Seldom do compilations, best-of collections, or even box sets capture the big picture on an artist in a way that's as definitive as the music they are attempting to chronicle. There's always something missing: a tape that didn't turn up and no decent vinyl copies around to copy from, or the licensing of a couple of essential tracks from another company fell through the legal cracks and didn't make the final lineup. Bottom line: definitive collections or box sets seldom are. But this one is. The Isley Brothers have been part of the musical landscape for such a long time, it's almost as if they had existed forever. Their musical history runs the gamut from early doo wop to proto-soul to funk to present-day R&B. Their reputation as a house-wrecking live act is superseded only by James Brown and a handful of other R&B performers. Their influence extends to the Beatles and to Jimi Hendrix, who served time in the Isley Brothers' band when he was still a scuffling youngster. They brought church music to the street and infused it with a pop sensibility that never lost its soulfulness. On this three-disc box set, listeners hear the story of that music and see an innovative group finally getting its due. Although the music on this set is cross-licensed from numerous companies and runs the entire scope of the Isley Brothers' career, it is not sequenced chronologically, or at least not on the opening disc. The earliest doo wop sides cut for a series of labels owned by George Goldner show up late in the game on disc one, which opens with the Brothers building up to a live version of "Shout" recorded at Yankee Stadium, followed by the original studio version of the classic. But nice examples of their work from their stints with RCA Victor, Wand, Motown, Atlantic, Cindy, Mark X, and Teenage set the stage perfectly for their own label masterworks on T-Neck. The true bonus of the early tracks on disc one are two tracks featuring Hendrix on guitar. Hearing 1965's "Move Over and Let Me Dance" is not unlike hearing Elvis Presley's Memphis Recording Service demos; the man is not yet a star, yet all the pieces are in place, waiting to happen.
Disc two -- covering 1971-1975 -- is where the Brothers hit their stride. They still crank out hits and take on unlikely tunes, truly making them their own. That the Isleys could take on material like the Seals & Crofts weenie "Summer Breeze" and make an R&B masterpiece out of it is still a marvel of creativity over form. Likewise, what they do with material from James Taylor, Todd Rundgren, and Stephen Stills is utterly transforming; they don't cover these songs so much as totally reinvent them in their style. The third disc picks up the story from 1976-1996, chock-full of great original material and loads of devastating guitar from Ernie Isley, a Hendrix disciple who learned it firsthand and almost single-handedly kept the style alive after Hendrix's death. As great and influential as the Isleys and their music have been these many decades, they have unfortunately never achieved the crossover success of Motown artists and other lesser lights of R&B. Their contribution to American music and to African-American culture is writ on this deluxe set, a box that should end up in every serious American music collection out there. Even if you already have some Isley Brothers in the stack, trade 'em in, because this one is the set you really need.