The Five Stairsteps were "The First Family of Soul." A title bestowed upon the Chicago-based teenaged group in part because of their astounding five-year run of hits, which included the 1970 million-selling single "O-o-h Child." "The First Family..." title was later adapted by the Jackson 5.
The children of Clarence Sr. and Betty Burke, the Five Stairsteps were formed in 1958 as a five-member brother and sister teenaged vocal group. The group got its name,"the Five Stairsteps," when "Momma Stairsteps" as Betty Burke was affectionately called, noticed that her kids looked like stair steps when stood next to each other according to age. Most of the members, Clarence Jr., Alohe, James, Dennis, and Kenneth attended Harlan High School. Clarence Jr., the eldest son, was the group's lead singer, choreographed dance routines, was the principal songwriter, and played guitar. Contralto Alohe also attended Harlan High where she played trumpet in the school's concert orchestra. First tenor James sang lead on the group's Top 40 R&B hit "Oooh Baby, Baby"; he also played guitar and was a skilled line artist who won three scholarships to the Art Institute of Chicago and won an Artist of the Year Award from the Chicago Board of Education. Second tenor Kenneth was a talented bass player.
Clarence Sr., a detective for the Chicago Police Department, played bass, oversaw the group's material, and was their manager. He backed the group on bass guitar and co-wrote songs with Clarence Jr. and Gregory Fowler. After winning first prize in a talent contest at the legendary Regal Theater, the Five Stairsteps were deluged with recording contract offers. Neighbor and family friend Fred Cash of the Impressions introduced the group to Curtis Mayfield.
Signing with Mayfield's Windy City label, distributed by Philadelphia-based Cameo Parkway Records, their first single was the Burke-written ballad "You Waited Too Long" b/w the upbeat "Don't Waste Your Time," a Mayfield song. A double-sided hit in Chicago, the A-side charted number 16 R&B on Billboard's charts in the spring of 1966. More hits followed: the soft, lilting "World of Fantasy" b/w "Playgirl's Love," the "blue light in the basement" ballad "Come Back" b/w "You Don't Love Me," and the slinky, exotic "Danger! She's a Stranger" b/w "Behind Curtains" -- most of the singles were on the LP The Five Stairsteps.
About the end of 1967, Cameo-Parkway folded and Windy C switched to Art Kass' New York-based Buddah Records through former Cameo-Parkway executive Neil Bogart who joined the new label as co-president. Bogart would late be president of Casablanca Records.
The group's second album, Family Portrait, whose cover was a collection of Burke family photos, was recorded and produced in Chicago by Clarence Jr. With the addition of their three-year-old brother, the group became the Five Stairsteps & Cubie. Family Portrait yielded two hit singles, "Something's Missing" b/w "Tell Me Who," a cover of Jimmy Charles and the Revelletts' 1960 R&B/pop hit "A Million to One" b/w "Tell Me Who," and "The Shadow of Your Love" b/w "Bad News."
Switching to Mayfield's Curtom Records, they continued to chart with "Don't Change Your Love" b/w "New Dance Craze," "Baby Make Me Feel So Good," "Madame Mary," and the mid-tempo groover "We Must Be in Love." The group often toured with the Impressions. Signing with Buddah Records, the group was once again known as the Five Stairsteps. In the spring of 1970, the group released their sole certified million-seller and biggest pop hit, "O-o-h Child" (written by Stan Vincent), which hit number 14 R&B and number eight pop. The flip side, a cover of John Lennon and Paul McCartney's "Dear Prudence," charted number 49 R&B.
The following year, the group resurfaced as the Stairsteps with two charting Buddah singles: "Didn't It Look So Easy" and "I Love You-Stop." The group appeared in the 1970 movie Soul to Soul, a documentary of a benefit concert filmed at New York's Yankee Stadium and on the NY-produced nationally syndicated show Soul. During the early '70s, sister Alohe married and both she and Cubie left the group. Kenneth played bass on records and tours of Billy Preston, who later introduced the Stairsteps to the Beatles and the group signed with George Harrison's Dark Horse label distributed by A&M Records. 2nd Resurrection was issued in February 1976, produced by Billy Preston, Robert Margouleff, and the Stairsteps. "From Us to You," written by Clarence Jr. and Kenneth Burke, was the group's biggest hit since "O-o-h Child," peaking at number ten R&B in early 1976 (b/w "Time").
Kenneth Burke became Keni Burke, a top session bassist, co-writing with Allan Felder the inspiring "Risin' to the Top," which was on his 1982 RCA LP Changes and later was the source of numerous rap/hip-hop hits including Mary J. Blige's "Love No Limit" and Doug E Fresh's "Keep Risin' to the Top." He also carved out an impressive career as a producer. He can be heard on Bill Withers' Greatest Hits, Lose Control by Silk, People Get Ready: The Curtis Mayfield Story, Best of My Love: The Best of the Emotions Keep It Comin' by Keith Sweat, Radio Raffi by Raffi, Ecstasy's Dance: The Best of Narada Michael Walden, Steppin' Out by George Howard, Happy Love by Natalie Cole, D.J. Rogers (Love Music & Life, RCA 1977), Billy Preston, the 1999 Music Club CD, Classic Philadelphia Years, and the Jones Girls' Keep It Comin' and his 1998 Expansion/Sony/3MW CD Nothin' but Love. The Stairsteps evolved into the Invisible Man's Band and their Mango single "All Night Thing" hit number nine R&B in spring 1980. ~ Ed Hogan, Rovi