A low-angle shot of several members of the large ensemble Rotary Connection 222 onstage at Pritzker Pavilion
From left: Junius Paul, Brandice Manuel, Meagan McNeal, Tiaybe Bledsoe, Candice Hoyes, and Greg Artry all performed in the 24-piece lineup of Rotary Connection 222 at Charles Stepney: Out of the Shadows on August 18, 2022. Credit: Brian Ashby

Charles Stepney shaped some of the most memorable pop music of the 20th century, including records by Ramsey Lewis, Minnie Riperton, the Dells, Terry Callier, the Emotions, and Earth, Wind & Fire. But when he died in 1976 at age 45, the composer, producer, and arranger had yet to release anything under his own name—he was obscured by the towering work he’d done for others. 

Last year, Chicago label International Anthem worked with Stepney’s three daughters—Eibur, Charlene, and Chanté—to address that oversight. An event series called the Summer of Stepney led up to the September release of the first Stepney solo album, Step on Step, which compiled recordings he’d made in his south-side basement studio. 

The Summer of Stepney culminated in the concert Charles Stepney: Out of the Shadows at Pritzker Pavilion on August 18. Eight string players, five horn players, five singers, and a six-piece rhythm section performed new arrangements of songs Stepney had written, arranged, or produced. 

Stepney’s eclectic, forward-looking style is ornate but emotionally immediate, off-kilter but infectiously grooving. He loved using daring tone clusters, just this side of dissonant, to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. It’s the feeling of a supernatural visitation—and it’s definitely divine.

Out of the Shadows closed with radiant, bustling versions of the New Rotary Connection’s “I Am the Black Gold of the Sun” and Minnie Riperton’s “Les Fleurs,” two of the many Stepney songs that remain familiar because they’ve been sampled (by the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, the Fugees, and Jurassic 5) or licensed for commercials, movies, and TV. But chances to hear this music performed live are vanishingly rare—ensembles of sufficient size are all but extinct in pop. This heartbreakingly beautiful set made it clear just what a tragedy that is.

Phone video by Philip Montoro of Rotary Connection 222 performing the prechorus and chorus of “Les Fleurs.”


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Philip Montoro has been an editorial employee of the Reader since 1996 and its music editor since 2004. Pieces he has edited have appeared in Da Capo’s annual Best Music Writing anthologies in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. He shared two Lisagor Awards in 2019 for a story on gospel pioneer Lou Della Evans-Reid and another in 2021 for Leor Galil's history of Neo, and he’s also split three national awards from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia: one for multimedia in 2019 for his work on the TRiiBE collaboration the Block Beat, and two (in 2020 and 2022) for editing the music writing of Reader staffer Leor Galil. Philip has played scrap metal in Lozenge, drummed with the Disasters, the Afflictions, and Brilliant Pebbles, and sung for the White Outs. He wrote the column Beer and Metal from 2012 till 2015, and hopes to do so again one day. You can also follow him on Twitter.