The Isley Brothers enjoyed a long career in the music industry, but they remain a bit of an enigma compared to some of their contemporaries like The Temptations and The Four Tops.
That’s probably because, unlike those other groups, they weren’t strictly a Motown band, although they did briefly record there in the late 1960s.
The Isley Brothers really were brothers and started, as so many other groups of that era did, singing in church as children. Tragedy struck in 1955 when their then-lead singer, oldest brother Vernon, was hit by a car while riding his bike and died.
After a break to come to terms with their grief, the brothers started performing again, this time with Ron Isley on lead vocals. It’s Ron’s voice you hear on all the well-known Isley Brothers records. He had a great voice for songs of loss and heartbreak as his vocal brings a song’s emotions to life.
But Ron Isley is more than a singer of songs about love and loss, he can carry off a wide range of styles. Socially-conscious “Harvest For The World” was a million miles away from a Motown tear-jerker and The Isley Brother’s cover of Seals and Croft’s “Summer Breeze” is for many the definitive version of that song.
That said, The Isley Brothers’ song I have the most affection for is “Behind A Painted Smile”, written by Ivy Jo Hunter and Beatrice Verdi.
Ivo Jo Hunter was a long-time Motown songwriter, producer and performer, and you can definitely hear some of that pedigree in “Behind A Painted Smile”. He wrote for some of Motown’s best-known artists including The Four Tops, The Temptations and Martha Reeves and The Vandellas.
Ivy Jo Hunter also produced “Behind A Painted Smile” and he doesn’t disappoint on the quality of production on a label renowned for its production standards.
Beatrice Verdi was no mean songwriter either, writing “In The Middle Of Nowhere” and “Little By Little” for Dusty Springfield.
Despite that pedigree, and the undoubted benefit of recording it during The Isley Brothers’ brief stint at Motown, “Behind A Painted Smile” passed by largely un-noticed by the record-buying public. It’s time as a UK Top 5 song in 1969 was by several orders of magnitude its best chart performance around the world.
Which is a real shame. It’s a great song and a great demonstration of Ron Isley’s vocal range and his ability to carry strong emotions in his performance.
“Behind A Painted Smile” takes the fairly well-worn Motown theme of romance going bad and somehow having to come to terms with the heartbreak.
In this case, the singer has decided to carry on regardless and pretend everything is fine on the outside, despite being secretly devastated on the inside. A combination of his broken heart and his broken pride burns away at his soul.
But every time he sees his former lover, he has to pretend she doesn’t matter to him any more…he’s trying to keep it cool and stay in control. (The prospect of moving to a new town thousands of miles away so he never had to see her again didn’t occur to him, clearly…although that would have robbed us of the material for a great song…)
And there’s a nice metaphor at work here too….the idea of “painting on” a smile like an actor might apply their make-up before going on stage is a pretty good one. Having to act like you’re in control even though you’re anything but on the inside is very much part of an actor’s DNA.
Whenever you’re near, I hide my tears
Behind a painted smile
You can’t imagine the tears and sorrow
Behind a painted smile
We’re not finished with our acting metaphors though…
My life’s a masquarade
A world of let’s pretend, dear
Since you took your love
Pretending never ends, dear
What I like about “Behind A Painted Smile”, though, is this isn’t just a song about heartbreak, it’s also got the steely determination not to let this former lover change the way you live your life.
If I can’t have your love
I don’t need your sympathy
That’s more like it…we’ve stopped feeling sorry for ourselves now. The last thing we need is some ex-lover who clearly had no concerns about leaving to start a romance with someone else pretending they still care for us…
By this point in the song, Ron Isley is in full-falsetto mode, which you might not think would go well with a sense of defiance, but it works well here. It’s almost like every other emotion has been used up by now, so he’s at the very end of his tether.
It’s always been a mystery to me why “Behind A Painted Smile” wasn’t a bigger hit. All the ingredients were there…two proven hit-making songwriters, hugely experienced Motown producer at the helm, a really tight track musically and a stellar vocal performance…not to mention the support from the Motown record label, which was responsible for crafting many of the most enduring hits of the 1960s.
All the ingredients were there, but it didn’t quite come off somehow. That’s the way it is with creative endeavours sometimes. It’s not about the work you put into it, it’s about how it resonates with your audience.
For some reason “Behind A Painted Smile” didn’t resonate with its audience as much as its pedigree deserved back in the late 60s but, especially in the UK, it’s gone on to become a classic and still gets occasional radio airplay so each new generation can discover this tremendous song.
Here’s The Isley Brothers with “Behind A Painted Smile”…
The video is below, but if you prefer to listen to the track on Spotify, you can find it here… https://open.spotify.com/track/5x5IFUp8BgAJEMm7Qcgs8F