‘What he was doing was like nothing else’: the secret recordings of genius producer Charles Stepney

In the mid-60s, a struggling vibraphone player named Charles Stepney and his wife, Rubie, visited their pastor looking for career advice. Stepney’s work as a jazz musician in Chicago was intermittent at best: when he did get work, Rubie was unhappy about spending nights at home alone. “So the pastor prayed,” says Stepney’s daughter Charlene. “He said, ‘Dear God, please give him a job where he can be at home with his family at night but still be able to do his music.’ Mom and Dad laughed all the way home. They were like: ‘Hmm, we could have said that prayer for ourselves!’”

Salvation, nevertheless, came shortly afterwards in the form of a job with Chess Records, the renowned Chicago label that had introduced the world to Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley. Stepney was employed to write out lead sheets for the label’s producers and arrangers, and as an arranger in his own right. He wasn’t making much headway in this department until he was in a meeting with Marshall Chess, the son of the label’s founder, who noticed that Stepney was carrying a portfolio “six or eight inches thick”. When he asked what it was, Stepney blithely informed him that it was “a symphony I’ve just written”.

Intrigued, Chess put Stepney in charge of a new project he was assembling. Rotary Connection was an attempt to bring the label into the psychedelic era: a local white rock band fronted by Chess receptionist Minnie Riperton and industry veteran Sid Barnes, who had worked with everyone from George Clinton to the Shangri-Las. “Marshall wanted to see what would happen if we mixed blues and classical music with the hippy rock thing that was happening,” says Barnes.

It sounded gimmicky on paper, but the records Stepney created for Rotary Connection were extraordinary. The former copyist turned out to be a genuine musical visionary, blessed, as his daughter Chanté puts it, with “the confidence to go all the way, to be steadfast in any genre”. His arrangements were intricate, his take on soul music psychedelic, further embellished by his burgeoning interest in synthesisers and musique concrète. Blessed with Riperton’s four-and-a-half-octave range, Rotary Connection’s albums mixed hip rock covers – the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Cream, the Lovin’ Spoonful – with suitably trippy originals: if you want to hear what a fantastic songwriter Stepney was, head first to his 1971 masterpiece I Am the Black Gold of the Sun, a confection that variously involves flamenco, acid-rock guitar, jazz piano and unbelievable harmony vocals.

The group were groundbreaking and hugely successful – they played with Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and Jefferson Airplane. According to Barnes, the band were startled to discover that their live audiences were predominantly white. “We played for a couple of Black audiences and they looked at us like we were crazy and said: ‘Get the hell out of here!’ But the hippies: they were on acid and they were watching Minnie, this beautiful Black girl singing notes they never heard before. Shit, man, we tore up that motherfucking stage.”

Charles Stepney would have been my arranger of choice, without question

Elton John

Rotary Connection was the beginning of a brief but incredible career for Stepney. Over the next nine years, he appeared incapable of making an album that wasn’t astonishing, working with Terry Callier, Muddy Waters, the Dells, Earth, Wind and Fire, Marlena Shaw (Stepney was behind both California Soul and Woman of the Ghetto, two Shaw tracks that have become ubiquitous in the UK thanks to sampling and TV and film soundtracks), Deniece Williams and jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis. In addition, Stepney was composing music for advertising, working as a “ghost producer” – covertly producing records for others uncredited – and continually recording ideas at home. A selection of those home recordings has just been compiled by his daughters on to a double album, Step on Step.

“He was not afraid to operate outside of the standard theories about how music should be done,” says Charlene. “I think Dad saw his work as a way of uncategorising Black music. I think he wanted to be able to say: ‘We are more than this genre, we can be all of these things.’ I always felt like that was his voice to the political climate of the times.”

Stepney was a curious, contradictory figure. He could be wildly opinionated and a notoriously hard taskmaster in the studio. “He used to really rag the guys hard,” says Earth, Wind and Fire’s Philip Bailey. “If they used tuning devices for their instruments, he’d say ‘Goddamn! You still can’t even tune your guitar?’”

“After we’d just had a great tour or a hit record somewhere, we’d come back [to the studio] and he’d say: ‘Y’all still ain’t nothin’! Let’s get to work!’” agrees the band’s bassist, Verdine White. “He never let us bask in the glory from the ego standpoint too long.”

Yet Stepney was also self-effacing. His wife lobbied to put his name on the cover of Riperton’s debut solo album, Come to My Garden, which opened with the spine-tingling classic Les Fleurs, but Stepney demurred. “Mom knew how much work he’d put into it; she wanted it to say, ‘Charles Stepney presents Minnie Riperton,’” says Charlene. “But at that time, it was kind of unheard of for a producer to be a headliner, so I think he felt uncomfortable. Daddy enjoyed the freedom of not being too popular because he was able to make a really good living but not have to deal with some of the negatives of being well known.”

