Today’s generation of music fans would probably prefer Trey Songz to Sam Cooke and can barely recall the days when you could actually walk into record stores. Yet, they’d also likely be familiar with Mr. Biggs a.k.a Ron Isley. The veteran crooner introduced his signature falsetto to the world in the late ’50s, when he and his brothers (The Isley Brothers) released records⎯vinyls⎯like “Twist and Shout” and “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You).”
Over the years, the Isley Brothers’ music was sometimes funky, sometimes mellow and smooth but always soulful. With classic love songs like “Between the Sheets” and “Living For The Love of You,” they were probably responsible for population spikes⎯ie, you can thank the parents of various producers who sampled the Isleys for iconic rappers like Biggie, Ice Cube, etc. By the mid 90s, Ronald Isley had reinvented himself with an edgier, almost mafioso appeal that fit in with hip-hop heads, thanks to his affiliation with artists like R. Kelly and Lil’ Kim. Under his new moniker, Mr. Biggs, he gained mass appeal with his “Down Low” series collaboration with Kells and cemented his status as hip-hop soul’s Godfather.
However, he wasn’t untouchable. In 2006, he was sentenced to a 37-month federal prison sentence for tax evasion. Isley served about two years and luckily for him, the prison was more like Martha Stewart’s Incarceration Day Camp. According to Isley, he is innocent and ready to put the past behind him. The 69-year-old singer has plans to release an album, Mr. I, in September for which he’s recruited Lauryn Hill, T.I., Aretha Franklin and more on an effort he says fans old and new will appreciate. Don’t expect him to retire any time soon. VIBE caught up with him to talk legacy, prison and the future of R&B. They don’t call him Mr. Biggs for nothing. ⎯Starrene Rhett
VIBE: How’d you bide your time while you were incarcerated?
Ron Isley: My job was to work in the chapel. I sang for them every Monday and I was watching all kinds of spiritual movies and singing for the guys. I had high respect for anyone there.
Was it a recognition thing?
Yeah. When I came there, what Johnny Cash meant to the authorities is what I meant to [the inmates]. But it was a camp. It wasn’t a prison with a wall around it or nothing. You could get in your car, drive off and go home [but] you would get in a lot of trouble for leaving without permission. They had other rules where you couldn’t have a cell phone but everybody did.
So despite being held there by law, it was a breeze considering where you could have been?
Word on the street is that your fly young wife was coming to visit a lot.
Oh yeah. She was there four times a week with my baby. It was regular visits from 9am to 3pm and on all the holidays⎯Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. My daughter and my brother came to visit too. That made it go real fast for me.
A lot of black artists went to jail in the 60s, did you ever get locked up then?
Nah, never. This is the first time where, it wasn’t jail but it was the first time I ever been locked up somewhere where couldn’t come home.
How, after all these years, did you fall behind on tax payments?