Take Me To The Next Phase: Coming of Age with The Isley Brothers
Excerpted from Koko Jones’ forthcoming autobiography ‘A Very Different Drummer — Journal of a Triumphant Life.’
By Kevin “Koko” Jones / Photography By: Roz Levin/Sony Music Archives
“Kevin, this is Marvin Isley.”
“I know that voice. What’s happenin’ Marvin?!” I said excitedly.
“I was just calling to see what you were up to,” Marvin said in his casual way. But he definitely had a reason every time he called me. I had met Marvin years ago, when Marvin and his brother Ernie lived across the street from Englewood’s Dwight Morrow High School. Marvin was four years older than me so he and I didn’t actually attend high school at the same time, but since our middle school and the high school were on the same campus I would see them around a lot. I never really thought of Marvin and Ernie as stars because I didn’t know their life outside of seeing them around town. Marvin would often attend school concerts during my High School years. I would look out in the audience and see him grinning ear to ear.
“We’re getting ready to go on tour later this year…I was going to ask you to go on tour with us.”
“Nothing much,” I answered
“Are you still in school?” Marvin asked.
“Yep, I’m in my second year up here at UMASS,” I answered.
“Oh good…that’s fantastic. You know we’re getting ready to go on tour later this year. If you had decided not to go to school then I was going to ask you to go on tour with us.”
“Really?” I asked, not quite believing what I was hearing.
Marvin basically ran it down like this: “You know Kevin, we want you to finish your education first; that’s important.”
I didn’t think much of it at the time, but that someone who was not my blood could be that concerned about me was profound. His argument not to take me on the road at this point was a decision of forethought and empathy. Marvin was looking out for my best interest as he always did. As for me, by 1978 my interests were so far into jazz that, while playing with The Isley Brothers was a cool proposition, it wasn’t my focus. Little did I know that just a year later they would ask me again and that this time I would accept the invitation.
In the late winter of 1980 Marvin called again and this time I was ready to get out of dodge. I had moved back to Englewood to attend City College because the grant that had allowed me to attend UMASS had run out. I found attending City College a completely different experience. Gone was the expansive, quaint, bucolic scenery that surrounded the University in Amherst, Massachusetts. In its place was a bus and subway ride into Harlem for my classes. My home was also very crowded with loads of people stopping by and sometimes staying with my family; it was a chaotic environment, to say the least, and there were a lot of distractions. When I got the call from Marvin, it was time for me to get away.
A couple of weeks later I found myself in the back of Marvin’s orange El Dorado, with a license plate that read “’Isley,” headed to Amityville, Long Island.
A couple of weeks later I found myself in the back of Marvin’s orange El Dorado, with a license plate that read “Isley,” headed to Amityville, Long Island. It was the family home of Everett Collins, the drummer in the band. Everett was a kind and gentle man who knew music inside and out. His personality exuded confidence but in a very humble way. I had taken Everett’s gentle nature in an inquisitive way. Everett never got into any mischief and was clean cut, a non-drinker and definitely not into drugs. I was rambunctious, and a free spirit; ready to tear up the world. I wasn’t aware of the depth of Everett’s talent until I got to know him better. I found out that he came from a musical family. His father was a jazz drummer and Everett was an avid student of music of all kinds. Everett was our soft spoken leader with a wicked sense of humor; the kind of humor that required thought and knowledge.
Guitarist David Townsend, the son of songwriter and singer, Ed Townsend (of “Let’s Get It On” fame), rode in the car with us. I had known David most of my life. He was a little older than me and was super talented. We would talk all the time about everything from politics to religion but would talk most about music of all types. Pianist Ronnie Scruggs rode with us too. Ronnie was short fellow with tons of energy. He was the oldest band member and had a lot of experience leading his own bands and was a great singer. To round out the group was Tony Herbert, the second keyboardist and long-time Englewood resident. Tony was a handsome young black man who had an avid admiration for his first loves, bass and motorcycles (not necessarily in that order). All of us were native Englewood residents except for Everett.
The fact that they’d always be there before us spoke volumes of their commitment to excellence and work ethic.
We set up at the Collins house in the rehearsal room, a room which seemed to reflect the family’s long commitment to their own musical tradition. Chris Jasper and Ernie, who were always on time, were already there. The fact that they’d always be there before us spoke volumes of their commitment to excellence and work ethic. There was never any slacking at rehearsals. No long breaks where musicians would get lost. This was very serious business and I took to it like a bee to a flower.
We would finish up our rehearsals in Atlanta after a month or so of meeting at Everett’s house. I had my bags packed and waited with much anticipation in the foyer of my house. Right on schedule, a car pulled up to take me to the airport. Ronnie Scruggs and Tony Herbert were already in the black limousine that reminded me of the limousine that I rode in to go to my father’s funeral. But this was no funeral and the sadness that accompanied that last limo ride was nowhere to be found on this journey. On the way to the airport, we talked about what the tour would be like. How Ronnie would take “the stroll” through the venue before the show, how Gorgeous George was a ladies’ man. There were admonitions about how to deal with the many pitfalls of being on the road. I was excited, but most of all I was anxious. I was anxious to prove myself; to show that I belonged.
The plane touched down at Atlanta Airport. I looked out the window and thought, “I can get used to this.”
The older Isleys had not been coming to those rehearsals in Long Island. We were in Atlanta to rehearse with the whole band in a warehouse with full lights, sound and pyrotechnics.
We headed to the baggage claim. It felt a bit like we were stars as Scruggs and Everett were deep in conversation while they walked. Ernie, Marvin and Chris wore their sunglasses through the airport even after the sun had gone down. There were some folks that recognized them and asked for autographs. At the baggage claim there was a brown-skinned man, wearing a straw brim hat and a beige summer suit with short sleeves and matching beige shoes, who immediately recognized Everett and Scruggs and greeted them with a hug. Ronnie introduced me. “Hey man, this is our newest member Kevin.”
“Hey man,” I said with a bright smile. “You’re Gorgeous George!”
“Here in the flesh!” he answered. “Lookie here, my man. They got some fiiiiine women down here in Atlanta.”
‘Gorgeous’ George Odell had a respected reputation in the entertainment industry that went back to the 1950s. Besides being an entertainer/singer himself, he was one of the best valets of costumes for stage and MCs in the business, particularly the chitlin’ circuit. With the Isley Brothers he wore many hats. He designed the Isleys’ costumes as well as served as a show-stopping MC. George had a way about him that just made you feel comfortable. To me he was more like a really cool uncle that showed you the ropes; the one that took you places that your parents would never allow you to go.
The next day we started rehearsals, and as we honed the material, I started to feel more and more confident about going into this new tour. The first day was my chance to meet the older brothers. They were chillin’ out in the break room. When the band took a break, I walked into the room where they had a complete soul food spread complete with chicken, ribs, greens, mac n’ cheese and all the fixings. I walked over to Rudy, Kelly and Ronald and introduced myself. I drew on all of the respectful manners that I was taught at home.
“Hello, good afternoon. My name is Kevin. It’s a pleasure to meet you, sirs and I am so appreciative of this opportunity to work with you.”
Kelly turned to Rudolph and said, “That’s a real boy scout. You can tell he was raised right.”
Ronald answered, “We’re glad to have you ‘Kavin’. Welcome to the Isley Brothers.” (I don’t think to this day Ronald ever called me Kevin. He said it with a country drawl to it much like my cousins from Memphis did.)
I stood there, not knowing how to reply. I felt inexperienced and awkward, so I finally said, “Well, I’m going to go back in,” and headed back into rehearsal. The Brothers chuckled at my awkwardness but I was just happy to feel that I was getting ready to work for a long time.
I stood outside of my house the afternoon of June 6th, 1980, looking dashing! I stepped down the stairs of my house and to a waiting limousine. I checked my yellow shoes and tan bell bottoms. I topped off my outfit with a yellow shirt and tan Kangol brim. My body was toned from drumming and I felt I was ready for the world. I was a 20 year old kid getting ready to go on a world tour with the most popular group in the history of soul music. It would be my first gig with the Isleys and it was in the “world’s most famous arena”: Madison Square Garden. Madison Square Garden was where legends were made. It was where Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier. It was where the New York Knicks defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in 1970. It was where the Rolling Stones and the biggest names in music performed. And now I was playing there and ready to make history of my own.
The limousine made its way inside of the Garden and up the winding ramp that takes you backstage. Directly behind was the limousine of the DJ Frankie Crocker, who was literally the king of New York radio. There was a virtual who’s who of celebrities hanging at the show. It was a surreal experience. After the S.O.S. Band and Stephanie Mills played, it was time for us to hit the stage. We sat backstage talking in the dressing room readying ourselves for our performance. The emphatic knock on the door came. It was “Gut,” our stage manager. Gut was a fun loving, laid back, hippie type from Georgia whose nickname preceded him. He had a very southern twang to his voice.
