That The Isley Brothers called their 1979 album Winner Takes All, seems almost fitting. After all, The Isley Brothers were on what was the hottest streak of their long career. Since 1973, when The Isley Brothers released 3 + 3, commercial success and critical acclaim had been ever-present. They’d released six albums, with one being certified gold, three platinum and two double-platinum. Indeed, their success was almost unrivalled. That’s no surprise. The Isley Brothers were innovators, who’d kept ahead of musical fashions. They’d been trendsetters, who’d influenced other groups. So, it was no surprise The Isley Brothers were celebrating twenty-five years in music. While The Isley Brothers were undoubtably innovators, they didn’t put all their eggs in one musical basket. Proof of this is Winner Takes All, which was recently rereleased by BBR Records.

Winner Takes All was a suitably eclectic album to celebrate The Isley Brothers twenty-five years in music. Disco, funk, soul and quiet storm featured on Winner Takes All. While The Isley Brothers ensured their music remained relevant, they weren’t going to bet their musical futures on the latest musical trend. That’s why The Isley Brothers enjoyed such a long and successful career. Better to stay ahead of trends and innovate than jumping onboard a bandwagon, especially one that didn’t look roadworthy. That just happened to be disco. 

While other artists and groups were desperately jumping onboard the disco bandwagon, including many who were trying to rescue their flagging careers, the end looked neigh for disco. It wasn’t quite being read the last rites, but the patient was looking decidedly peaky. The Disco Sucks bandwagon was rolling, ready to crush anyone in its path. Times had changed. For the past few years, disco had previously been the most popular musical genre. Not any more. The Disco Sucks backlash was building and building. This would cumulate on 12th July 1979, at Comiskey Park, Chicago. Luckily for The Isley Brothers, they’d released Winner Takes All two months before. Fortune it seemed favored the brave. The Isley Brothers run of commercially successful albums stayed in tact. They were seven for seven. To their run of gold, platinum and double-platinum albums, Winner Takes All gave The Isley Brothers the second gold album of their career. If Winner Takes All had been released a few months later, The Isley Brothers unrivaled run of success might have been broken. Before I tell you why, I’ll tell you about Winner Takes All.

For what was their seventeenth album, each of The Isley Brothers  played their part in the album. They decided Winner Takes All would be a double-album. A double-album they reasoned, meant double the advance. Setting to work, the five Isley Brothers, Ernie, Marvin, Ronald, O’Kelly and Marvin joined Chris Japer in writing the fourteen songs on Winner Takes All with Chris Jasper. With enough material for a double-album, the democracy that started with songwriting, extended to arranging and producing Winner Takes All. 

Recording of Winner Takes All took place at the famous Bearsville Studios in New York. Ernie played guitars, drums, timbales, percussion and congas, while Marvin played bass and percussion. Chris Jasper, the honorary Isley Brother, played keyboards, congas and percussion. Arranging and producing the fourteen track were the six members of The Isley Brothers. This couldn’t have been easy. Indeed, it easy. For some groups, having six producers, would’ve been akin to production by committee. Not The Isley Brothers. They made this work. Winner Takes On saw the commercial success and critical acclaim The Isley Brothers had come to enjoy and expect continue.

Before the release of Winner Takes All, I Wanna Be With You was released as the lead single in March 1979. It reached number one in the US R&B Charts. The commercial kept on coming. When Winner Takes All was released in May 1979, it reached number fourteen in the US Billboard 200 and number three in the US R&B Charts. While not matching the success of their previous albums, Winner Takes All was certified gold. Considering music was in the throes of what would be a cataclysmic and catastrophic upheaval, Winner Takes All had been a huge success. Then when Winner Takes All was released as a single in June 1979, it stalled at number thirty-eight in the US R&B Charts. Things were about to get a whole lot worse in the music industry. Luckily, The Isley Brothers, one of music’s great survivors, had timed the release of Winner Takes All exquisitely. A couple of months later, and Winner Takes All might not have been a commercial success. Before I tell you why, I’ll tell you about some of the highlights of Winner Takes All.

