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.”
Charles Stepney built lasting cathedrals inside Black music
Best of Chicago: Music & Nightlife
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