A Stairstep Story: Remembering Clarence Burke, Jr. PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 20 June 2013 17:59

A Stairstep Story:

Remembering Clarence Burke, Jr.  

(The Invisible Man)

Clarence Newton Burke Jr. (25th May 1949 - 26th May 2013) of the family act The Five Stairsteps, known as the First Family of Soul was the brain child, the main songwriter, choreographer, musician, guitarist, and lead singer. The group consisted of four brothers and one sister, with Clarence Jr, Alohe Jean, James, Dennis, Kenneth "Keni", and Cubie.

The group first began performing after Mrs. Betty Burke organized her children for a talent fundraising show in benefit for the school library. They won first prize which led to other local talent shows with the Five Stairsteps winning first prize for every show. The group apparently also won first prize during amateur night at the Regal Theater just prior to their recording duet. Mr. Clarence Burke Sr. had known Fred Cash of the Impressions and he convinced Fred to come to their house where his kids auditioned for him. Fred was convinced that the children had talent and were marketable and set up a telephone audition for Curtis Mayfield. The result was a recording contact with Mayfield’s new record company called Windy C Records. In 1966 they released Don't Waste Your Time / You Waited Too Long which reached No. 16 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1966. This was followed by World of Fantasy / Playgirl's Love then the Come Back / You Don't Love Me. An LP quickly followed up in 1967 on Windy C produced by Curtis Mayfield. All of the songs on the album were written by Curtis Mayfield, Clarence Burke Jr, Clarence Burke Sr. and Gregory Fowler. Stage presence was taught to Clarence Jr. by Clarence Sr. in the beginning. In 1967 the group now billed as the Five Stairsteps & Cubie released Something's Missing which went up to No. 17 on the billboard charts. Windy C released a total of seven singles between 1966 and 1967 with heavy marketing for the Five Stairsteps. The singles Ain't Gonna Rest (Till I Get You), You Can't See, and Change Of Pace were not included on the freshmen album. In 1967 the album Jimmy Bishop On Stage Live At The Nixon Theater was released featuring Billy Stewart, The Delfonics, the Ambassadors, The Intruders and The Five Stairsteps and Cubie. The Stairsteps were recorded live performing Somethings Missing and Don't Waist Your Time plus dialogue

This was followed-up by an album in 1968 on Buddah Records produced by a 17 year old Clarence Burke Jr. assisted by the jazz great Johnny Pate called Our Family Portrait. The LP featured each one of the Five Stairsteps & Cubie including Mamma and Papa Stairstep. Lead singer Clarence Jr. shared the spotlight with Kenneth who sang lead on A Million To One, James III who sang lead on You Make Me So Mad, Alohe Jean who sang lead on The Look of Love, Cubie who sang lead on The New Dance Craze and Mama and Papa Stairstep who sang lead on Windows of the World/I Remember You. Our Family Portrait was a total family affair. Buddah would release three singles between 1967 and 1968 with The Shadow of Your Love being the last, which was not included on the album. Finally the record company released a variety album in 1968 featuring the Five Stairsteps & Cubie called Classmates highlighting similar acts like Judy White, Henry Lumpkin, Tony Lamarr, and Timothy Wilson.

The following year saw a different direction for the Five Stairsteps & Cubie with an album release on Curtom Records again produced by Curtis Mayfield. Their first release was Don’t Change Your Love which became a signature song for the group. Curtom released two 45 singles in 1968 titled Don't Change Your Love / New Dance Craze and Stay Close To Me / I Made A Mistake. A full album followed in 1969 called Loves Happening. Several of the selections were covers of the Impressions compositions like Loves Happening, Madam Mary, Stay Close To Me, and Little Young Lover. The Five Stairsteps and The Impressions had a bond. Curtis Mayfield referred to the Burke children as his babies. The Loves Happening album was written mostly by Curtis Mayfield and it did not include any Clarence Burke Jr. Compositions. The 1969 year was also a milestone for the Five Stairsteps, as they were featured in a concert and film called “It’s Your Thing”. This was an Isley Brothers concert movie recorded live at Yankee Stadium. Clarence Jr. and the Five Stairsteps performed on the show backed up by the Midnight Movers Unlimited. Other acts were Judy White, the Sweet Cherries, the Brooklyn Bridge, Patti Austin, the Young Gents, Ike & Tine Turner, the Winstons, Moms Mabley, the Carla Ward Singers, and others. The Five Stairsteps became a major force in the world of R&B. The final Curtom release in 1969 was We Must Be In Love that included duets from Clarence Jr, and Kenneth Burke. Two of the Curtom singles featured Kenneth Burke on lead vocals instead of Clarence which were Stay Close To Me and Baby Make Me Feel So Good. The last Curtom single Madame Mary was not included on the album which featured the lead vocals of Clarence Jr.

