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 million-selling "O-o-h Child" and eight other singles that, from 1966 through 1970, reached the Top 20 of Billboard's R&B chart. The Jackson 5 took the title, but the Stairsteps continued to record through 1976, and the group's members continued to be successful as artists, songwriters, and producers long after their reign.
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 when "Momma Stairsteps" -- as Betty Burke was affectionately called -- noticed that her kids looked like stair steps when stood next to each other by age. Clarence Jr., the eldest son, was the group's lead singer, choreographer, principal songwriter, and guitarist. Alohe, a contralto vocalist, also played trumpet in her 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 guitar, oversaw the group's material, and was their manager. He backed the group on bass and co-wrote songs with Clarence Jr. and Gregory Fowler.
After they won 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 C label, distributed by Philadelphia-based Cameo Parkway, their first single was the upbeat "Don't Waste Your Time," a Mayfield song, backed with the Clarence Jr.-written ballad "You Waited Too Long." A double-sided hit in Chicago, the B-side peaked at number 16 on Billboard's R&B chart 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, released in 1967.
Around 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. The group's second album, Our Family Portrait, was recorded and produced in Chicago by Clarence Jr. With the addition of their three-year-old brother, the group temporarily went by the Five Stairsteps & Cubie. Our Family Portrait yielded the singles "Something's Missing," a cover of Jimmy Charles & the Revellettes' 1960 R&B/pop hit "A Million to One," and "The Shadow of Your Love." Switching to Mayfield's Curtom Records, they continued to chart with "Don't Change Your Love," "Baby Make Me Feel So Good," "Madame Mary," and the midtempo groover "We Must Be in Love." The group often toured with the Impressions.
After signing with Buddah, the group was once again known as the Five Stairsteps. In the spring of 1970, the group released its 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 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 A&M-distributed Dark Horse label. 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.
Four members of the Stairsteps, along with keyboardist Dean Gant, later formed the Invisible Man's Band. Their Mango single "All Night Thing" hit number nine R&B in the spring of 1980. One of the members was Kenneth, aka Keni, who had become a top session bassist and occasional songwriter, producer, and recording artist. In addition to his role in the Invisible Man's Band, he worked with Mayfield, Bill Withers, the O'Jays, the Jones Girls, and Keith Sweat, among others. Clarence Jr. died in 2013. Cubie, who released a solo single in 1982, died in 2014. ~ Ed Hogan