As the 1980s arrived, the Isley Brothers were struggling to find their footing in the world of music. Coming off a highly successful decade in 1970s, where the group experienced an unparallel string of gold and platinum records, they were experimenting with different fusions of sound. Prior to the release of Between the Sheets, their previous two albums, Inside of You and The Real Deal fell far short of the group’s expectations.
Determined to rise back to their dominant status as an R&B force, they returned to the studio with vigor and a grand plan for success. Between the Sheets was released in April 1983 on T-Neck Records. It would place the Isley Brothers back atop the musical landscape.
During this juncture, groups like The Commodores, The Ohio Players, Kool & the Gang and Earth, Wind & Fire were achieving paramount triumphs in the world of R&B music. Aware of this burgeoning crop of incomparable talent, the Isley Brothers knew that changes needed to be made to their overall sound to stay relevant in the ever-changing music industry. This release would be the last to feature all of the Isley Brothers as a collective before parting ways in 1984. It would showcase the exquisite musicianship and lyrical capabilities of the younger portion of the group, which were Ernie Isley, Marvin Isley and Chris Jasper.
The Isley Brothers were formed as a gospel group in the mid 1950s. Ronald Isley was chosen to be lead vocalist due to his refined vocal styling. The collective received its first taste of success with their first hit, “Shout” in 1959. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, their prolific output resulted in 15 albums. In the 1970s, they released an album per year and the fruits of their labor yielded a plentiful crop. They ushered in the 1980s with a variety of sounds on their first three albums. Under the guidance of Ernie and Marvin Isley and Chris Jasper, the Isley Brothers once again found themselves in a league of their own after the release of Between the Sheets.
Between the months of November 1982-February 1983, Between the Sheets was recorded at Bearsville Studios in Bearsville, NY.
SoulCulture recently sat down with Chris Jasper to gain greater clarity on the process of making such an empathic album.
Jasper recalls how he became a member of the collective.
“Ernie and I used to jam in our house when we were 14 years old,” says Jasper. “I used to play piano and he actually started out playing drums. We used to jam together when we used to come inside from being in the pool. People would tell us all of the time that we sounded good, but we needed a bass player so we told Marvin we needed one because we wanted a trio. So we bought Marvin a bass guitar and he learned the bass,” he laughs. “We became a trio and we would play together all of the time. Marvin, Ernie and I established a pocket type of thing there. This is something that very rarely happens these days. We eventually became part of the group in the late 1960s.”
Jasper discusses the creative process and the relationship that existed between him, Ernie, and Marvin Isley for the album.
“As you know, the Between the Sheets album would be the last album that the six member Isley Brother group did together,” says Jasper. “We did an album per year since 1973 and that was kind of the pattern we set up internally. Between the Sheets wasn’t any different. We started the album in the same way as the others. Ernie and I would have some ideas and we would share those ideas with each other and start to build on them. This is how each song came into existence. On this album, Marvin also wrote lyrics to a couple of songs besides Ernie and I. Things usually got started between Ernie and I especially for this album.
“I had some small recording equipment at my house and I would put down ideas for songs there. I would show it to Marvin and Ernie. From there, we would lay down various tracks. We very rarely came up with something in the studio. Some bands used to jam and come up with ideas in the studio, but our pattern was to work on an idea at home and then show it to the rest of the group in the studio. The song wouldn’t have to be complete on the demo, but there was enough on it to show the direction of the song.
He continues. “We didn’t have a predetermined sound for the album, but we wanted to keep some of the same elements we had there with Ernie’s guitar sounds and some of the sounds I established on keyboards. We wanted to have really good ideas that people could identify with. The main focus of that album was to come up with hit records because the two albums before that did OK on the charts, but they weren’t as strong as the Go All the Way album, which had “Don’t Say Goodnight (It’s Time for Love)” on it. On the Between the Sheets album, we were really trying to reestablish hit songs and with the “Between the Sheets” song I think we were able to do so.”
