NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hello, and welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, a weekly podcast that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and I feel allllllllll right, yeah yeah.
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Trivia! I’ve got an interesting trivia question for you this time around. There is only one singer/songwriter whose work has been covered by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. I’m not talking about one song here, they each did a song that originated with this person. I know my original guess was wrong, so let’s see how you do. I’ll have an answer for you at the end of the show.
Like so many other tunes, the Isley Brothers’ song “Shout” was the result of a happy accident.
[HE’S GOT THE WHOLE WORLD IN HIS HANDS]
Ronald Isley, along with brothers O’Kelly, Ernie, Vernon and Marvin and Rudolph were exposed to music at an early age. Their mother was a pianist and choir director at the Baptist Church in Cincinnati where they lived, and Ronald described it as an emotional, physical place. It was one of those churches, he said, where people would shout “Hallelujah!” and fall to the floor. And mom would put the five of them up in front of the church and get them to sing for the congregation. Ronald says he wasn’t nervous, in fact he was kind of fascinated by the preacher’s ability to hold the audience’s attention.
In the early 1950s the Isleys formed a gospel group which did okay, but tragedy struck the family when brother Vernon died, and around the same time so did their father, O’Kelly Senior. In order to earn some money for the family, Ronald, O’Kelly and Rudolph turned to doo-wop music. He noted that a lot of gospel groups were doing the same thing, since gospel and doo-wop have a lot in common.
In 1958 the group moved to New York and met with a talent scout named Richard Barrett, who took them to an independent record producer named George Goldner. They recorded a few songs for him, and began playing some shows on the East Coast. About a year later, the bigger labels were looking to sign the Isley Brothers, and they settled on RCA Records. Their first hit was this song, called “I’m Gonna Knock on Your Door”…
[I’M GONNA KNOCK ON YOUR DOOR]
…it’s not a bad record, but in retrospect I don’t think there was a lot about it that made it stand out. It’s a pretty typical sound for the genre.
In 1959 the Isley Brothers were booked into Philadelphia’s Uptown Theater as part of a Soul Revue hosted by a local disc jockey. This show operated much like the Motown Revues, in that there was a large number of acts, each doing one or two songs, and they would get up, do their thing and then rush off quickly while the MC did a little patter to get the next act on stage. The other thing that was common in those days was that it wasn’t a big deal for musical artists to perform songs from other artists. That’s why there are several versions of “Not Fade Away” or “Stand By Me” out there. Largely it was because artists often didn’t write their own material, so it would get shopped out to a bunch of different people. So it was just an accepted practice.
And since the Isleys didn’t have a huge track record as far as chart appearances were concerned, their stage repertoire still consisted mostly of covers of other artists’ work. And one of their favorite songs to perform was Jackie Wilson’s 1958 hit, “Lonely Teardrops.” Ronald Isley recalled that the performance got such a great reaction from the crowd, that the Isleys were moved to the last act on the bill, to give the show a strong close. In Ronald’s opinion, this was great because the audiences left the theater thinking of the Isleys on their way to the record store, not somebody else.
Now, “Lonely Teardrops” has a section where Jackie Wilson does a call-and-response with the backup singers, where he sings “Say you will” and they respond in kind, and toward the end of the song he just starts ad-libbing: “Say it right now baby”. The whole thing has a very gospel structure to it, and this is what Ronald Isley drew upon while performing the song.
He says that it was at one of the Philadelphia performances that he saw the crowd was REALLY responding well to the song. They were standing up and shouting their approval, and it took him back to his church days. In turn, he decided that he didn’t want it to end just yet, so he began to ad-lib, much like Jackie Wilson would, and he sang “You know…you make me wanna SHOUT”, and the band picked up immediately what he was up to, and they gave him that beat that throws you on its back and starts galloping away. The audience went berserk, and he kept ad-libbing lines like “Kick my heels up and—” and then a pause so the audience and his brothers could answer with “SHOUT”. So in the beginning it wasn’t so much of a song, as it was a bit to extend the song he was already singing, and to keep up the audience’s energy.
But they decided it was worth exploring as a song, and they started developing something while they continued the revue over the next several days. One of Ronald Isley’s big inspirations was this 1954 recording from Ray Charles: “I Got A Woman”. The opening of the song, clearly had its influence, but listen also to the beat of the song…
[I GOT A WOMAN]
So when the revue ended, the Isley Brothers returned to New York and told their producers Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore about what had happened, and they immediately suggested that a record be cut.
Peretti and Creatore encouraged the Isleys to bring all of their friends into the studio, to help foster the show feel, and they chose all of the musicians to play on the record, with a single exception:
[PART 2 EDIT]
The person playing the organ was Herman Stephens, who played with them in that church back in Cincinnati.
