Five StairstepsThe Five Stairsteps, known as "The First Family of Soul" and later "The Invisible Man's Band", was 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 at #402 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
HistoryThe 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 stair steps 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. They 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.
Clarence Burke appeared as himself on the September 26, 1967 episode of the game show To Tell The Truth, receiving two of the four possible votes by the panel members. Following the round of questioning, the group performed for the audience, singing Danger! She's a Stranger.
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. in 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.
DisbandedAfter the Stairsteps disbanded, Keni remained with Dark Horse as a solo artist. His self-produced debut solo LP, Keni Burke, was released in August 1977. The singles were "Keep on Singing" and "From Me to You," an instrumental answer to "From Us to You." Becoming an in-demand session bass player, he can be heard on everyone from Sly & the Family Stone, Natalie Cole, Billy Preston, Les McCann, the Emotions, Raffi and The Four Tops to Redman, Terry Callier, Stargard, Curtis Mayfield, Bill Withers, Linda Clifford, Silk, Narada Michael Walden, Ramsey Lewis, Dusty Springfield, Diana Ross and Gladys Knight. He appeared as part of Bill Withers' band around this time and co-produced his album, Menagerie, which included the hit single "Lovely Day."
The Invisible Man's BandIn 1978, Clarence, Jr. teamed up with New York-based producer Alex Masucci to form the group The Invisible Man's Band. Not interested in recording without his brothers, Clarence convinced Keni, James, and Dennis, along with keyboardist Dean Gant and drummer Steve Ferrone, to come to New York City's Brill building to record an album under the Invisible Man's Band moniker. The group's self-titled debut, produced by Masucci and Clarence, Jr. and released in 1980 by Mango/Island Records, featured the heavily discofied hit "All Night Thing," which returned the Burke brothers to the top ten on the R&B chart. The tune also reached #45 on the pop chart. Several other singles were released from this album throughout 1980, but they could not replicate the success of the first hit.
The following year, Clarence, Jr. and Masucci formed Seduction Productions. As the new vehicle for the Invisible Man's Band, they signed a production deal with Boardwalk Records, Neil Bogart's follow up label to Casablanca Records. The group soon released a follow-up album, Really Wanna See You. While the title track and "Rated X" were released as singles, neither track received much promotion, as shortly thereafter, Neil Bogart died and the label was disbanded. While no further full-length albums were released under the "Invisible Man's Band" name, the group later released one final single, "Sunday Afternoon," on the Move 'N Groove Record Label, a new label formed by Masucci and Clarence, Jr., in 1983.
Keni Burke resumes solo workLater in 1981, Burke got a new solo album deal with RCA Records. The self-produced LP You're the Best included the singles, "Let Somebody Love You" and the title track "You're the Best." His next RCA album, 1982's Changes, yielded his biggest solo hit, "Risin' to the Top." While the song only peaked at number 63 R&B in late summer 1982, "Risin' to the Top" served as the baseline (and bass-line) for The Mary Jane Girls' breakout hit the following year, "All Night Long," and has since been sampled (often along with "All Night Long") by multiple artists, including LL Cool J ("Around the Way Girl"), Doug E. Fresh ("Keep Risin' to the Top"), Mary J. Blige ("Love No Limit" and "Mary Jane (All Night Long)") and Ali ("Feelin' You.")
The second Changes single was "Shakin'." Changes is also notable because it includes one of the last songs by Philadelphia songwriter Linda Creed (co-written with Thom Bell), the mid-tempo ballad "One Minute More." Burke worked as a writer/producer (frequently with keyboardist Dean Gant and former Average White Band drummer Steve Ferrone) with The O'Jays, The Jones Girls, The Whispers, Keith Sweat, George Howard, Peabo Bryson, Bill Withers, and Perri, among others. After meeting Expansion Records executive Ralph Tee at a Berwick Soul Weekender, Burke signed with the Sony distributed UK label. Nothin' But Love was his first album for the label and was released in March 1998. The first 12" single was "I Need Your Love" with vocals by Burke's son, Osaze "Ozzie" Burke.
Later yearsClarence Burke, Jr. died on May 26, 2013, at his home in Marietta, Georgia. He was 64. The cause of his death was not disclosed. He was survived by his wife, Crystal, and five children.
Cubie Burke died May 14, 2014, in Smyrna, Georgia, at the age of 49.
Dean Gant died April 25, 2020.