Jasper explains the rigors of the recording phase for the album.
“One of the things I remember about this album is how many hours we spent making it,” says Jasper. “We were trying to make a deadline with that album. We ended up finishing the album on February 13, 1983. We spent a lot of hours in the studio and I also remember staying up sometimes for 48 hours straight during the recording process. I would doze off for a little bit then wake up and start the mixing process again,” he laughs.
“Back then, mixing was much different than it is now. You didn’t have the comfort of the technology we have today. We had to remember all of the settings and all the levels had to be marked on the board. It was very time consuming to get a mix down. We drank a lot of coffee and it was just really physically draining because we were trying to meet a deadline.”
“We wanted each track to be equalized or EQ properly and also to have the right sound on it. For example, we would single out the drums to make sure all the tambours and everything were correct with the drums. Once you did that, we would set a level for them and then the bass would come up. Then we would EQ the bass and we would work on each instrument independently. This is even done now, but the difference is we didn’t have the automation that we do now. See, the boards now can remember every move you’ve made, but back then the boards weren’t automated. We had to do the mix all over again if we wanted to re-record a vocal.
“The main engineer would be in another room. The assistant engineer and I would be at the board and I would have my set of moves to make because at different points in the mix we would have to push certain things up or bring things down. At different points, I had my moves and I was dealing with about four or five tracks and the main engineer would have his groups and the assistant engineer would have his as well. We made trial runs and I would tell them at this point to bring the guitar up or clavinet back. We would have tape on the side of each track and we would mark them with a magic marker the moves that we were going to make. Sometimes we would write down the time on the side of the track so we would know at a certain time which moves we would need to make. It was a very tedious process.”
Jasper speaks on the group’s mindset during this time in their respective careers.
“We were trying to record songs that would put us back in the number one slot because there were a lot of bands at that time releasing albums every year,” says Jasper. “There was so much competition back then and we wanted to make sure that this next release of ours could compete with the other products coming out. Marvin Gaye was putting out records alongside Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire, and The Commodores. We wanted make sure that our music could stand up with those other artists I’ve mentioned. This is the kind of atmosphere we worked under.”
Jasper remembers how the lead single “Between the Sheets” evolved in stages.
“On the song ‘Between the Sheets’ Ernie had the first melody in the first verse of the song, says Jasper. I remember as he got to the end of it, he didn’t have a phrase or anything to say. I told him to say ‘between the sheets,’ but in a certain way. He sung it over and said ‘between the sheets’ and it just flowed perfectly from there. I did the bridge section on the record and there was no ending to the song just yet.
“I told the guys to take a break and I let them know I had a couple of ideas I wanted to try for the ending of the song. The whole ending to song where Ronald says, ‘Enough of this singing; let’s make love.’ at that point, it was a whole new section that we had to edit on the back of the song. I played all of the parts on there and showed Ronald the melody that I had for it and asked him to sing it in a certain way. This is how the song came together in pieces like that. I think Marvin wrote lyrics for the third verse of the song. The song came together in stages.”
The Isley Brothers – “Between The Sheets”:
“Between the Sheets” went on to peak at #3 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart and #52 on the UK Singles Chart. It propelled sales for Between the Sheets after it was release to music audiences in the early spring of 1983.
The second and final single to be released from the album would be the equally iconic, “Choosey Lover.” It peaked at #6 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart. Jasper recollects how the song was the only one created from scratch in the studio.
“’Choosey Lover’ was a song we did together in the studio,” says Jasper. “We took a different approach with this one. Initially, Ronald had the idea for the song. He was singing the melody for it and he told me he’d like to do a song that goes like this. So I sat down and started playing the piano and Ernie started filling out the guitar part. We kind of built this record in the studio, but it was the only record for this album that we did this way.”
The Isley Brothers – “Choosey Lover”:
Jasper provides insight on how the remaining songs of the album came together from an artistic standpoint.