With any double-album, the problem facing any artist or group is quality. It’s difficult to keep up the quality for a single album, never mind a double album. Often, with a double-album, by the time side four came along, the quality that was on side one was lacking. Filler replaced killer. That’s one of the pitfalls attached to a double-album. Even given the commercial success and critical acclaim that had accompanied The Isley Brothers, a double-album like Winner Takes All, could adversely affect a group’s reputation. Among the accusations were that a double-album could be self-indulgent. This brings to mind singing drummers or bass players who’ve never previously written a song, being given the chance to showcase their hidden talents. So, it’s crucial that The Isley Brothers get Winner Takes All off to a strong start.

That they do. Winner Takes All opens with the lead single, I Wanna Be With You (Parts 1 & 2). It reached number one in the US R&B Charts. No wonder. Sultry and sensuous, it’s a funky, dance-floor friendly track. Trademark Isley Brothers’ handclaps punctuate the arrangement while a bubbling bass and breathy vocal from Ronald are crucial to the track’s success. The quality continues with Liquid Love (Parts 1 & 2). Opening with Ronald’s irresistible guitar solo it’s another dance track, where musical genres melt into one. The arrangement is funky, with rocky guitars, while Ronald’s heartfelt vocal is soulful and accompanied by tight, punchy harmonies. Drawing inspiration from disparate and eclectic sources, seamlessly, they merge into one. Winner Takes All is another irresistible dance-track. Funky and innovative, driven along by bubbling bass and chiming guitars, this is dance music, not disco. Add in congas, percussion and Ronald’s feisty, sassy, vocal and the result is a hook-laden, toe-tapping, timeless track.

Life In The City (Parts 1 & 2) has The Isley Brothers’ name written large all over it. That’s thanks to Ronald’s signature guitar and vocal. Propelled along relentlessly by rhythm section and percussion, Ronald’s vocal paints pictures of a time and place. That time was circa 1979, when The Isley Brothers provided the soundtrack to clubs worldwide. The same can be said of It’s A Disco Night (Rock Don’t Stop) (Parts 1 & 2). This is a delicious reminder of disco courtesy of The Isley Brothers. It literally explodes into life. Propelled along by thunderous handclaps, chiming guitar, keyboards and funky rhythm section, Rudolph takes charge of the vocal. His vocal is a fusion of energy, enthusiasm and joy. The result is a dramatic, soulful, funky and dance-track, that demonstrates just how versatile The Isley Brothers in their prime were.

(Can’t You See) What You Do To Me, with its stomping beat, is reminiscent of many a Motown track. That doesn’t spoil the track. No. It’s Motown with a much more fuller, richer arrangement. Even better, you’ve got Ronald Isley delivering the lead vocal. Soulful and emotive, accompanied by bursts of sweeping harmonies this might be a dance-track, albeit one that’s deeply soulful.

It’s not just uptempo tracks that feature on Winner Takes All. There’s several stunning ballads. Indeed Winner Takes All follows a pattern. After a suite of uptempo tracks, The Isley Brothers drop the tempo, allowing the soulful side of The Isley Brothers to shine through. The first ballad is Let’s Fall In Love (Parts 1 & 2), which benefits from an understated arrangement. Just a weeping guitar, keyboards and percussion accompany Ronald’s tender, needy, pleading vocal. It’s one of the best vocals on Winner Takes All and crucial to what’s a beautiful song. It gives way to another beautiful ballad, How Lucky I Am (Parts 1 & 2). It too, has an understated arrangement, one that’s not unlike the previous track. Again it allows the vocal to take centre-stage, as Ronald demonstrates he’s a master of balladry. Completing a suite of four consecutive ballads two more beautiful tracks, You’re The Key To My Heart and You’re Beside Me (Parts 1 & 2). 

