How the Isley Brothers Created ‘Shout’
The Isley Brothers, circa 1960: From left, Rudolph Isley, Ronald Isley and O'Kelly Isley, Jr. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Nov. 3, 2015 12:42 p.m. ET
The Isley Brothers’ “Shout” is one of the earliest and best-known party songs. Immortalized by the frat-house dance scene in the 1978 comedy film “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” “Shout” was originally conceived by Ronald Isley during a 1959 concert in Philadelphia as a way to extend the audience’s excitement.
Though “Shout” only reached No. 47 on Billboard’s pop chart in 1959, it became the Isley Brothers’ first million-selling record thanks to its enduring popularity and covers by many other artists. The single was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
Mr. Isley and his brother Ernie will perform at New York’s Apollo Theater on Nov. 7 as part of a live televised broadcast by the OWN network. Their appearance follows the release in August of a 23-CD boxed set by Sony of all the Isley Brothers’ albums from 1959 to 1983. Ronald Isley, 74, recently talked about “Shout’s” evolution. Edited from an interview:
Ronald Isley: From the time I was a baby, my mother taught me to sing. She was a pianist and choir director at the First Baptist Church in downtown Cincinnati. Our church was an emotional, physical place. On Sundays, the congregation worked itself up, with people screaming “Halleluiah!” and collapsing on the floor.
Ronald Isley in May in North Carolina. ‘From the time I was a baby, my mother taught me to sing,’ he says. Photo: Jason Moore/ZUMA PRESS
My mother put me and my five brothers in the front row of a pew while she played piano and organ and sang. I wasn’t frightened by everything going on around me. I was more captivated by the minister and how he was able to hold onto so many people for the entire service.
At home in Lincoln Heights, just outside Cincinnati, my mother often played records and rehearsed me. In 1944, when I was 3, she entered me in a singing contest at our church. I stood on a chair and sang “I Trust in God.” I won, and the prize was a $25 war bond.
My brothers and I formed a gospel group in the early 1950s, but in ’57, after my father, O’Kelly Sr., died of a heart attack, my brothers, O’Kelly Jr. and Rudolph, and I began singing doo-wop to earn money. A lot of young gospel groups were doing that then. It was a natural move. Vocal harmony was at the heart of both gospel and doo-wop.
In 1958, my brothers and I moved to New York, where we met [talent scout] Richard Barrett, who brought us to George Goldner, the owner of Teenage, Gone and other independent record labels. We recorded a handful of songs for him, including “I Wanna Know” and “My Love” and that kind of stuff. Then we began performing at East Coast theaters.
By early 1959, larger labels wanted to sign us. We liked producers Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore best, and they signed us to RCA. But our first record, “I’m Gonna Knock On Your Door,” didn’t do much. We needed a hit.
In July 1959, we were booked into the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia as part of a soul revue hosted by local disc jockey Georgie Woods. There were about 15 other acts on the bill like the Flamingos and the Dells.
I loved Jackie Wilson then—everyone did. Jackie had a powerful church voice, but it was more than that. He had this easy, natural way of being on stage—taking off his jacket in one move, dancing smoothly, rolling his eyes and using his entire body to illustrate song lyrics. All of this knocked out audiences.
“Lonely Teardrops” was a big hit for Jackie in 1958, so I sang it with my brothers during our performances. It became such a strong number for us that the promoters put us on last to close the shows. Which was great, since audiences left the theater thinking of us on their way to record stores, not the other groups.
The Isley Brothers performing ‘Shout’
Jackie’s “Lonely Teardrops” had this part at the end where he’d sing, “Say you will,” and his backup singers would respond in kind. Then Jackie would ad-lib, “Say it right now, baby, yeah, come on, come on.” That was straight out of gospel.
During one of our performances at the Uptown Theater, I was singing “Lonely Teardrops” when I saw that everyone in the audience was standing up and really getting into it. The place was packed and the audience was yelling their approval, like at church.
The energy level was so strong that I didn’t want to end the song yet. I began to ad-lib, the way Jackie did: “You know…you make me wanna shout” and the band picked right up on it with that galloping beat. The people standing went crazy, and I began to ad-lib more lines, like “Kick my heels up” and “Throw my hands up.” I’d wait a second at the end of each line so my brothers and the audience had a chance to answer me with “Shout!” That song just took over.
But “Shout” didn’t end there. We had 10 more days to go on our revue, and audiences were coming to the theater and waiting for the song at the end. As our run continued, I began developing the song. Ray Charles’ 1954 recording, “I Got a Woman,” was a big inspiration.
He had opened his song with a big drawn-out “We-eee-ll,” and at the end he’d go into these gospel chord changes and a call-and-response thing with the band. He’d sing, “And don’t you know she’s all right, yeah.” We went along with that on “Shout,” with me singing, “Don’t forget to say you will” and my brothers answering me with, “Say you will” and “Say it.” Then I sang, “Come on, now” over and over. We really got everyone going.
When the revue’s run ended, my brothers and I returned to New York and told Hugo and Luigi about what had happened in Philadelphia. They already knew, having read about us in the papers. They said, “Why don’t you guys record ‘Shout’—without ‘Lonely Teardrops?’ Invite all your friends to the studio so we have a live audience there, like at the theater.”
On the night of July 29, we recorded “Shout” at RCA’s Studio B in New York. I sang it as close to the way we had been performing it as possible, with all of our friends in the booth and along the studio walls. Hugo and Luigi chose all the musicians except organist Herman Stephens, who I knew from church in Cincinnati. Herman understood “Shout” from the start.
When the single came out in August 1959, it was spread over two sides—Parts 1 and 2. As we performed “Shout” at concerts to support the record, I came up with a dance, treating the audience like a congregation. When I sang, “Shout—a little bit softer, now,” people would dance down low, rising slowly only when I sang “a little bit louder now.”
Church groups weren’t happy with “Shout.” We turned a song with a gospel feel into an R&B hit, and the groups began writing disc jockeys asking them to stop playing our record. They felt “Shout” should have been a church record.
‘Shout’ from the 1978 film ‘Animal House’
In 1977, the song wound up in the movie “Animal House.” I only found out about it after the movie came out in ’78. In the ’60s, the Isley Brothers had worked so many colleges it was pathetic. You can’t name a college we didn’t play. My guess is that whoever had the idea to put “Shout” into the movie had first heard us perform it on the their campus.
We didn’t mind that the movie’s fictional band, Otis Day & the Knights, sang it and not us. They were cast to sing the song, but after the movie came out, they began touring, singing “Shout” and our other hits. By then, we were too big to play smaller clubs, so they took all the jobs we turned down. They made a living off of that song.
Ronald Isley says ‘Church groups weren’t happy with “Shout.” We turned a song with a gospel feel into an R&B hit, and the groups began writing disc jockeys asking them to stop playing our record. They felt “Shout” should have been a church record.’
Back in late ’59, after “Shout” came out, my brothers and I began working with Jackie Wilson. We were fans of his when he was with Billy Ward and His Dominoes, and he became one of our best friends. He was crazy about us, though he was a little jealous, since we’d always tear up the show at the end.
In fact, we had followed him to Englewood, N.J., in late 1959. He was living there, and we wanted to live there, too. First we were in an apartment and then we bought a house where we could live along with our mom. She was crazy about “Shout.”
Today, when we perform, we always end with “Shout.” I tell everyone in the audience to stand up and they know what’s coming. Once we jump into it, most of the people try to recreate the “Animal House” thing all over again.