“‘Touch Me’ was a song I created the music for,” says Jasper. “The three of us collaborated on the lyrics, which were Marvin, Ernie and I. When we didn’t have the lyrics done for a particular song, all three of us would get together and go verse by verse and collaborate on the lyrics. This is the process we went through for this song. The younger trio is where much of the creativity came from within the group.”
The Isley Brothers – “Touch Me”:
“‘I Need Your Body’ was another one of my ideas,” says Jasper. “I wanted to do something that was soulful. At the time, we were really trying new things. I wrote that song for myself initially. The group was kind of growing in that direction. So when I wrote that song I wrote it for myself, but Ronald ended up singing it. It was kind of written in my style of singing.”
The Isley Brothers – “I Need Your Body”:
“‘Let’s Make Love Tonight’ was collaboration between Marvin, Ernie, and I,” says Jasper. “I did most of the musical track for this song as well. The music or the melodies would usually come from either Ernie or me. It’s kind of where all of the juice came from so to speak. If we weren’t completely finished with it, Marvin would jump in and help us finish writing the song. This was one of the few songs we put together in the studio. It wasn’t as complete as some of the others.”
“Ballad for the Fallen Soldier’ is a song idea that came from Ernie,” says Jasper. “This song also came together in pieces. I did the talking at the beginning of the song. There would always be at least two or three songs where we would want Ernie to have a solo on it. This song was one of those. It was about soldiers who had gone MIA and families that are affected by loved ones who go off to war. It even applies to today.”
The Isley Brothers – “Ballad For The Fallen Soldier”:
“Slow Down Children” came together through trial and error,” says Jasper. “I wrote the music and I had an idea for the bass part of the song and I wanted it to sound a little funky. I thought it should have a wah-wah effect on it because that’s what I was hearing on the bottom. Marvin wasn’t used to using the wah-wah pedal. It was more of a guitar thing and it was something Ernie and I always used being guitar players. It was one of the things that were different on this record. Marvin wrote the first couple of verses to this song. I wanted it to be a message type of song and it ended up being one. All of us were singing on this song and it was a lot of fun to do.”
“‘Way Out Love’ was another one of my ideas,” says Jasper. “I was trying different things on this song. I was experimenting with different synthesizer sounds and using the drum machine differently.”
The Isley Brothers – “Way Out Love”:
“Getting Over’ was an original idea of mine, but we collaborated again lyrically,” says Jasper. “‘Rock You Good’ was a song idea that Ernie came up with as well,” says Jasper. “It was like a jam session almost. We approached it that way from a music standpoint. It was pretty cool.
Between the Sheets peaked at #19 on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart and #1 on the Billboard Soul Albums Chart in the early autumn of 1983. To this day, it’s regarded as the one of the greatest albums from the 1980s and remains as one of the highest selling albums of their legendary careers. It went on to sell over a million copies in the US and it garnered a cult following. It’s regarded as the one of the standards for what great albums are measured by in the R&B and Soul genres respectively. The music speaks for itself and to define it as classic would be quite accurate and its lasting impact on popular culture is undeniable.
Jasper expresses how the next generation has been influenced by the album’s music.
“It was a different time back then, but everybody; especially the musicians cared about what they played,” says Jasper. “What you played was important and the music was important. I think that is why some of the newer artists sample our generation’s music because it was really put together with a lot of care. There were solid eight bar phrases in the music and four bar phrases, which a lot of rappers took hold of.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how many samples “Between the Sheets” has gotten over the years. It’s been sampled in various commercials, but the album put us back in the number one slot and it became another platinum selling record for us. Some songs would sell, but the effect was less. This album had a lasting effect on people because when we did our songs live in concert the big roar would come as soon as they heard the first couple of chords on a song. The songs really got to the audience and that’s what you strive for being an artist. You want your music to impact the audience and in that regard it was huge.”