Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Uncovered: The untold showdown between The Isley Brothers and Nazareth

The Secret Museum
By Jim Webb

A lot of road tales from touring rock bands in the 1970’s are legendary. Hotel rooms destroyed, TV sets thrown out of tenth story windows, and even a Rolls Royce has been documented as being driven into a swimming pool. What hasn’t been talked about (until now) is an encounter that happened between two bands in 1976 in a Holiday Inn just outside of Detroit, Michigan. Both bands were at the top of their game, scoring with hit singles and playing to packed arenas across the country. It would seem like they had little in common, because the Isley Brothers were six black brothers(technically five brothers and an in-law) from Cincinnati playing a mixture of Soul, Rn’B, and Funk while Nazareth were four white lads from Scotland known for pounding out a furious hard rock attack. Nazareth had just finished opening for Ritchie Blackmores Raincoat at Cobo Hall in Detroit and had driven back to their motel in a thirsty mood. The Isleys had just finished a final recording session in the Motor City and the next mornings were flying to Atlanta to kick off their big tour. Nazareth lead singer Dan McCafferty was sitting in the lounge bar with guitarist Manny Charleton when unknown to them the Isley entourage wandered in. A top 40 cover band called Sin City was playing a lame version of K.C. & The Sunshine Band’s Get Down Tonight when Manny yelled out – “play a decent fooking tune.”

Ernie Isley walked in front of Charleton at that exact moment he yelled and stopped. He stared at him briefly, and then said – “cut’em a break man, it’s harder than it looks up there.” Manny was on his fourth Heineken at that point and quickly spat – “If you’ve gonna play a cover – give it a fooking kick, or leave it alone.” Ernie just laughed, “You kill me man, you don’t even have the balls to be up there, hidin’ behind that green beer.”
Dan was ready for a little fun and grabbed his bass player and drummer as he headed for the small stage. The lounge band ended their set and McCafferty told them the drinks were on him if they could borrow their instruments for awhile. Manny strapped on a Fender Strat with a scowl on his face, he was a Les Paul man all the way, but it would have to do. Dan said – “this is Vigilante Man by Woody Guthrie”, Manny played a long slide intro building up the intensity before McCafferty and his band mates cut loose with a roar. Ronnie Isley came up to Ernie and asked what’s up. Ernie didn’t say anything, too surprised at Charlton’s axe playing. A friend of Ronnie’s leaned over and told him – “I think that’s Deep Purple. Heard some of them was in town, those rock bands all sound the same, don’t they.” Ronnie didn’t say anything and took another sip from his Courvoisier. McCafferty announced Joni Mitchell’s This Flight Tonight and then the small room really started to cook. What was originally a soft, acoustic tune had been turned into something sharp and electric. Marvin Isley came over to Ronnie and said –“these are some scraggly lookin’ dudes – but they mean it.” Ernie piped in with – “I don’t dig no Joni Mitchell, she’s too wordy.” When the song was over Manny yelled over to the Isleys table – “that’s how you play fooking covers, make them yer own mate.” Ronnie unbuttoned his shirt and looked at Marvin, nothing needed to be said. You don’t make it in the music business for thirty years like the Isleys on talent alone; they learned the hard way you can’t back down from anything.

Somebody whispered in Ernie’s ear and then he came over to Ronnie and said –“that’s Nazareth, you know them guys. They did that heavy metal lullaby - Love Hurts.” Ronnie replied – “shit, that’s them? - they took that old Everly Brothers song and nailed that one too.” Ernie was getting worked up now. “What’s so special ’bout a man in leather singin’ sweet.” Ronnie looked over the top of his shades and softly slapped Ernie. “What the hell you think we did with Seals & Crofts Summer Breeze? It worked musically, financially and the women go crazy. We turned that baby inside out so much all them people bought it a second time from us because they couldn’t recognize it.” Nazareth’s manager walked up to the group and told the band the Isley Brothers were in the room. Dan walked over to Ronnie and shook his hand. “I love your band, and I love your voice.” Ronnie just smiled and said – “our turn.”

The Isleys jumped right into a high energy medley of Love The One Your With and Listen to The Music. If this was a cover contest, Nazareth picked the wrong Holiday Inn to start talkin’ trash. Ronnie then took hold of Todd’s Hello It’s Me and wrapped it all around his soul. The opening word - Hello - Ronnie kept repeating it like he had been hypnotized. Thirty-seven times he said the word, and each time he caressed it a little differently, adding an inflection that kept this one word mantra fresh, made it seem like a totally different song than what Rundgren had written.

Ronnie called Nazareth up to the stage, and he made sure Sin City was next to him as well. At this point no drinks were being served; the bus boys weren’t clearing any tables, the bartender lit up a cigarette. No one took their eyes off the stage; everyone was just waiting to see what was going to happen next. After a brief huddle between the musicians, Ronnie stepped to the mic and said – “here’s an old one from The Top Notes, we had a hit with it, and then some guys from England grabbed it.” Ernie kicked into Twist and Shout, and a joyous noise filled the room. Not everybody knew all the chords, but it didn’t matter. The bartender and waitresses knew how this one went and their voices filled in any musical cracks. When it was over Manny apologized to Sin City, told them he was wrong to say anything. Their lead singer said – “no man, you were right. Either make it your own – or don’t do it.”

It was time for both the Isleys and Nazareth to call it a night. The Isleys had to get to Atlanta to kick off a big tour, Nazareth had already been up a couple of days and it was time to crash for a least a few hours. The place cleared out after that special jam, and Sin City was left to play their last set of the night for the bus boys all sitting at one table in the far corner. A guy dressed completely in black walks into the lounge and sits down at the bar. He orders two Heinekens and swings around on his stool to get a look at Sin City. They start up Get Down Tonight, but before the lead singer says a word the man at the bar yells out – “Play a decent fucking tune.” One of the bus boys nudges his friend, “Hey, that guy over there is Ritchie Blackmore!”
-Jim Webb


Anonymous said...

nice motown story in the fly. i have a minor one from the late 70's. walked into a bar in eureka springs, arkansas. sat down and ordered a drink. became aware that there was a guy back in a kinda dark corner singing. started to listen. recognized the voice. it was willis allen ramsey. spider john. i stayed until he quit. there were no more than a dozen people in the bar. he didn't care. in fact, i think he was happy to be there with so few. i hear he's overcome his aversion to performing.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the feedback. It's about time Mr. Ramsey played in our neighborhood. How 'bout a Shelter Records reunion tour with Leon, Willis & friends.

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