The year 1970 would be a milestone for the Five Stairsteps after the release of "O-o-h Child" written by Stan Vincent. This signature song reached number eight on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, while peaking at number fourteen on the R&B charts. The flip-side of Ooh Child was Dear Prudence which was also played on popular radio. Buddah Records would then release Who Do You Belong To and Because I Love You on several 45 releases. The self-titled album called  Stairsteps was a combination of songs written by Clarence Burke Jr, Stan Vincent, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. It featured Clarence Burke on guitar, Kenneth Burke on bass and Bernard Purdy on drums. The album is a masterpiece and the year 1970 through 1971 was a metamorphosis for the Five Stairsteps. The Clarence Burke Jr. composition Vice The Lights was a total funk and psychedelic delivery and is a Stairsteps classic. The group would open up their stage show in 1970 with Because I Love You which was  a psychedelic soul ballad composed by Clarence Burke, Jr.

America Standing was released in 1970 by the Five Stairsteps which was a hard rock record. This was a cover of the Steppenwolf classic Monster. That year the group incorporated a funk and black rock psychedelic sound into their stage act. They would open up their show with a cover of Jimi Hendrix Purple Haze and Music Lover from Sly & the Family Stone. Their own composition Don't Change Your Love became a psychedelic production blended with slick choreography. Drummer Jerome Brailey from Richmond Virginia joined the act in 1970. His photo was included on the 1971 The Stairsteps album cover with the group. He would leave the group to join the Chambers Brothers and then eventually Parliament-Funkadelic. The 1971 The Stairsteps album was also produced by Stan Vincent containing compositions from Clarence Burke Jr, Stan Vincent and George Harrison. The lead vocals on the album were performed by Clarence, Alohe and Kenneth. Buddah Records would release Didn't It Look So Easy, I Love You – Stop, and Hush Child between 1971 and 1972. During this time Alohe Jean (Rami) Burke retired from the group and served her country in the United States military. Upon completing her service she enrolled in college and furthered her education completing her bachelors and masters degrees in the sciences. A final Buddah single was released in 1972 that would not be included on an album called Every Single Way / Two Weeks Notice, returning back to a sweeter softer soulful sound much like that of 1967.

Clarence Jr. would not appear again in recorded music until 1976 with the invitation of Billy Preston to appear on the Quincy Jones album called I Heard That!!. He and his brother Kenneth "Keni" recorded the chorus on the recording Superstition as the Stairsteps. They were joined by Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers, Billy Preston and the Brothers Johnson on the tune. That was also the year of the Stairsteps reunion resulting in the album 2nd Resurrection produced by Billy Preston and the Burke brothers. The lead vocals and instrumental solos were performed by the Burke brothers of Clarence Jr, James, Kenneth and Dennis.  The songwriting was done by the Burke brothers as well and Dark Horse Records owned by George Harrison released the album. It has become a masterpiece. The following year Kenneth Burke released his debut solo album Keni Burke also on Dark Horse. Clarence Jr. would appear again in 1978 as a guitarist on the Herbie Mann Super Mann album. The following year in 1979 he appeared again as a guitarist on the debut album for the R&B act Touch Of Class. Clarence one told me that the group Touch of Class substituted for his brothers as the Stairsteps shortly before the group finally retired. That year also Venus Dodson ‎who had been a singer with Leroy Burgess (Black Ivory) and Patrick Adams released her solo album Night Rider, and Clarence Jr. appeared on it as a background vocalist.

The year 1979 also became a milestone for Clarence Burke Jr. with his second reunion of his brothers under the project named The Invisible Man's Band. The first single All Night Thingwritten by Clarence Burke became a club hit and was played heavily on FM radio. The first album The Invisible Man's Band was released in 1980 featuring Clarence Burke Jr, James Burke, Kenneth (Keni) Burke and Dennis Burke. The follow-up album Really Wanna See You was released in 1981. The last release by The Invisible Man's Band was a 1982 12 inch single called Sunday Afternoon, which was the only completed recording from an unfinished album. The Invisible Man's Band would never tour.

 In 2001 he appeared in the chorus of the US progressive metal band Dream Theater’s on its recording called Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory. Lately, the fans of Clarence Burke Jr. have enjoyed seeing him perform as a solo artist and with others acts. His performance at Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar in NYC was well received with him performing his own compositions as well as Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield. The last release by Clarence Burke Jr. was a digital download of a live recording of “Somebody’s Watching You”.  He would appear on The Funk Show twice and we were planning for a third interview. Clarence N. Burke Jr. was the invisible man and will be missed by all for a long time to come.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 24 February 2015 09:21