On January 26th in Los Angeles, the songwriter, musician, singer and producer, as a member of Isleys 3+3, is being bestowed a 2014 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. The man wants to look good for the occasion.
“I’m truly honored,” said Jasper, who in 1992 was inducted with the Isleys into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. “But it’s funny–I don’t see myself as old enough to be getting a ‘Lifetime’ anything.” He turned 62 this past December. “I’m nowhere near done yet!”
To wit: “Inspired,” Jasper’s recently released tenth solo album on his independent Gold City label (www.chrisjasper.com)
. A warm, soulful mélange of ballads and uptempo funk-tinged songs about relationships—between man and woman, between mankind, between man and God—the 10-song set could be viewed as a concept album.
“It just sort of turned into that,” said Jasper, whose easy-going nature doesn’t betray his esteemed station in pop/R&B history. “It wasn’t until the songs presented themselves that I realized it was a concept album. That’s the beauty of writing and producing–you never know what you’ll end up with. It was that way with the Isleys. We were always trying to come up with something new.”
“New” is an understatement. Never in the history of pop/R&B was there a more stark and ingenious reinvention of an act than when older Isleys O’Kelly, Rudolph and Ronald, recruited younger brothers Ernie and Marvin Isley, along with brother-in-law Chris Jasper to create Isleys 3+3.
Adorned in leather, sequin, furs, gold chains, hats and platform boots, the Isleys 3+3, from 1975 to 1983, had 14 Top 10 R&B records, including “Fight the Power,” “For the Love Of You,” “Harvest for the World,” “The Pride,” “Take Me to the Next Phase,” “I Wanna Be with You,” “Don’t Say Goodnight (It’s Time For Love)” and “Between The Sheets.” In the ‘70s, the summer was sure to be two things: hot, and dominated by a platinum Isleys album.
It wasn’t only the fans who loved the music. The Isleys’ seamless soul, funk and rock amalgamations influenced generations of artists, including the Gap Band, producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (the hump on their production of Alexander O’ Neal’s 1987 hit “Fake” is pure 3+3), R. Kelly and the Jacksons, who just after leaving Motown, told me they were inspired by the Isleys, who wrote their own songs and recorded for their own CBS-distributed T-Neck label with autonomy from the CBS A&R department.
In listening to the “Inspired” tracks “Keep Believin’,” “Any Day,” “Prince of Peace” and the title track, one can easily hear Jasper’s connection to those classic Isley tunes. “That’s what people on Facebook tell me,” said Jasper. “But the old album credits say we all wrote those Isley songs.”
The reality, according to Jasper, is that 3+3 “was more of a business partnership than a creative one. It was Ernie and I who wrote most of the songs, with Marvin contributing. The three of us recorded the tracks. I’d sing the demo, make a cassette copy and give it to Ron. He’d learn the song and in the studio put his thing on it. But the writing was left to us younger guys.”
The first time the younger musicians appeared on the cover of an Isleys LP was 1973’s “3+3.” However, they’d played on earlier albums. “On “Brother, Brother, Brother” (T-Neck, Buddah, 1972) we played on “Pop That Thang,” “Work To Do,” the title track-—all that stuff. When the Isleys covered the material of other artists, like “Summer Breeze” (originally a ’72 hit for Seals & Crofts), we were in charge of re-arranging the songs.”
Even before Jasper’s sister Elaine married Rudolph Isley, the Jaspers and Isleys were practically related. The families were neighbors in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Jasper, the youngest of seven, began playing piano at age 7. After graduating from high school he moved to New York to study music at the Juilliard School of Music. At New York’s C.W. Post College–Ernie and Marvin studied there as well–Jasper received a Bachelor’s degree in music composition.
When the older Isleys moved to Teaneck, New Jersey, Jasper wasn’t far behind. There, he, Ernie and Marvin would jam together, with Ernie emulating best he could the fiery style of a guitarist who’d earlier played with his brothers, a then nobody named Jimmy Hendrix, before he began spelling it “Jimi.” They were still attending C.W. Post and doing weekend gigs as a trio when the older Isleys decided to use them on their recordings.
Remarkably, on all those great 3+3 recordings there are no horns, no strings—just Jasper on keyboards and synthesizers, Ernie on guitar and Marvin on bass. “We wanted it real close and tight,” said Jasper, “so we could do it live and have it sound like the record.”
Album credits listed Jasper as keyboardist and Ernie as guitarist and drummer but in the studio, they played everything. “We wanted the best result for the music, so If Marvin thought I could give the bass line a different feel, he’d let me do it. I played drums on songs, too. Actually, that’s me playing those guitar chords on “Don’t Say Goodnight.” When I discovered the Mu-Tron (an effect pedal used on bass, guitar and keyboards), it was all over!” laughed Jasper. “That[Mu-tron] sound on “Fight The Power” and “The Heat is On”—that’s me.”
Considering Jasper’s respect for other players—“We listened to Sly, Stevie, P-Funk”–it felt good when his peers acknowledged his work. “Once, we were on the same flight with Graham Central Station—we did some dates with them—-and Larry Graham came over to my seat and said, ‘Hey, man…that’s you playing bass on “Tell Me When You Need It Again,” ain’t it?’ I don’t know how he figured that out.”
Plane rides were in fact a source of inspiration. The title of the ballad, “Let Me Down Easy” came to Jasper as their flight was landing in Detroit. “We’d had a rough landing the week before, and as we descended I thought, ‘Please, let me down easy.’”
When asked why he left the Isleys, Jasper answered, “They left US. Ron had tax problems and he wanted to declare bankruptcy, which would nullify our contract at CBS Records and allow us to sign with another label. We didn’t think he needed to file. He did it anyway and left for Warner Brothers.” That’s when Ernie, Marvin and Jasper formed Isley-Jasper-Isley, and in 1985 hit with “Caravan of Love.” Later, when the younger Isleys rejoined Ronald (O’kelly died of a heart attack in 1986; Marvin succumbed to diabetes in 2010; Rudolph left the industry in 1989 to become a minister), Jasper went solo and formed Gold City Records.
Today, Jasper receives songwriting royalties from 3+3 songs, used in TV commercials and sampled by a myriad of artists from Jay Z to Gwen Stefani. To stay on top of his business, in 2000Jasper went to law school, becoming a lawyer who specializes in—what else?–song copyrights.
His own recordings don’t do the gold and platinum numbers of 3+3, but he doesn’t mind. A practicing Christian, Jasper said, “To sell more, I’d have to participate in the corruption part of the music business. I fear God more than I fear man. I can’t get involved in that.”
Instead, in Los Angeles on the evening of January 26th, Jasper, with Margie, his wife of 30 years, also an attorney, will set aside any memories of an unscrupulous music biz and bask in the celebration of his contribution to popular culture.
Joining them will be Michael, 20, the youngest of their three sons (Chris, 32, is a musician; Nick, 31, an animator), himself a fledgling songwriter/producer.
“It’ll give him the opportunity to experience the music industry thing up close,” said Jasper. “And then he can see who I am. I mean, he knows, but not really. At home, I’m just a servant,” he laughed. “This’ll be like finding out your dad is Batman.”
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]