Chicago born, bred and buttered, the composer, arranger and producer Charles Stepney (1931-76) lived and worked on the porous boundary between jazz and funk which has existed since James Brown first got on the good foot. As a staff producer for the Chess label in the 1960s, and later as an independent, Stepney worked on recordings by Rotary Connection, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Terry Callier, Ramsey Lewis and Earth, Wind & Fire, among many others.
Prominent among Stepney's sound signatures was what was dubbed "baroque soul." Epic wide-screen arrangements, these were often executed by members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and have been likened to Phil Spector's contemporaneous "wall of sound" rock and pop productions. What Color Is Love (Cadet, 1972), the second of a trilogy of Terry Callier albums Stepney arranged, produced and played keyboards on, is a glorious example of baroque soul.
Step By Step is a 2xLP/CD/cassette/digital compilation of home-recorded Stepney demos which has been released by Chicago's International Anthem. The label is best known in this parish for its sterling work with avant-jazz artists such as America's Makaya McCraven, Dezron Douglas, Rob Mazurek and Jeff Parker and Britain's Tom Skinner.
The album was compiled by International Anthem in collaboration with Stepney's three daughters, who worked from tapes stored by their father in the basement of their home. The sisters produced the album over many years and originally released the results on an ultra-limited CD on their own DIY label some ten years ago. Stepney recorded the tracks alone, playing all the instruments himself. Most of the material was never recorded commercially, but the album does include seedling-style demos of a few compositions later released by Earth, Wind & Fire and Rotary Connection. The remaining tracks were titled by the three sisters, whose voices are heard on the album sharing memories of their father.
For general listeners, Step By Step will be of limited interest. But for Stepney connoisseurs it will be an artefact as important as the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was to biblical scholars. The catch-all rating of 3.5 stars needs to be adjusted up or down accordingly.
Roll Tape; Gimme Some Sugar; Daddy’s Diddies; Gotta Dig It To Dig It; No Credit For This; Roadtrip; On Your Face; That’s The Way Of The World; Imagination; In The Basement; Business; Look B4U Leap; Around The House; Funky Sci Fi; Mini Mugg; Chicago Independent; Surround Stere; Black Gold; Denim Groove; Notes From Dad; Rubie & Charles; Greatness; Step On Step.
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Chris May is a senior editor of All About Jazz. He was previously the editor of the pioneering magazine Black Music & Jazz Review, and more recently editor of the style / culture / history magazine Jocks & Nerds.