The Five Stairsteps
, known as “The First Family of Soul”, were an American Chicago soul group made up of five of Betty and Clarence Burke Sr.’s six children: Alohe Jean, Clarence Jr., James, Dennis, and Kenneth “Keni”, and briefly, Cubie. They are best known for the 1970 song “O-o-h Child”, listed #392 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
The Chicago group was dubbed “First Family of Soul” because of their successful five-year chart run; the moniker was later passed on to The Jackson 5. Initially a teenage five-member brothers and sister vocal group made up of the children of Betty and Clarence Burke, The Five Stairsteps (named by Mrs. Burke who thought her kids looked like stairsteps when lined up according to their age) featured lead singer Clarence Jr., Alohe, James, Dennis, and 13-year-old Kenneth (“Keni”). Most of the members attended Harlan High School. Clarence Sr. was a detective for the Chicago Police Department. He backed the group on bass guitar, managed them, and co-wrote songs with Clarence Jr. and Gregory Fowler.
After winning first prize in a talent contest at the Regal Theater, The Five Stairsteps received recording contract offers. A close neighbor and family friend was Fred Cash of The Impressions, who introduced the group to Curtis Mayfield. Signed to Mayfield’s Windy City imprint, which was distributed by the Philadelphia based Cameo Parkway record label, their first single was Gregory Fowler’s ballad “You Waited Too Long” b/w “Don’t Waste Your Time,” a Mayfield song. A double-sided hit in Chicago, the A-side, “
You Waited Too Long
,” charted number 16 in the Billboard R&B chart in spring of 1966. Around the end of 1967, Cameo-Parkway folded and Windy City switched to Buddah Records through former Cameo-Parkway executive Neil Bogart, who joined the new label as co-president. The group’s second album, Family Portrait (complete with a montage of Burke family photos), was recorded and produced in Chicago by Clarence Jr. With the addition of their three-year-old brother, the group became The Five Stairsteps & Cubie. Family Portrait yielded two hit singles, “Something’s Missing” and a cover of Jimmy Charles and the Revelletts’ hit “A Million to One.” The group often toured with the Impressions. After signing with Buddah Records, the group was once again known as The Five Stairsteps.
In the spring of 1970, the group released their biggest hit, “O-o-h Child” (written by Stan Vincent), which hit number 14 R&B and number eight on the Billboard Hot 100. This disc sold over one million copies, and received a gold disc awarded by the R.I.A.A. on August 1970. The flip side of the single, a cover of Lennon–McCartney’s “Dear Prudence,” charted at number 49 R&B. The following year, the group resurfaced as The Stairsteps with two charting Buddah singles: “Didn’t It Look So Easy” and “I Love You-Stop.” The group appeared in the 1970 movie The Isley Brothers Live At Yankee Stadium, a documentary of a benefit concert filmed at the famous home of the New York Yankees featuring The Isley Brothers, The Brooklyn Bridge and various other Buddah Records affiliated artists. In the early 1970s, the group was known simply as The Stairsteps. Alohe was still with the group. Cubie never really sang with the group, but would grow up to be a popular dancer with the Dance Theater of Harlem etc. Billy Preston introduced The Stairsteps to The Beatles, and the group signed with George Harrison’s Dark Horse label distributed by A&M Records. Alohe left the group in 1972 to begin a spiritual journey, and later would attend college, graduate and work at Emory University at which she was also a guest speaker. An album, Second Resurrection, was released in February 1976, produced by Preston, Robert Margouleff, and the Stairsteps. “From Us to You,” written by Clarence Jr. and Keni Burke, was the group’s biggest hit since “Ooh Child,” peaking at number ten R&B in early 1976. The follow-up single, “Pasado”, also covered by the group Pockets, received airplay in Chicago, New York, and other markets. Keni sang, played bass, and wrote both songs on the third single, “Tell Me Why” b/w “Salaam.” in January 2014, the album was reissued on cd in Europe by the Solaris label, as was Keni Burke’s eponymous Dark Horse album.