There is still a vibrancy and creativity of American music of the 1960s and 70s that has much to offer those who remember those days, as well as those inheriting the unique American penchant for syncretism in music styles. Certainly, the merging of jazz, gospel, funk, and rock is what distinguishes the 1970s as the U.S. emerged from days of the Civil Rights movement and the war in Vietnam. Definitions of what qualified as ‘Black’ music and ‘White’ music appeared to become fuzzier as young people breathed easier (without the Draft dangling over their heads) and could go to the dance floor and groove to tunes by Earth Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder (imported from Saginaw, Michigan), Sly and the Family Stone, Parliament and Funkadelic.
But who was one of the masterminds? Who was it that helped shape grooves the behind the microphone? The tunes are there to be heard on your MP3 player, YouTube, Songza, or even on an LP as God Himself intended those tunes to be heard. That mastermind was Charles Stepney. You won’t hear his voice on those recordings, but you can still feel his spirit. It lives.
Charles Stepney, born in 1931, could credit to some extent the influence of a Jewish émigré from Ukraine, Joseph Schillinger, who devised the Schillinger System of Composing and advised American greats such as George Gershwin, Benny Goodman, and Glenn Miller. But Stepney brought, too, a native flair for musicianship, creative composition and arrangement. And as his surviving daughters attest, Stepney was also a man of rock-solid ethics and integrity.
Stepney’s skills can be heard on hits by The Dells, Earth Wind & Fire, as well as Chicago soul acts such as Rotary Connection and Terry Callier. He collaborated with Marshall Chess of Chess Records on the eponymous album by the Rotary Connection sextet and the song of the same name in 1967 that defined psychedelic sound and featured covers of songs by Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and Sam & Dave. And while he collaborated at Chicago-based Chess Records, it was jazz great Ramsey Lewis who recorded Stepney’s ‘Close Your Eyes and Remember.’ Stepney continued to work with Lewis and on the latter’s Sungoddess album which went gold and peaked at number 12 on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums in the Pop category in 1975. It is Stepney who can be credited with the influential Orchestral Psychedelic soul sound that radiated from Chicago to the world.
Stepney’s work with The Dells emerged when group member Chuck Barksdale met him as he headed his own jazz trio as a vibraphone player. The fortuitous meeting proved to be fortunate for both as Stepney began doing orchestral arrangements on the Dells' Chess recordings and for other acts in the label's stable. He also played the vibraphone for various Chess sessions and it was then that he heard the Chicago Symphony Orchestra play his arrangements for the first time. Stepney’s time at Chess Records also meant working with Minnie Riperton, before she made it big, when she was a member of mid-'60s girl group The Gems and again when she was a singer with Rotary Connection.
In the '70s, Stepney joined drummer Maurice White, who founded '70s supergroup Earth Wind & Fire (EWF). First recording for Warner Bros. Records then Columbia Records, the group slowly began to build a reputation for exciting live shows including magic tricks along with innovative recordings. Six-time Grammy winners, EWF had 46 charting R&B singles, 33 charting pop singles including eight gold singles. The group also won four American Music Awards and earned more than 50 gold and platinum albums. Stepney wrote or co-wrote many popular tunes for EWF. Working with White and Philip Bailey, he co-wrote the classic ballad "Reasons," an extremely popular radio-aired LP track from the group's 1975 double-platinum LP That's the Way of the World. Stepney also co-wrote the ‘Yearnin’, Learnin’ track (number five R&B, summer 1975) for That's the Way of the World, which held the number one spot for a pop single for three weeks in 1975.
Ramsey Lewis, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, and many of Stepney’s peers credit him as an important influence on their careers. And while Stepney may not be the Godfather of Soul, he is indeed the mastermind of a fusion of music and styles that brought together disparate strands of American experience and sound. Stepney passed into glory in 1976, lamentably and too soon, but the beat goes on.
Stepney’s legacy is here to stay and will be revived at the coming ‘Replay: A Charles Stepney Listening Session’ of his music to be held on October 28 in Chicago. The event will feature his popular work, but also previously unreleased works, and as the debut of a Stepney produced gospel album by the Ambassadors of Christ. The Stepney Foundation is being re-launched there to further an American music legacy at the event. See here for info.