“Summer of Stepney” pays tribute to Chicago musician Charles Stepney
In a city of unsung musical heroes, Charles Stepney is perhaps one of the greatest. Stepney, who was a musician, producer, arranger and composer, worked with iconic artists like Earth, Wind & Fire, Minnie Riperton and Ramsey Lewis. His creations continue to resonate today, whether through the artists he produced during his heyday in the 60s and 70s or in contemporary songs spanning many genres and featuring excerpts from his work. But for those outside Chicago’s jazz, soul and R&B industries, Stepney’s prolific oeuvre is mostly unknown. Stepney’s daughters – Eibur, Charlene and Chanté – aim to change that.
On September 9, acclaimed Chicago-born record label International Anthem will release “Step on Step,” a double collection of Stepney’s home recordings. The record serves as Stepney’s official debut as a solo artist. Filled with previously unreleased and untitled recordings, “Step on Step” is an exceptional treat for fans new and old interested in unfolding the creative genius behind some of their favorite songs and albums. And ahead of the record’s release, audiences can celebrate Stepney’s singular genius at “Charles Stepney: Out of the Shadows,” a tribute concert and celebration of Stepney’s work at Millennium Park.
Born and raised in Chicago, Stepney grew up in a musical family. As an adult, Stepney became a piano and vibraphone player, later joining Chess Records as an in-house musician and arranger. It was there that Stepney – along with Marshall Chess, son of Chess Records co-founder Leonard Chess – formed the psychedelic soul band Rotary Connection. Stepney went on to produce or co-produce the band’s records, including their 1967 self-titled debut. It was this work that became a springboard for Stepney, who went on to work as a musician, producer or arranger of classical records, including album by Rotary Connection lead singer Minnie Riperton, “Come to My Garden” and “Maiden” by the Ramsey Lewis Trio. Travel.”
Reflecting on this period, the Stepney girls (known as the Stepney Sisters) recall a household overflowing with music. “I think we heard this music all day and all night,” Charlene joked. The girls’ bedroom was directly above their father’s studio, located in the red-carpeted basement of their childhood home. They often heard early iterations of many of the tracks their father is best known for. “It was an older house, so you (could) hear whether you wanted to hear it or not.”
“Once in a while there can be whispers of a debate over who wrote what, and I love that because Charlene and Eibur are like, ‘Oh, no. Dad wrote that because we were sleeping at the above him. He wrote that. I know he wrote that,” Chanté added.
Stepney died in 1976. According to his daughters, Stepney, despite working for other artists, was hard at work at the time on a solo album (also titled “Step on Step”) before his death. In later years, after hearing their father’s contributions to the work of other artists, Stepney’s daughters were determined to share his home recordings with the world. “I think in many ways he’s never been recognized for the amount of work he’s put into a project, so I thought that would give – especially to people who are interested in music – it would give them insight into his creative process and how it evolved from the beginning,” Charlene said.
Stepney’s music was recorded with outdated technology, making the process of sharing with others nearly impossible. The process of archiving reel recordings like those made by Stepney took decades to develop. Eventually, the sisters found someone who specialized in restoring these types of recordings without losing sound integrity.
“A lot of times you only get one hit to get the material back,” Charlene said. So far they have listened to 90 reels.
“A lot of these songs are beautiful, but they are definitely early days. (The listeners can hear) how it would move from (the) beginning and then they could hear the end result,” Charlene said. For example, about halfway through the record is a raw composition for the Earth, Wind & Fire song “That’s The Way of the World” without any vocals. Stepney is credited as one of three songwriters (including Maurice and Verdine White) on the track’s official release on the band’s 1975 album of the same name. love, without anyone saying anything,” Charlene added.
Along with the tracks, the disc also includes stories of the Stepney sisters recounting some of their memories of their father. For discerning listeners, music enthusiasts and students of the greatest, “Step by Step” will be a dizzying delight, a feast for the ears.
Next week, as part of Millennium Park’s Summer Music Series, a new ensemble called Rotary Connection 222 will perform and celebrate their music in an event called “Charles Stepney: Out of the Shadows.” Created by Junius Paul in collaboration with the Stepney Sisters, Rotary Connection 222 also features artists like Makaya McCraven on drums and Stepney’s granddaughter, Brandice Manuel, on vocals. The event is part of what has been referred to as “The Summer of Stepney”, a series of events, performances and documentary webisodes celebrating Stepney’s work.
“A lot of his music is so well known, but his name just wasn’t,” Chanté said. “(This) is just a very first step and several things that we hope to introduce, eventually, with the aim of increasing (the) awareness of the name. He was known for his production, but he was also a performer , and the producers weren’t featured at the time. We’re working really hard to achieve that and allow people to associate the name, the man, with the music they already know intimately.
“Charles Stepney: Out of the Shadows” is at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 18 at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, 201 E. Randolph St.; tickets are free, more information on summerofstepney.com
Britt Julious is a freelance critic.