James Burke, a member of the classic Chicago soul group the Five Stairsteps died last Friday, February 19th. He was 70. Burke’s brother and bandmate, Dennis Burke, confirmed James’ death to Rolling Stone, adding that the cause was pneumonia but unrelated to Covid-19 complications.
Formed in the mid-1960s, the Five Stairsteps scored a string of hits, including their 1970 classic “O-o-h Child,” to earn the moniker, “the First Family of Soul.” Burke family patriarch, Clarence Burke, Sr., a former Chicago police detective, formed and managed the group, which consisted of his four sons, Clarence Jr., James, Dennis and Keni, and daughter, Alohe. The band’s name came from their mother, Betty, who said her children resembled a staircase when lined-up by age and height.
Dennis remembered James as “very creative” — a guitarist, songwriter and singer, who, along with Clarence Jr., served as the anchor of the Five Stairsteps. “They really had a focus on the music that helped to bring us all together into the industry,” he said.
The Five Stairsteps initially garnered local acclaim after winning a talent show at Chicago’s Regal Theater (in a Chicago Sun-Times obituary for Clarence Sr., who died last August, Keni Burke said they beat the Jackson 5). Clarence Sr. then brought the budding outfit to his neighbor, Fred Cash of the Impressions, who was so impressed he linked them up with Curtis Mayfield.
The Five Stairsteps released their first single, a rendition of the Gregory Folwer song, “You Waited Too Long,” in 1966. Over the the next several years, they reliably placed singles in the upper echelons of the Billboard R&B chart and played live with the likes of the Impressions, the Four Tops, Otis Redding, Sly and the Family Stone and the Temptations.
In 1970, the Five Stairsteps scored their biggest hit with, “O-o-h Child,” an optimistic hit of pop soul penned by Buddha Records’ in-house songwriter/arranger Stan Vincent. The song peaked at Number Eight on the Billboard Hot 100 and would be covered by artists like Nina Simone, Dusty Springfield, Kelly Rowland, Trey Anastasio and Paul Stanley. Just last summer, “O-o-h Child” was featured at the Democratic National Convention during a segment about Joe and Jill Biden. The song would also land on Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
The Five Stairsteps would score one more Top 10 R&B hit with 1976’s “From Us to You,” but the group eventually disbanded. Within a couple years, however, Clarence Jr. tapped James, Keni, Dennis and a group of studio musicians to form the Invisible Man’s Band. The group’s debut single, “All Night Thing,” hit Number 10 on the R&B charts.
After the Invisible Man Band split up, Dennis said that James settled into a quiet life filled with art. An equally talented painter — Dennis says James earned a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago at just 10 years old — James primarily focused on his artwork. But there was still plenty of time for music, Dennis says, as James continued to play guitar and the two would get together and occasionally jam.