“The Brothers are ready. Let’s go…”
As I saw the brothers and Chris emerge into the hallway one by one, the reality of the moment sunk in. “It’s happening,” I thought. “I have arrived.” My stomach squirmed a little but I took a deep breath and said a prayer, asking my father to watch over me. “I will make you proud, Daddy,” I said silently.
As we approached the stage we were held underneath a gigantic tarp that was made into a tunnel. You could hear the crowd getting excited. Ernie fingered the intro to “Who’s That Lady” on his guitar. Ronnie was talking to Everett as we waited. I slapped five with Marvin. All of sudden, you heard a roar. It was the type of roar that sounds louder than a jet plane. It was unbelievably loud, followed by those famous words I would hear for years to come. “Laghts er’ out…” Gut would announce those same words over and over every tour until 1984.
Gut led the band on stage with his flashlight, then went back to get Ernie, Chris and Marvin. Frankie Crocker was the evening’s MC but that night he shared that duty with Gorgeous George Odell. George had the same introduction for years. It was clever, it was country but it worked. I can’t remember the whole thing but it ended with, “Ladies and Gentlemen… The Islaaaaaaayyyy Brothers”
And with that a new phase of my life was in full swing. That night The Isley Brothers broke a Madison Square Garden record for attendance at a concert event.
I don’t remember where the first show after the Garden show was but the main part of the tour included The S.O.S. Band, The Gap Band and us. At some venues the promoter would add other acts like Cameo and Larry Graham. I was always amazed watching the other acts. I studied them intently. I was always able to get David Townsend to go and watch with me.
I went out to see S.O.S. Band and went back in the dressing room to grab something to drink. All of sudden I heard a roar! And faintly in the distance I heard “Shake” by The Gap Band. David came and got me. “Yo Kev! You gotta come and see this shit!”
I walked to a spot behind the monitor console. And I could not believe what I was hearing or seeing. It was one of the most phenomenal and electric shows I had ever seen. The Gap Band was comprised of the Wilson Brothers: Robert who played bass, Ronald who played piano and trumpet, and fronted by lead singer and pianist Charlie Wilson. Every night Charlie would have the audience in the palm of his hand.
They ended their set with the 15 minute funk jam called “Oops Upside Your Head.” The band was tight, truly entertaining, and they completely slayed. After they finished, David and I looked at each other and just said, “Damn. We gotta go on after that?”
They sounded ridiculously good. This was such a great experience for me to see these seminal groups that now, looking back, were at the top of their genre. Every night The Gap Band would play and I would go and watch and eventually learned all of their material. The Wilson brothers grew close to the Isleys. Often after the show I would see Charlie and his brothers sitting on the floor in the dressing room of the older brothers, listening to stories that they would tell. That told me a lot about their drive, appreciation of history and respect for those that laid the foundation for groups like theirs.
We toured extensively over the south that year and one week we ended up in Florida. We did Jacksonville and some other cities and ended up playing in Miami on July 7th. That morning I received a phone call from my mother in the hotel room.
“Happy birthday son! How is my baby?”
“Everything is cool mom. We got in last night after we played Jacksonville. We have sound check in a couple of hours,” I answered, still groggy. After all it was only 10am. After the phone call I got up and did my usual routine of finding the cheapest place to eat breakfast. The day was normal and we were in our usual routine of lobby calls for sound check and such.
We played the gig that night and went back to the hotel. I was a little tired but still found time to grab a beer with Robert Wilson in his room. I made my way to my room with my beer and turned the TV on. Tony knocked on the door and told me, “Hey listen, Marvin wants to see you right now. He said it was very important.”
I put my shirt on and made my way with Tony up to the Isleys’ suite. It was unusually quiet. I knocked on the door and the door opened and I heard, “Surprise!”
I was stunned. In the room was the entire tour. All of the Brothers, The Gap Band, Larry Graham, members from the S.O.S. band, all of the sound crew and techs from all the groups. And to hear all of those beautiful voices sing happy birthday to me was unbelievable. They were all there to celebrate my 21st birthday. In the middle of all the people was a cake that was bigger than the actual table with candles.
Marvin made an announcement, “To the ‘beatinest’ Conga player in the world!”
Charlie Wilson was behind me with his hand on my shoulder, He yelled out, “Okay now get this man a drink. He’s 21!”
I never went to sleep that night. After the party I sat on the balcony of my room in my robe and watched the sunrise over the ocean.
A never before released recording from Koko’s first year with The Isley Brothers, Wild In Woodstock: The Isley Brothers Live At Bearsville Sound Studio 1980, is now available for download and streaming, and on CD as part of the 23-disc box set The Isley Brothers: The RCA Victor & T-Neck Album Masters (1969–1983).