Now, when the single was first released, it was broken into two parts. Side A ends with “Now wait a minute” and side B begins with the long organ note and “I feel all right.” And in fact, the last time I bought a copy of this on a 45, which would have been the late 1980s, it was still a two-part single. This is kind of peculiar if only because both halves can easily fit on a single side of a 45. The only reason I can think of for breaking the song into two is that the total length is close to four and a half minutes, depending on how long you pause between the two halves of the song. And that’s a song length that just wouldn’t do on pop stations in 1959, and I have to guess that it only got limited airplay, and probably only a single side, and that’s why the record peaked at Number 47 on the Billboard Hot 100. So it didn’t do great on the pop charts, but its sheer longevity is what made Shout the Isley Brothers’ first single to go gold, meaning that it sold one million copies. For those of you who are confused by that definition, remember that a gold single sells a million but a gold album only has to sell 500,000.
About a month after the record was released in September of 1959, Australian performer Johnny O’Keefe performed the song on his show, called Six O’Clock Rock and released it as a single, where it went to Number Two there.
In 1962, Joey Dee and the Starlighters took the song to Number Six, having already nicked the call-and-response ending for “The Peppermint Twist” a year earlier. Meanwhile that same year, the Isleys charted again with the song but it only went to Number 94.
In 1964, Scottish singer Lulu, who was billed at the time as Lulu and the Luvvers took the song to Number 7 in the UK, and that was her debut on the pop charts anywhere. Lulu, by the way, was only 13 years old at the time. If she’s sounding a little rougher than you’re used to hearing, it’s because she supposedly had a bad cold when she recorded it. You can see a video of her lip-synching the song on “Ready Steady Go”, and it’s a bunch of fun, especially since she gives the song a full ending, and you also notice that she stops lip synching just a couple of seconds too early. Oops.
So yeah, there have been lots of covers of the song but perhaps the most notable, and the one that’s probably most responsible for the Isleys going gold, is the one that was performed by Otis Day and the Knights in the 1978 film National Lampoon’s Animal House. Now, let’s be clear: Otis Day and the Knights were a totally fictional band created to perform in the movie, and the guy you see in the film is an actor named Dewayne Jessie. The songs sung by the band were sung by Lloyd Williams, who later put together a real-life band and performed on tour. Incidentally, DeWayne Jessie is the brother of Young Jessie from The Coasters, and if the bass player in the movie band looks familiar, well, you’d be right: that’s Robert Cray. Otis Day and the Knights only released one album, which was produced by George Clinton in 1989, and if you’re looking for the same recording you hear in the film, well, prepare to be a little disappointed because they made a new recording for that album. It’s not bad specifically, it’s just not the same recording.
For what it’s worth, the song has its own dance as such, which mostly gives you permission to get out on the dance floor and do whatever, until the Isleys get to the “a little bit softer now” part, in which you’re expected to bring your body closer and closer to the floor. Most people don’t realize how many times they sing “a little bit softer now” and they wind up literally dancing on the floor while lying down, and then they gradually rise up again for the “a little bit louder now” part. It’s a great dance to do if you can’t dance.
And as far as the Isley Brothers are concerned, while this song was a modest hit for them at first, like so many other artists, it didn’t translate into instant stardom. Their next couple of singles for RCA tanked and they were dropped by the label.
[TWIST AND SHOUT]
It wasn’t until 1962 that they finally scored on the Scepter label with “Twist and Shout”, but real success came to them in 1965 when they signed on with Motown Records. Their Motown track record wasn’t amazing either, but it gave them the ramp-up they needed for their later success with Buddah and then Columbia’s Epic label. But I guess I can save that for a future show.
Hey, it’s time to answer this week’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I’d asked about the singer/songwriter whose work has been covered by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. That would be Arthur Alexander.
Alexander was mostly known as a country songwriter and a soul singer, and while he enjoyed middling success as a performer, he’s better known for writing songs that other artists have covered. As far as these three artists are concerned:
[MEDLEY: Anna/You Better Move On/Sally Sue Brown]
- The Beatles recorded Alexander’s song “Anna (Go to Him)” for their 1963 debut album, and by the way, listen to the job Ringo does replicating the original beats;
- The Rolling Stones covered “You Better Move On” in 1964, where it appeared on the EP The Rolling Stones and on the US album December’s Children (and Everybody’s);
- And it was in 1988 that Bob Dylan recorded “Sally Sue Brown” for his album Down in the Groove.
And, that’s it for this edition of How Good It Is.
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when Shel Silverstein writes your material.
Thank you so much for listening, and I will see you then.