*To the uninitiated, coming across reports of the May 26 death of Clarence Burke, Jr. meant reading about the passing of yet another old school entertainer whose name you didn’t know.
However, to fans, Burke’s death marks the end of a fading, unremitting dream we’ve selfishly held onto for decades regarding one of pop/R&B’s most influential if underrated groups, the Five Stairsteps.
You see, before the Jackson 5, it was about the Five Stairsteps. While papa Joe Jackson was busy hustling meetings with label execs and people with connections to hear his sons, in 1966 the Chicago-based Stairsteps–managed by their own protective and determined papa, Clarence Burke, Sr., a Chi-town cop who played bass and wrote songs-—were enjoying their first hit on Curtis Mayfield’s Windy City label, “You Waited Too Long.”
Even if you’re not familiar with that single or some of their others—“World Of Fantasy,” “Come Back,” “Danger! She’s A Stranger”–you’ve undoubtedly heard the vocal group’s biggest, most enduring hit, the 1970 classic, “Ooh Child.”
The Stairsteps–so named because mother Betty Burke noticed that when standing together according to age and height, sister Alohe Jean and brothers Clarence Jr., James, Dennis, and Kenneth “Keni” (later, little Cubie was added to the line-up) resembled stair steps— paved the way for black sibling R&B teen groups of the ‘70s. Some of those acts were personally acquainted with the ‘Steps, and bowed to the talents of the Burke family.
There’s the true story of that day in the ‘70s when some of the Burke brothers visited the Jacksons’ Los Angeles home, during which Clarence picked up a guitar-—Tito’s?–and broke into a soulful version of the Beatles’ “Something” that stopped the room. The Jacksons weren’t bothered; hey, it was the Stairsteps.
And I remember visiting George Johnson of the Brothers Johnson one afternoon in the late ‘70s and hearing funky sounds coming from a room where he’d installed a professional studio-quality multi-track tape machine to record his demos.
Johnson took me inside the room, and I was surprised to see Keni Burke, sitting in front of the tape machine with his bass guitar, thumping out a line but not getting what he wanted, erasing it and starting over again. He had come by Johnson’s to borrow the machine to lay down some ideas.
The Burkes were welcome in the musical camps of their contemporaries because of their place in the pantheon of sibling R&B groups. Ask any of their peers from the era–Jacksons, Sylvers and Johnsons, among others–and they’ll all tell you how “badd” the Stairsteps were. They know the difference between the less-than-superstardom of the Burkes and more successful family units was that the other acts got more support from their respective labels. For instance, talent and Michael notwithstanding, the Jackson 5 were backed by a Motown-assembled cadre of songwriters, producers, choreographers, costumers, PR and marketing people whose mission it was to develop and promote the J5 into a superstar act.
The early Stairsteps didn’t intend to, but at the labels for which they recorded, Windy City and Buddah, the group unwittingly traded big time marketing and promotion for artistic freedom. Unlike most of the competition, whose labels didn’t permit their adult artists much creative control, let alone the kid acts, the Burkes were allowed —encouraged–to develop as musicians and songwriters. Clarence was 17 when he produced and co-wrote the group’s second album, 1968’s “Family Portrait.”
As adults, the Stairsteps’ biggest problem was consistency. They’d release a record, harness a measure of momentum and then, for whatever reason, disappear. A woodshed period between 1971—‘75 culminated with the group’s 1976 album, 2nd Ressurection. Billy Preston, then recording for A&M, knew the group and had introduced them to George Harrison, who signed the Burkes (by then Aloha had left the band) to his A&M-distributed Dark Horse label.
Legendary for both its richness and scarcity, 2nd Resurrection was produced by Preston, Stevie Wonder synthesizer programmer Robert Margouleff, and the Stairsteps, who also wrote the songs. Though it was the record Stairsteps fans had been yearning, the musical growth was a surprise.
The first single, the proud, insistent “From Us To You,” was Stevie Wonder meets Larry Graham (Keni, a disciple of the bassist, had himself developed into quite the thumper and popper). The rest was funky, melodic, exotic, expansive, even a bit jazzy. Go to YouTube, listen to the tracks “Time,” “Pasado,” “Far East” and “Salaam” and imagine that music being released today. It’s still better than most of the black music I’ve heard lately.
By the way, 2nd Resurrection was a lot of things, but it wasn’t, as some might listen and remark, ahead of its time. That record simply reflected how we generally had it in the mid ‘70s. R&B was impassioned and imaginative; played, not programmed. There was some wonderful music being made.
However, the label didn’t aggressively promote 2nd Resurrection, and while Keni had a solo album on Dark Horse in 1977, when the Stairsteps resurfaced again, in 1980, it wasn’t as the Stairsteps at all (so much for branding), but as The Invisible Man’s Band, with the a certified dance floor hit, “All Night Thang.” In the studio, the “Band,” never shown on its LP covers, was mostly Clarence and Keni.
And then…nothing. Keni continued to record solo (1982’s “Rising To The Top” was his biggest single), but the Stairsteps name remained dormant.
More than thirty years later, many Stairsteps fans, like most followers of pop groups that either disbanded before they seemed to be finished or before their fans were ready to let go, imagined the Burkes reuniting.
At least the brothers. Hey, Keni is still musically active; Clarence Jr., who’d been a ghost, had reemerged in recent years, doing little live performances and guest appearances here and there, singing and playing some great guitar. Most encouraging, he put up a website that, while dedicated to his solo endeavors, seemed to indicate something was could have been on the horizon. If Clarence and Keni wanted to do Stairsteps just one more time, went the thinking of their fans, surely they could persuade James and Dennis.
And then came May 26, 2013. Clarence passed away at his home in Marietta, Georgia, a day before his birthday, at the age of 64. He left behind a wife and five children. Cause of death wasn’t disclosed. The dream is over.
The B-section of the ever hopeful “Ooh Child” (which the Burkes didn’t write) leans on the notion that “someday” things are going to be different. Better. Like they’re supposed to be, whatever that might be. Someday. And by the end of the song, the lyric says that things are going to be better…”RIGHT NOW.” It’s the perfect, jubilant fade-out to the tune Rolling Stone listed as #392 on its “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”
However, sadly, sometimes, “Someday” is synonymous with never.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected]