Charles Stepney: Out of the Shadows
Rotary Connection 222, a large ensemble led by bassist Junius Paul, will perform music from the catalog of Charles Stepney under the creative direction of the Stepney family and Chicago record label International Anthem. Damon Locks & Black Monument Ensemble open. Thu 8/18, 6:30 PM, Pritzker Pavilion, 201 E. Randolph, free, all ages
In 1970, DownBeat magazine called Charles Stepney “one of those unseen workhorses whose business is other people’s success,” and I’ve never heard this supremely creative soul described more succinctly. Born and raised in Chicago, Stepney was a brilliant composer, producer, and arranger, and though he got his start playing the vibraphone, he grew into an exceptionally prolific multi-instrumentalist. He reportedly heard fully fashioned orchestrations in his head, almost like magic.
Stepney shaped indelible sonic foundations for a who’s who of Chicago-based artists, among them Minnie Riperton, Ramsey Lewis, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, the Dells, Terry Callier, the Emotions, Rotary Connection, Eddie Harris, Little Milton, Deniece Williams, and Earth, Wind & Fire. He did much of this work as an in-house arranger and producer for the vastly influential Chess Records family of labels, a gig he began in 1966.
Because Stepney died in 1976 at the tragically young age of 45, the world didn’t get to hear the music he made himself. During his lifetime, he never saw the recognition he brought to others. This fall, Chicago-born record label International Anthem hopes to pull back the veil, so to speak, with the first-ever Charles Stepney solo release. Due on September 9, the double LP Step on Step consists of tracks he created alone, in a basement studio in his south-side home, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Step on Step includes demos of beloved songs alongside previously unissued Stepney tracks named by his adult daughters.
Among Stepney’s key collaborators was mythic jazzman Ramsey Lewis, who worked with him for many years on astonishing albums such as Sun Goddess (1974), Maiden Voyage (1968), and Mother Nature’s Son (1968). “Charles Stepney could take music paper, manuscript paper, and write a full score for symphony orchestra, or big band, or for trio, like we would write a letter,” Lewis said in a 2009 trailer for a documentary called Interrupted Greatness: The Charles Stepney Story. “Sometimes with a piano, sometimes not. Sometimes on an airplane with just manuscript paper, and you would see him just writing away.”
Those “letters” included the arrangements for an eclectic assortment of forward-leaning 1960s and 1970s Chicago music: to name just a few, the title track of the 1968 Junior Wells album You’re Tuff Enough, the 1969 record Upchurch by jazz guitarist Phil Upchurch, the infamous plugged-in Muddy Waters LP Electric Mud, the output of soul quintet the Dells for Chess imprint Cadet, soul-folk work with Terry Callier, and Deniece Williams’s 1976 debut album (which followed a handful of singles on small local labels such as Toddlin’ Town, recorded as Deniece Chandler).
Stepney played a huge role in Rotary Connection, a psychedelic, interracial rock-soul band fronted at one time by Minnie Riperton and Sidney Barnes. It formed in 1967 when Marshall Chess, son of Chess founder Leonard, recruited Stepney as the arranger for a new group that would help anchor the adventurous new Cadet Concept imprint. Stepney found his way into the group photo that graces the cover of their final album, 1971’s Hey, Love (he’s the one sitting down with a cigarette in his hand).
Though probably best known as a launching pad for Riperton, Rotary Connection is also remembered for the ornate, off-kilter orchestrations Stepney supplied for tracks such as “I Am the Black Gold of the Sun,” “Memory Band,” and “Peace at Least.” Written for the band’s Christmas album by Artie Feldman (then a 23-year-old student), “Peace at Least” exults in the notion that Santa must be high “’cause he smokes mistletoe.” Though Stepney was pretty straitlaced, his arrangement evokes the image of Santa catapulted into the air, filled to the brim with joy . . . and high as a kite.
In 2008, Marshall Chess shared with me how the grand experiment of Rotary Connection came about—he’d had “the keys to the recording studio” and could do as he pleased at night. Stepney told DownBeat the story in 1970: “I arranged related percussion and some new-stream vocal,” he said. “[Marshall] Chess was so impressed with the thing, we took the studio kids that did the work and gave them a name—I think it was Chess’ idea—Rotary Connection. We did a whole album of the stuff, a little Moog, a little electronic alteration, and the style caught on instantly.” According to Marshall, the name actually came from a young ad executive named Roland Binzer.
Stepney’s arrangements have often been classified as “baroque soul,” towering high above earthly things. Guided by a copy of the 1930 book New Musical Resources by Henry Cowell, which was at the time out of print, Stepney developed an affinity for polyrhythms, syncopation, tasteful overmodulation, and judiciously deployed electronics. His distinctive aesthetic and expansive sound—exemplified by myriad iconic tracks, including “Can’t Hide Love” by Earth, Wind & Fire, “Free” by Deniece Williams, “Les Fleur” by Minnie Riperton, and “Stay in My Corner” by the Dells—continue to enchant generations of listeners, many of whom don’t know his name.
