THE 5 STAIRSTEPS; Our Family Portrait/Stairsteps (SoulMusic Records/Real Gone)

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SoulMusic Records’ latest release in collaboration with Real Gone Music is a great “twofer” from Chicago’s “first family of soul” – The 5 Stairsteps aka The Burke family. The group were formed in 1965 when bass player Clarence Burke Sr. entered his kids – Alohe Jean, James, Clarence Jr., Dennis and Keni into a talent show at Chicago’s Regal Theatre. They caught the eye of Fred Cash of the Impressions and he had his boss, Curtis Mayfield sign them to his Windy C label. Then when Curtom was formed the Burke’s contractual status became a little complicated with material released on Curtom and Buddah – Curtom’s distributor.

The two LP’s that make up this “twofer” – 1968’s ‘Our Family Portrait’ and 1970’s ‘Stairsteps’ were both on Buddah and have long been in-demand by collectors. ‘Our Portrait’ was produced by the two Clarences and father and son allowed the rest of the family to share lead vocals, even drafting in a younger sibling, Cubie (then aged just 5) to add his child like warbling. In truth his contribution –as evidenced on ‘New Dance Craze’ – is little more than a gimmick and the band sound so much better without him. Album highlights include the lovely doo-wop flavoured ballad ‘A Million To One’ and the classic Chicago sound of ‘You Make Me So Mad’. As was the way back then soul artists aspiring to break into the albums market felt obliged to include plenty of MOR covers and here we’re treated to versions of  ‘The Look Of Love’, ‘The Windows Of The World’ and a take on the standard ‘I Remember You’.

The covers continued on the eponymous 1970 album but the versions of the Beatles’ ‘Getting Better’ and ‘Dear Prudence’ are uninspired with producer Stan Vincent crating a rockier sound for the Burkes. The album, though, did feature the Stairsteps biggest hit – ‘Ooh Child’. The song was originally relegated to the B-side of the single release of ‘Dear Prudence’ but when DJs flipped the disc, ‘Oooh Child’ took off – hitting #8 on the hot hundred and selling over a million en route.

The two albums are reissued here in their original format for the first time and there’s also a trio of bonuses, the singles ‘America Standing’, ‘Madame Mary’ and ‘The Shadow Of Your Smile’ – the latter two with input from Curtis Mayfield and Donny Hathaway.

(BB) 4/5