So much has gone under the bridge that we’ve all but forgotten that era when racial lines were not obliterated but smudged in such a way that it was a little tough to find the line between black and white. By the early 1970s we had been through the civil rights upheaval and the backlash that made martyrs out of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others. It was like that refreshing period following a good hard rain … we were all open to checking out each other’s culture a bit.
The Isley Brothers were a huge act throughout the 1960s – their first million seller came in 1959 with “Shout.” They served a stint at Motown and in 1969 the Isleys created their own record label, T-Neck Records. In 1971 the Isleys put out the album we’re going to spin today, Givin’ It Back, on T-Neck. For more than a decade, white/mainstream pop artists scored their own successes with versions of Isley Brothers’ songs (Joey Dee & the Starlighters hit with their own version of “Shout;” and there’s that version of “Twist and Shout” by some guys from Liverpool) so the Isleys decided to “give it back” by cutting their own versions of songs by then-current rock and pop artists.
The LP starts off with a sizzling version of Neil Young’s “Ohio” fused with Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun.” The song speaks not only to the Kent State campus killings of 1970 but the less publicized incident 10 days later at Jackson State University in Mississippi, where two black students were killed and a dozen more were injured by police trying to stop a demonstration. The song was a reminder that the times were still angry and deep divisions still remained in this country. The Isleys’ prayer in the middle of these two angry songs suggests that cooler heads were out there, begging to be listened to. This is a powerful way to start off the album, and it’s easily the best cut.
Next up the Isleys give a new setting to James Taylor’s singer/songwriter warhorse, “Fire and Rain.” The Isleys charge it up with a tangible urgency, as they do with Eric Burdon and War’s “Spill The Wine.” Even better is the Isleys’ soulful reading of Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay,” giving it a sexual tension and soul that its writer could never hope to pull off.
“Cold Bologna” is a funky blues that even features its writer, Bill Withers, on guitar. The Isleys were good for giving young writers a showcase, and here’s a good example with Withers, who would soon come into his own with songs like “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean On Me.” Stephen Stills also gets the Isley cover treatment on two songs, “Nothin’ To Do But Today” and “Love The One You’re With.” The former is the weakest song on the album but the latter is a highlight, as the Isleys inject a little soul and extra rhythm into the proceedings. Consider this a worthy companion to Marvin Gaye’s better-known masterpiece from 1971, What’s Going On.