Nevertheless, Stepney’s name became noted among other musicians. Stevie Wonder was a fan. So was Burt Bacharach, his interest piqued by the Stepney-produced album The Dells Sing Dionne Warwick’s Greatest Hits. “Oh my God! That man!” Chaka Khan exclaimed when I interviewed her in 2019, her face lighting up at the mention of Stepney’s name. “Hey Love by Rotary Connection – that’s my frickin’ album.”

Meanwhile, in Britain, the era’s biggest rock star wanted to work with him: Elton John had been “obsessively” collecting anything with Stepney’s name on it since hearing Ramsey Lewis’s 1968 album of Beatles covers, Mother Nature’s Son. “That’s still one of my favourite albums to this day, but it was really Rotary Connection that did it for me,” he says. “Bernie [Taupin] and I played their records so much; they were just extraordinary. I loved the arrangements – I’d worked with great arrangers like Del Newman and Paul Buckmaster and I thought, this guy is fantastic, he’s pushing the envelope. What he was doing was like nothing else: beautiful string parts, really bold, funky, different.

“When you hear someone like that you think: this guy is someone I want to work with. Charles Stepney would have been my arranger of choice, without question.”

But the hookup with John never happened, and Rotary Connection – exhausted from touring and burdened with management that, Barnes claims, “had been fucking us up around money for years” – fell apart in the early 70s. Nevertheless, Stepney’s career continued to blossom. Earth, Wind and Fire’s That’s the Way of the World and Gratitude both went triple-platinum in 1975. He began work on a follow-up, and there were plans to work with Michael Jackson and Barbra Streisand.

But, according to his family, he had other ambitions. “He was in huge demand at the time and I think it just became overwhelming for him, and he needed to take a break, to kind of reimagine life,” says Chanté. Stepney had suffered a heart attack at the home of music executive Clarence Avant while discussing a new deal with him. “I think that was maybe the last or next to last production he had planned on doing with Earth, Wind and Fire,” she says.

“He told me he’d done everything he wanted to do,” says his eldest daughter, Eibur. “He loved the Bahamas and he said he was going to buy a house there. And he said: ‘I think I’m going to do my own thing now – an album called Step on Step.’ I said: ‘Wow, that’s amazing – I’ve never heard anyone say that they actually accomplished all their goals, so I guess it’s time for you to go on to the next level.’

“That was what he said to me. And my father literally died that day.”

Those arrangements and that recording sound helped shape the way I write music

Floating Points

A second heart attack killed Stepney on 17 May 1976. Earth, Wind and Fire’s Maurice White had spoken to him that morning, eager to play him Spirit, a new song the band had written in tribute to Stepney. It became the title track of their next album, another multi-platinum seller, dedicated to the late producer.

After his death, his daughters assumed his work was largely forgotten: trying to untangle his financial affairs in the 80s, says Charlene, they were hindered not just by the fact that they “were women of colour and that people weren’t living up to their word” but that “there was no respect for his work at the time”. It was an assessment that changed dramatically when Chanté went to university in Washington DC. “It was interesting to have this introduction to east-coast hip-hop,” she laughs. “When I came home one holiday, I was playing some music I’d been jamming to in the club, and Charlene was like: ‘Play that again – is that Daddy? That’s Daddy!’ It felt like a huge resurgence, a boost in notoriety.”

In fact, an online database lists more than 600 samples of his work on tracks by Jay-Z, Kanye West, Public Enemy, Nas, A Tribe Called Quest and Tupac Shakur among umpteen others. It’s not just hip-hop. Borrowing from Stepney productions links Gorillaz to the Black Keys to Boards of Canada to Primal Scream – that’s the Emotions’ I Don’t Want to Lose Your Love providing the vocal hook on Loaded.

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And Stepney’s influence hangs heavy over contemporary artists. His ghost lurked around Solange’s last album, When I Get Home: Barnes even received a co-writing credit on one track. Remember Where You Are, the closing track of Jessie Ware’s acclaimed 2020 album What’s Your Pleasure?, is audibly a Stepney homage. Producer Sam Shepherd, better known as Floating Points, says Stepney’s music is “hugely important to me … those arrangements and that recording sound helped shape the way I write music. I probably listen to him once a month.”

For a man who died 46 years ago, and whom his daughters assumed was forgotten, Stepney seems more alive than ever. You could recently have heard Riperton’s Les Fleurs booming out of the BBC’s Summer of Sport adverts, though it’s been used on so many soundtracks you doubtless know it already. Chicago has been hosting “the Summer of Stepney”, a series of events including a tribute concert in the city’s Millennium Park. The three Stepney sisters have more archival releases planned: they have “90 masters with lots of [unreleased] stuff on them,” says Chanté. “We always say: he won’t die! He won’t die!”

• Step on Step is released by International Anthem on 9 September