How the Isley Brothers made Harvest for the World

‘Jimi Hendrix played in the band and lived at our house. He’d watch cartoons with us with his guitar strapped on, and we’d ask him questions as he practised’

Ernie Isley, songwriter, drums, guitar

As a songwriter, inspiration can strike at any time. I’d just bought a new 12-string acoustic guitar and took it into our basement in New Jersey to try it out. Almost as soon as I started playing, I thought of the words: “All babies together, everyone a seed / Half of us are satisfied, half of us in need / Love is bountiful in us, tarnished by our greed / When will there be a harvest for the world?” I pretty much had the first two verses just like that.

Pete Seeger’s Turn! Turn! Turn! – a 1965 hit for the Byrds – had used a biblical passage, from Ecclesiastes: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven … ” Harvest for the World was a reference to a line – “Send labourers into the Lord’s harvest” – from the gospel of Matthew. The rest of the song came pretty quickly. The last verse was: “Dress me up for battle, when all I want is peace / Those of us who pay the price, come home with the least / Nation after nation, turning into beast.” The Vietnam war had just ended, and a lot of people had paid a heavy price, but the song was more a message of hope and celebration than protest.

I was still down there playing when Marvin [bass] and our brother-in-law Chris Jasper [keyboards] came in. I played them the song, and both of them looked at me with their eyes wide, like: “Where did that come from?”

The Isley Brothers had been going since the 1950s and set a very high standard with songs such as Shout. But when the younger brothers came into the lineup in the 70s, we had our first No 1 album with The Heat Is On. And we’d ventured into politics with Fight the Power. We were on a roll.

I played drums as well as guitar on Harvest. Drums were my first instrument, but when I was 11, Jimi Hendrix played in the Isley Brothers and lived at our house. He’d watch cartoons with us with his guitar strapped on, and Marvin, who was a year younger than me, would tug on his shirt and we’d ask him questions while he was practising. So I was always curious about guitar and learned fast. It’s amazing to think that something I came up with in the basement is still globally popular, but a great song is like a flower: wherever there is soil, it will grow, because it touches people.

The Isley Brothers in concert in 1974.
The Isley Brothers in concert in 1974. Photograph: ABC Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television/Getty Images

Ronald Isley, lead vocalist

When Ernie presented Harvest for the World to [singers] myself, Rudolph and Kelly, the reaction was pretty much: “Wow. This record will be great.” The song had a super meaning, which was inspiring as a vocalist, because you want to deliver the message as best you can.

We recorded it at Record Plant in Los Angeles, the same studio Stevie Wonder used. We also used his engineer-producer, Malcolm Cecil, who did crazy, incredible stuff in the studio. He made us record the drums all over again because he said there was something missing because of the position of the microphones. We tried all sorts of things. I think Marvin and Kelly may have done the handclaps. At first, I sang Harvest for the World much higher. But once it was ready, I laid down a guide vocal, and then recorded the one on the finished record the following day in the first take. You go in the vocal booth and call on a gift from God.

Stevie Wonder and the Beatles had made records about social issues, and we were trying to have a political song on every album. We’d lived through the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and wondered what was going to happen next. Harvest for the World was a ballad for the fallen soldiers, but the lyric is about what could be possible.

The world today is at least as turbulent as when we recorded it. There’s a great amount of fear. The only way things will change is if people come together in peace instead of war. That’s what we try to do with the music. When we play the song in concert, you see smiles on people’s faces, like the harvest for the world is something they’re waiting for.

The Isley Brothers are scheduled to tour the UK in June/July 2021.


Interviews by Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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