The release of Step on Step promises to introduce lots of new people to Charles Stepney, and I know the joy of that discovery deep in my heart. The first time he made his presence known to me was decades ago.
It was the mid-1990s, and I was barely 16 when a record-store owner, sitting behind the counter, told me he had a record I had to hear. He dropped the needle and played “Dancing Girl” by Terry Callier. We sat silently for the duration of the track, nearly nine minutes. Everything after that moment was different. I was different. That record sounded like a self-assured freedom I had yet to know. I wanted to live in that song.
Because “Dancing Girl” appeared on the 1972 LP What Color Is Love, recorded and released in Chicago by Chess subsidiary Cadet, I realized that Stepney could quite possibly still be with us—he could even be in my city. This was pre-Google, so the mystery swirled in my head for a year or so before the answer manifested in my grandmother’s basement: the notes on the orange, blue, and black inner sleeve of Earth, Wind & Fire’s 1976 album, Spirit, listed Stepney as cowriter, coproducer, and arranger, as had EW&F’s three previous albums. But unlike those other records, this one was dedicated to him too.
“With every band, the departure of spirit must take place. It is a destiny that is inevitable,” read the liner notes. “We, Earth, Wind & Fire, were blessed to have had a gifted spirit work among us. He has now departed to the next plane. He left us with much beauty and inspiration for humanity to feed upon. The works in this album are dedicated to Brother Charles Stepney (1931-1976). May God embrace his spirit with love.”
My heart dropped.
In his posthumous 2016 memoir, Earth, Wind & Fire founder Maurice White detailed the role Charles Stepney played in crafting what White called the “EW&F mystique.” Discussing “Can’t Hide Love,” White noted that “it’s the end vocal arrangement in the vamp of the song that people seem to remember. Charles had the strings playing a haunting, almost monastic melody, and Philip and I topped it off. To our fans, it sounded like Philip and I were monks chanting in an old monastery.”
The 1975 smash “That’s the Way of the World,” White wrote, started as a basic track Stepney gave him, and its “melancholy yet hopeful chords set the tone” for the lyrics, which White composed with his brother Verdine. And now, nearly 50 years later, we can hear that historic tape—the original track Stepney gave to the band, recorded in his basement—on the forthcoming Step on Step. Hearing it is a way to parse out the musical essence of a man who was all too often rendered invisible, standing in the shadows of his larger-than-life output.
It’s nothing short of startling to hear this classic jam laid out in its embryonic formation—just a Moog solo and overdubbed keys supported by a Latin-tinged drum-machine cadence. The rest of Step on Step (for which I wrote the liner notes) is just as surprising and revelatory. Stepney’s three daughters—Eibur, Charlene, and Chanté—note that before his untimely death, he intended to release a solo album, to finally foreground himself after so much work in the background.
That’s not to say Stepney thought his name needed to be on the cover of every record he touched—he thoroughly understood the significance of his behind-the-scenes musical contributions. Maurice White divulged in his memoir that Stepney “often” told him that “the Beatles without George Martin would have just been a bar band.”
Stepney clarified the point in his 1970 DownBeat interview. “I guess it’s no mystery who the real talent behind a group like the Beatles always was—George Martin, their producer!” he said. “Hate to shatter so many balloons, but no way could those four have pooled all the instrumental and electronic complexities involved in ‘Day in the Life’ or ‘Eleanor Rigby’ or ‘I Am a Walrus.’ Any trained ear can easily spot the songs the Beatles produced alone. They’re repetitive and shallow—you know, same three chords and that unmodified beat.” Shots fired!
A product of Wilson Junior College’s music theory program, Stepney was a big booster for the arts of arrangement and production. “These Sinatras and the rest need to be played like instruments into the whole musical picture, even though that picture may exist around them,” he concluded. The same year as that interview, while Stepney was arranging and producing Minnie Riperton’s 1970 solo debut, Come to My Garden, he also composed a classical-jazz symphony titled Cohesion. It was performed by Riperton, the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, and the Ramsey Lewis Trio.
For the Stepneys, releasing Step on Step has been a labor of love—the culmination of many years of work by his daughters and by his widow, the late Rubie Stepney, to keep Charles’s spirit and legacy alive.
In May, I moderated a conversation on the porch of the Hideout with Eibur, Charlene, and Chanté, organized by International Anthem as the first event in a series the label called the Summer of Stepney. “I didn’t know about how long-standing the work would be, but I thought it was amazing and beautiful work, and my mother did too,” recalled Eibur, Stepney’s oldest daughter. “My mother complimented him all the time on his effort and the caliber of the work that he was doing. So I think that honoring his work was a family tradition.
