The singer, guitarist and songwriter Clarence Burke Jr., who died on 25 May at the age of 62, was a mainstay of the Five Stairsteps, the “First Family of Soul” group best known for the sublime 1970 US hit “O-o-h Child”, writes Pierre Perrone.
Formed by Clarence Burke Sr., a Chicago Police Department detective, they comprised his daughter, Alohe Jean, alongside his teenage sons James, Clarence Jr., Dennis and Keni. Their mother remarked that, when they lined up according to their age, their heights resembled a staircase – and the name stuck, even if it was sometimes shortened to the Stairsteps.
After winning a local talent contest, they were brought to the attention of Curtis Mayfield by Fred Cash, a fellow member of The Impressions, and they released their first single, the Mayfield-penned “Don’t Waste Your Time”, on his Windy C label in 1966.
Burke Jr. co-wrote its flip, the ballad “You Waited Too Long”, the follow-up, “World of Fantasy”, and several more of their beautifully arranged singles, including the yearning “Come Back”, on which he delivered a tear-jerking vocal worthy of Smokey Robinson. Indeed, their repertoire included sensational covers of The Miracles’ “Ooo Baby Baby” and the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” that made the most of their unique vocal interplay and justified the First Family of Soul appellation later taken up by the Jackson 5.
Composed by producer Stan Vincent, “O-o-h Child” featured Alohe Jean and Clarence Jr. on lead, and conveyed an uplifting, enduring message through its recurring “things are gonna get easier” motif. Many of the Stairsteps singles had crossed from the R&B charts to the lower reaches of the Hot 100, but “O-o-h Child” reached No 8 on the US pop listings and was swiftly covered by the Detroit Spinners, Nina Simone and Laura Nyro. It remains a touchstone of African-American culture, sampled by 2Pac, R Kelly and Janet Jackson, and referenced by The Simpsons and film-makers John Singleton (1991’s Boyz n the Hood) and Spike Lee (1994’s Crooklyn). The song was also included amongst Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
In the mid-Seventies, the Stairsteps signed to George Harrison’s Dark Horse label and recorded an original composition cheekily entitled “From Us to You” – co-produced by their friend Billy Preston, who had helped engineer the deal – but broke up shortly thereafter. The four brothers reunited as The Invisible Man’s Band and scored a disco hit with the irresistible floor-filler “All Night Thing” in 1980. Clarence Burke Jr. continued writing, producing and performing until his death in Florida.