Charles Stepney may not be a household name, but the Chicago-based producer, arranger, and composer was an enigmatic musical mind in the 60s and 70s. First as a staff producer at Chess Records in the 1960s where he was the creative force behind artists like Rotary Connection, Minnie Riperton, Marlena Shaw, Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Terry Callier, The Dells, The Emotions, and many more. He’s also known for his work with Earth, Wind, and Fire, Deniece Williams, and Ramsey Lewis going into the 70s.
Stepney passed away much too soon at the age of 45 in 1976, and left behind 4-track tapes filled with home recordings he’d made in the basement studio of his family’s home on the south side of Chicago. International Anthem, along with the help and cooperation of Stepney’s daughters Eibur, Charlene, and Chanté Stepney, have compiled these demos into Step on Step, Charles Stepney’s posthumous debut album.
Step on Step is a joyous double LP that celebrates a musical genius gone too soon and his love of musical creation. The songs remain in their simple 4-track form, but there’s an honesty and passion in the raw sound. Stepney records in the solace of home, and the joy and love come thru on these soulful and funky tracks. Some are rough versions of what would become big hits, while others were meant for what Stepney planned to make his debut album(he’d even told his daughters back then that he wanted to call it ‘Step on Step’.) This album is absolute joy, and feels like an intimate look inside a creative mind buzzing at full force.
Step on Step is 23 tracks that range from snippets of ideas to full-on groovy 70s funk, created on what sounds like a primitive drum machine, electric piano, and a Moog synthesizer. Stepney uses the Moog and keys in place of his typical orchestrations he’d write for artists like Earth, Wind, and Fire and Ramsey Lewis. The stripped-down demo feel here only adds to the album’s mystique and heaviness. It’s intimate, joyful, melancholy, and has the weight of a man that is using his musical prowess for himself, as opposed for helping to build other artists for a change. In his 40s, Charles Stepney was ready to step out on his own. Nearly 50 years later his time has come.
Listening to Charles Stepney’s Step on Step you feel as if you’re in the basement studio on the south side of Chicago with him, watching him create these songs. There’s an intimacy here, and I think his daughters put it together that way. They compiled these songs over many years, naming them and sequencing them and even releasing a very limited CD run of this album on their own label back in the 2010s. Besides the music, one of the most striking and heartful things about the album are the voices of Stepney’s daughters talking and reminiscing throughout the record. From talking about family road trips to visit aunts and uncles to pronouncing Moog as “Mog”, it gives this album that much more weight and emotional investment. Their voices, even more so than the amazing music, gives their father weight and fills the void his passing decades ago left behind.
Musically we’re in the early to mid-seventies and Stepney locks into that world of soulful funk. Think Talking Book Stevie, Fresh-era Sly, and everything in-between. “Gimme Some Sugar” struts and sways with funky electric piano and synth bass. You can’t listen to this without bopping your head. It’s infectious. “Gotta Dig It To Dig It” is the best Sly Stone song that Sly Stone never wrote. “No Credit For This” has a longing melancholy to it. Front stoop conversations on a hot summer Chicago day with Lake Michigan and its vast horizons and shimmering inevitability just a few miles away. This song got me the first time I heard it and it’s gotten me every time after.
You don’t need a song by song rundown here. These songs are timeless and timely. Charles Stepney was a composer and multi-instrumentalist with the head and heart of a true musical genius. These 4-track demos are a step into his mind and show a man with an endless well of talent and seemingly just getting around to himself after years of lifting other artists up. He wasn’t able to see his own endeavors through, sadly, but his daughters took those 4-track seeds of ideas and turned them into something incredibly special. And now, thanks to Step on Step, we’re in the family car taking that road trip right along with the Stepney’s. And the music on this road trip is alright.