“We did know that, at that time, the level of orchestration that he committed to was not necessarily marketable. And I remember when he released the Come to My Garden album for Minnie Riperton, it was a big dispute between him and the marketing department [of GRT Records], because they did not know where to place it and they didn’t push it. And my father wrote a letter saying, ‘I painstakingly wrote every note for every instrument, and the least you could do is give it the respect it deserves so that people can hear it.’”
A few years after Come to My Garden came out, Stevie Wonder coproduced Riperton’s second album, Perfect Angel, which featured her breakthrough single, “Lovin’ You.” He was also a huge fan of Stepney’s work on her debut. “Stevie Wonder wrote my dad a letter and said, ‘I’ve worn out so many copies of this album. It’s brilliant,’” Eibur said. And many years later, “Les Fleur,” a noncharting single from Come to My Garden, enjoyed a renaissance of sorts: most recently it was prominently featured at the conclusion of the 2019 horror film Us, in the fourth episode of season three of Atlanta, and in episode three of the 2021 horror drama series Them.
Much of Stepney’s music is lauded today primarily by crate diggers, but he also contributed to so many solid hits that his work—and in some ways his spirit—has never left the atmosphere. His youngest daughter, Chanté, was only a toddler when he passed away, but his brilliance reached her anyway. “My experience is so different from [Eibur and Charlene’s], and knowing that, did [I] know it was going to be great?” she said at the Hideout. “Well, it was just always great for me. It was ever-present. It was on in the house, it was on in the grocery store, it was on in the elevator, and ‘Oh, that’s daddy. Oh, that’s daddy.’ Those are my earliest memories of my father, are sound clips, the soundtracks of our lives everywhere you go, followed by, ‘That’s daddy. That’s daddy.’”
Chanté also had a unique vantage point on the resurrection of Charles Stepney’s music by DJs. “During my time at Howard University, it was the 90s,” she said. “It was the height of hip-hop and oh my gosh, were they in my daddy’s crates? I had no idea. So I’m at a party and I’m having a ball because Biz Markie is the DJ, and he was just everything . . . and ‘Bonita Applebum’ comes on, and of course the crowd goes crazy, having the time of our lives.” For that track, A Tribe Called Quest had prominently sampled “Memory Band” by Rotary Connection. “And I think six months later, when Charlene’s dealing with the attorney trying to get paid for that sample, they’re like, ‘You mean you knew this song?’”
Charlene interjected, “It was paying your college tuition.”
Not only did the family know about the song, Charlene and Eibur are among the children singing on it. Charlene has told me it was dedicated to the children of the band.
At a Summer of Stepney talk I moderated at Kenwood Gardens on Father’s Day weekend, Charlene shared that their father was “stern, but he was so much fun. He loved magic tricks. He loved to make pallets in the summer so we all slept on the floor with him, under the fan. . . . We would wake up with a cold, but it didn’t matter because we were with daddy.”
A few weeks back, I was breaking bread with Alex E. Chávez of Chicago band Dos Santos, who’s also an associate professor of anthropology at Notre Dame. Over patatas bravas, pan con tomate, and olives, the conversation veered toward Charles Stepney. I told him about a story Maurice White had relayed in his memoir: after Stepney suffered his first major heart attack in early 1976, he told White that if anything happened to him, fellow Chicago arranger Tom Tom Washington was the only one who could complete the work.
Chávez comes from Texas, but even as an outsider he immediately recognized the tale as a perfect illustration of what he called the “work ethos of Chicago.” Stepney was near death and was still concerned with making sure that the work, which is eternal and bigger than him (bigger than all of us), would be seen through. After Stepney succumbed to a second catastrophic heart attack in May 1976, White reached out to Washington, who ultimately took over arranging duties for Earth, Wind & Fire as well as the Emotions.
Every time someone plays Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Reasons” at a wedding or even the Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly” at the grocery store (it also samples “Memory Band”), Stepney’s singular magic is reanimated. And even before Step on Step comes out, his legacy will be further uplifted by a concert in the Millennium Park Summer Music Series called “Charles Stepney: Out of the Shadows.”
The Summer of Stepney culminates on Thursday, August 18, at Pritzker Pavilion, with International Anthem labelmates Damon Locks & Black Monument Ensemble opening for Rotary Connection 222, a new band led by bassist-composer Junius Paul and created in collaboration with the Stepney family.
Rotary Connection 222 began this spring as a modest combo with drummer Makaya McCraven, keyboardist Alexis Lombre, guitarist Jackson Shepard, and vocals by Meagan McNeal and Stepney’s granddaughter Brandice Manuel. For this concert, however, it will grow to nearly two dozen members—including seven string players, five vocalists, and a five-piece horn section—performing new arrangements by Paul, saxophonist De’Sean Jones (who’ll also be in the ensemble), and guitarist Jeff Parker. As the group’s full, rich orchestrations ring out under a summer Chicago sky, Stepney’s indomitable spirit will live on.