love the One You’re With,” “Ohio”) that gave spotlight to Ernie’s screaming Hendrix-style lead guitar.
The group kept the hits coming as the ’70s turned into the ’80s as the band turned to slow ballads that continued their reign on the charts. The Isleys split in 1983 with the younger musicians starting their own band Isley Jasper Isley as the older brothers carried on without them until Kelly died from a heart attack in 1986 and Rudy retired from music to enter the ministry late in the decade. By the time Ronald reconvened the Isleys with Ernie and Marvin in 1992, the band’s music had already become a sampling staple for hip-hop producers. The Isleys have remained relevant into the new millennium thanks to their own output and regular collaborations with contemporary soul artists and rappers. For more information on the 2019 season closer, visit the Stern Grove Festival website.
Stern Grove Festival Big Picnic with the Isley Brothers
Sunday, Aug. 18, 2 p.m. Free