Let Me Into Your Life (Parts 1 & 2) sees the tempo start rise slightly. It’s nowhere near the earlier tracks and still falls into the category of ballad. The track also features a slightly busier arrangement. This is thanks to the rhythm section, complete with bubbling bass and chiming guitars. Deliberate stabs of keyboards accompany Ronald’s needy, wistful vocal. Soulful and funky, Ronald’s vocal breathes meaning and emotion into the lyrics as he pleads and begs desperately asking Let Me Into Your Life. Having increased the tempo, it drops again for Love Comes And Goes (Parts 1 & 2). Again, the arrangement is pared back, with just acoustic guitar, drum and percussion combining. That’s all that’s needed. Ronald surpassed himself. His vocal is wistful, melancholy and rueful, Ronald’s vocal is tinged with regret and reality. 

Go For What You Know sees The Isley Brothers up the tempo as they return to the funky, dance-floor friendly side. Having said that, they don’t throw the soul out with the bathwater. Percussion, chiming guitars and edgy, funky rhythm section power the arrangement along, while whispery backing vocals provide a contrast to Ronald’s airy, soulful falsetto. Bringing Winner Takes All to a dramatic close is Mind Over Matter (Parts 1 & 2). Pounding drums, snakelike guitars and bass join handclaps and congas in setting the scene for Ronald’s dramatic, feisty vocal. There’s an urgency to his vocal, as he shrieks and scats, while keyboards add to the drama and darkness. Building and building towards a crescendo, The Isley Brothers  eschew filler for killer. To do that takes much more than Mind Over Matter, but skill, talent and versatility.

Although other artists were jumping on the disco bandwagon, The Isley Brothers resisted that temptation on Winner Takes All. Realizing that a musical career was for life, while a musical genre lasted a matter of a few years at best, The Isley Brothers only paid a brief homage to disco on Winner Takes All. That was the hook-laden, joyous explosion of energy and electricity that is It’s A Disco Night (Rock Don’t Stop). Apart from that, the uptempo tracks were dance tracks. There was a difference by 1979. By then, many disco tracks had a synthetic, formulaic sound. The same would be the case with Acid House. These tracks have aged as well as an ageing film star after a cheap facelift. Maybe The Isley Brothers had been around too long, and realized hitching their career could have disaster. Instead, The Isley Brothers concentrated on creating timeless dance tracks. The result is, these tracks are timeless. Thirty-four years later, they’ve stood the test of time and would still fill a dance-floor. Compare then with a formulaic disco track and there’s no comparison. It ostensibly was a shameless, money grasping opportunity by artists whose careers were over bar the shouting. That was far from the case with The Isley Brothers.

Winner Takes All saw the hottest streak of The Isley Brothers’ career continue. They were seven from seven. Their double-album Winner Takes All, saw soul, funk and disco were combine seamlessly. Beautiful ballads and uptempo dance tracks sit comfortably side by side, as The Isley Brothers showcase their considerable talent, vast experience and sheer versatility. Following Winner Takes All The Isley Brothers’ winning streak continued. 1980s Go All The Way was certified platinum and 1981s Grand Slam gold. Sadly, ten in a row didn’t happen. The winning streak was broken by 1981s Inside You. That wasn’t the end of The Isley Brothers. Far from it. They enjoyed three further platinum and one more gold disc. That’s much better than those that hitched a ride on he disco bandwagon.

On 12th June 1979, at Comiskey Park, Chicago, the Disco Sucks movement almost killed disco. On what was named Disco Demolition Night, thousands of disco records were blown up at half-time in a double header between Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers. What seemed like a publicity stunt, had a huge affect on disco. Its popularity plummeted. Suddenly, radio stations weren’t playing disco music and record companies weren’t releasing disco albums. Disco artists suffered. They became musical pariahs. Many were dropped by their labels. Some disco labels folded. Disco was Knocking At Heaven’s Door. Despite being given the last rites and being pronounced dead, disco didn’t die. Instead, it went underground and continues to survive, and some would say thrive. Disco it seems never quite died, nor did it enjoy the same success as The Isley Brothers enjoyed after Winner Takes All. Standout Tracks: It’s A Disco Night (Rock Don’t Stop), Let’s Fall In Love (Parts 1 & 2), How Lucky I Am (Parts 1 & 2 and Love Comes And Goes (Parts 1 & 2).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: