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First Family of Soul...The Burkes

This is a biography and tribute to The Burkes a.k.a The Five Stairsteps...The First Family of Soul...The first successful Black family of Show Business!

The Five Stairsteps created a trademark sound of allure along with Clarence Jr. distinct voice they became easily identifiable because their unique music stood out more then any other of the Soul era. They had a vigorous sound that made you stop and listen. The Five Stairsteps were the sound of young America, especially young Black America who was proud of the Burkes for being their voice.

The Burke's distinctive voices, lyrics, and music inspired one to love. The Five Stairsteps were simply special. The Five Stairsteps music will go down in history as the greatest music ever recorded. Their music was one of the best of the Soul era; the epitome of the sound of Young Soulful America. They were young teenagers but they sung beyond their years about love, heartache, dreams, and fantasies as though they were adults who've loved forever. Although cute, unlike other child stars, The Five Stairsteps didn't just stand and look cute; they performed maturely, seriously, heartfully as would their adult competitors. Unlike other young teenage groups, The Five Stairsteps didn't sing about ABC's and 123's or sing "bubble-gum soul" or about being too young to love...The Five Stairsteps had rich, distinct, mature, smooth, soulful, sensual voices and their songs were as sensual, sexy, attractive, and mature as their voices, which the young and old could love and dance people are still loving and dancing to their music.

In the mid 1960s and early 1970s, The Five Stairsteps were considered the "baddest" group around. In their prime, The Five Stairsteps was at the top of the list alongside groups like The Temptations and The Impressions. The Five Stairsteps were photogenic, polished with a touch of elegance, full of magnetism and energy. They had a warm, welcoming presence which made it easy for people to fall in love with them. They were sweet, exciting, charming, irresistible, and everything good which showed in their music and performances. Though unique, The Five Stairsteps were like The Temptations but Chicago style in teen years.

Who didn't love Clarence Jr. voice? Clarence voice was more experienced than his years with his pleading depth of feeling in his phrasing. Clarence the lead singer of The Five Stairsteps won so many hearts because he had a winning combination...that golden voice and ready smile that won fans over easily. Clarence was like the boy next door...every girl's "dream" guy. He was singing the stories of all young people. Young female fans couldn't resist Clarence approach to a love song. Clarence wrote and sung songs that seem to come from a female's perspective of love and to hear a male sing that way, made Clarence voice and songs more appealing. Even the young men couldn't deny The Five Stairsteps for they taught the young men what young ladies liked.

The Burkes were role models for the black community. After The Five Stairsteps rocketed to fame, just about every mother and father got their kids together (if they had talent) in a group to imitate the Five Stairsteps sound and hopefully their fame. Teenage boys put together groups emulating The Five Stairsteps moves and sound...even to this day with young teenage groups and vocalists. In the 1960s, young blacks finally had a group to call their own, who was of their ages who sung about love from a young person's point of view.

The Burke family was an attractive looking, talented Black family. Father Clarence Sr. and mother Betty had 6 children. The Five Stairsteps consisted of 6 kids...sweet Alohe(born in 1948), charismatic Clarence Newton Jr. (born 1948), sincere James Marcellus (born 1950), vibrant Dennis (born 1952), smooth Kenneth (born 1953), and charming Cubie (born 1964). They were born and raised in Chicago by their parents Clarence and Betty Burke they attended Bennett and Harlan High School. You could say they were born into music, music was in their blood. Before they could walk they belted out melodies even if the words weren't understood. The 5 were singing together as young kids. They would line up on the couch singing to TV commercial or records on the record player; they would out-sing the TV and records...loud and clear. Their father was a detective/cop and mother watched the kids. Alohe, Clarence, James, Dennis, Kenneth, and Cubie were brought up in a household full of love, encouragement, and sternness with values, respect, and love. As they got older their voices got better...Clarence and Betty saw their kids had real talent...and you know the rest...if you got it flaunt it and that's what they did. The Burke children were in all kinds of talent shows and won most of the contests. If they didn't win, they won the attention of many in the music business.

Their mother named them The Five Stairsteps because lined up together they looked like a staircase. The name "Stairsteps" fitted them well because with each step their career reached higher and higher. Chicago couldn't have been a better place to grow up. In the 1960s, Chicago was booming in the music industry right along with Detroit. Many Chicago bred singers were becoming World-Wide famous turning out hit after hit, such as Gene Chandler, Major Lance, Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions, Dee Clark, Fontella Bass, Billy Stewart, Walter Jackson, Billy Butler and The Enchanters, Jerry Butler, and many others and soon The Five Stairsteps would add to that prestigious list of Chicago talent. Chicago was called "Record Row" because of the many successful record labels next to each other. You had Chess, Okey, One-derful, Vee-Jay, Constellation, and many others which were having hits back to back. Chicago was full of talented singers, musicians, songwriters, producers, you name it. The Five Stairsteps were getting plenty of attention from people in the business but the father wasn't sure if the business was right for his children.

Music wasn't the only talent they spent time developing. The Burke children were encouraged in their other interests as well. James, for instance was considered a talented painter and he won scholarships and won Artist of the Year award from the Chicago Board of Education. Art helped him later on.

From 1959 to 1964, The Five Stairsteps performed locally at church and school functions, talent shows, and other important places before important people. In 1965 the young teenage Stairsteps enter a singing contest at the famous Regal Theater and dance and singed off with the first prize; having a chance to record. They were up against some great competition but again they proved they were not immature (even if they were young and little) when it came to performing. They gave their heart, soul, sweat and tears in their performances. They gave 150%. Though they were young, The Five Stairsteps performed as seasoned, polished performers as good as the adult performers; in The Five Stairsteps little sizes the adult performers looked like giants but after The Five Stairsteps showed what they could do, they made the giants look small. Many from the music biz were in the audience begging Father Clarence for a chance to sign and record his kids but he wasn't sure if his children were right for the business or if the business was right for his children, and wasn't sure of the contracts offered. But, a neighborhood friend changed his mind about the music business. Fred Cash, a former neighbor, and of The Impressions happen to run into Father Clarence and heard of him boost of his children winning first prize contest at the Regal. Upon hearing that, interested Fred wanted to hear the children, he knew if they won at the Regal, they must be good and he was right. Through Fred, The Five Stairsteps got a chance to meet Curtis Mayfield and he was all interested and through persuasion Fred and Curtis assured Clarence Sr. that show business was what the Burke children were meant for and would have nothing but good endeavors and for the most part it was safe for them. Father Clarence knowing Fred, Curtis and others and seeing how they lead regular lives outside of show business and seen they weren't wild and corrupt felt Show Business would be right for his children with his protection.

The Five Stairsteps signed to Windy-City around 1966. Their first album was a sensation. The songs of that album were so moving and heartfelt. The Five Stairsteps were just what the young generation at that time needed. Young people enjoyed hearing a group around their age who they could seriously relate to. The Five Stairsteps were really singing what was on the hearts and minds of many young people. The young generation fell in love with them and so did mature adults. They won fans instantly because their music was mature but not too mature that it would turn off the young ones but mature enough for the mature audiences.

The Five Stairsteps toured the country in an Old Chevy, galvanizing audiences, old and young with their youth, zest, and gusto. The Five Stairsteps brought enjoyment and bliss to all who crowded the theaters and clubs to see them.

The Five Stairsteps became full fledged stars in 1966. You couldn't help but fall in love with their bright smiling faces as bright as the stars in the darkest sky. They were nice looking, fresh, young, and full of energy and spark...just what the industry needed at that time. The Five Stairsteps stood up alongside with the best when it came to Soul music. They were the definition of "entertainer." The Five Stairsteps were great performers. Words can't truly describe how "wowing" they were in their live performances. They were great dancers...rhythmic, smooth, graceful dancers especially when it came to their many slow songs; they still had the best choreography. They didn't just stand still and sing, they showed they were as good dancers and musicians as they were singers. Even as young teenagers, The Five Stairsteps had sex appeal and spunk. The young girls simply loved Clarence Jr., James, Dennis and Kenneth. Even the young guys couldn't deny how good The Five Stairsteps were; the guys often used the Five Stairsteps lyrics as lines to pick up girls. With four handsome young men, pretty Alohe, and their magnetic voices and songs and smooth dance could they miss!

The Five Stairsteps first album cover was one of the most beautiful of album covers, the most self-explanatory, and the best introduction to the world displaying who they were and what they represented. The brothers helping their sister up a rock wall showcased "togetherness" and "love" and those words instantly comes to mind when one sees the album cover and those were the main ingredients of The Five Stairsteps image and why their music was successful.

The songs on The Five Stairsteps first album were exceptional...their best and greatest, every song is enjoyable! Perfection is one word to describe their first album. The Five Stairsteps first album is considered the best of Soul and an album that should be in every collection because its pure soul at its best. Anyone will become an instant fan by listening to that album. "Danger! She's A Stranger" "Come Back" "Behind Curtains" "Ooh Baby Baby" "Don't waste your time" "You Don't Love Me" "Don't Waste Your Time" "Playgirl's Love" "You Waited Too Long" "The Touch of You" and "The Girl I Love" were the best tunes ever recorded. How Dramatic, Mysterious, Moving, Captivating the songs The Five Stairsteps recorded. No one could believe those songs were being sung by such a young "small" group of people with so much depth like they were experienced lovers. Their songs stayed on your mind and heart and could never forget. The Five Stairsteps were small in size but big in heart and soul. Clarence Jr. voice and the Stairsteps music became the highlight of soul music in the mid 1960s. Just by hearing the first few notes or bars you knew it was The Five Stairsteps because they created a special distinctive sound unlike any other in the soul genre. Clarence Jr. who sung lead on their early hits sung divinely with his smooth, crooning voice, making you feel each word with his heart in his hand or in his voice and Alohe, James, Dennis and Kenneth made their voices heard surrounding Clarence with their golden harmonies enriched with youthful enthusiasm was icing on the cake. Most of the songs were written by Clarence Jr., cousin Gregory Fowler, father Clarence, and Curtis Mayfield. The songs were the epitome of Soul Music, young love, hopes and dreams. The album was a success and The Five Stairsteps were what you called overnight success. They already were kind of local celebrities around Chicago but after their first release they attained World-Wide fame.

Alongside Smokey Robinson, David Ruffin, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and Barry White, Clarence Jr. voice became one of the most distinctive voices in the soul era. Clarence emoted with true passion like a thespian true to his art with his brothers and sister in the back matching his emotes from note to note, feeling to feeling, and passion to passion.

Adding to the The Burkes talents; not only were they singers, they all knew how to play the guitar and bass. I guess guitar playing runs in The Burke's blood because their Grandmothers knew how to play guitar as well. Some knew how to play the drums, acoustic guitar, and congas. Alohe knew how to play the trumpet which they all displayed their talents of instruments on their songs. Not only that, to add to their list of talents, Clarence, Keni, Dennis and James contributed more by writing, arranging and producing most of their songs that became hits.

The Five Stairsteps were on the bills with some of the biggest stars of the Soul era, Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding, The Impressions, Eddie Kendrick's and others. Not only did they win over audiences they won over critics, deejays, reviewers as well. During their venue from 1966 to 1971...The Five Stairsteps recorded handsful of records with some making the top ten. The Five Stairsteps were voted the outstanding Rhythm and Blues group of 1967 by over 500 disc jockeys. Local New York deejays singled them out as the Most Promising Vocal Group for 1966. Along with TV appearances, they won awards, admiration, compliments and respect from not only fans but their contemporaries as well. They performed at prominent theaters and clubs all over the U.S. and Canada. They had one of the biggest fan clubs. Not only that, The Five Stairsteps also served as an inspiration for young Blacks. Since they were the first Black family of Song and Dance many other Black family groups appeared on the scene after The Burkes but many never reached the success of The Burkes.

Clarence Jr., James, Dennis and Kenneth's education wasn't thrown on the back-burner because of their constant traveling and performing. They were tutored on the road by Miss Cynthia Loffness who kept them into their studies and guardianing the young men on the road.

As The Five Stairsteps grew into young adults it didn't harm them as much as it did other young groups because their music always maintained that maturity which could reach any age group. As they became young adults, they didn't lose their spark, their songs though became more sensual, appealing and sexy but never blatant, "The Look of Love," "Baby, Make Me Feel So Good," "Something's Missing," "Ain't Gonna Rest(Till I Get You)," "Don't Change Your Love," "This Must Be Love," "I'm The One Who Loves You," through these songs they showed their talent of making you feel and wanting love is a amazing feeling and no one sung about love as thoroughly as The Five Stairsteps.

When The Jackson Five came around in 1970 and became an instant success. Writers, reviewers and critics tried to make a rivalry between The Five Stairsteps and The Jackson Five but there was no real rivalry. The Burkes and The Jacksons were friendly with one another. Their styles of music were completely different. The Jackson Five sung about school girl crushes, and other teenage-related songs with their teenage voices. Even though The Jackson Five were hits, true fans of The Five Stairsteps weren't wayward by the Jackson Five. Ones who've seen the two groups performed and heard their music will say The Five Stairsteps were better and in a class of their own. As performers The Five Stairsteps were exciting, stylish performers. Their choreography was their own...always well put together whether it be a slow song or up-tempo song their choreography express what they were singing. The Five Stairsteps had voices and harmony that soared right along with their feet. Anyone who saw The Five Stairsteps perform never forgot it.

Fans would actually fight over who was better between the Five Stairsteps and The Jackson Five. Even as kids all the way into adulthood, fans always felt The 5 Stairsteps we're no joke, the best by far.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Five Stairsteps underwent many changes. The Burke boys weren't little anymore they were as big as their afros. Another change was their mother and father have joined the act and were known as Papa Burke and Momma Fine, even little baby Cubie had joined. They really became a family act then. Both the parents had aspirations of being in show business and were able to be stars along with their children. Clarence Sr. joined with his sons and daughter full force. He would sing and before that he played the guitar and led the band behind his children. Papa Burke appeared on all the album covers with his children after the first release. Mother Betty was a former dancer; who dance and sung on stage and recorded with her children. The father and mother recorded a duet together on the "Family Portrait" album and Cubie was just as energetic onstage as his older siblings. So father, mother along with the youngest Cubie surely added to the already talented 5 and with all the talent put together they were a sight to behold and hear. Another change was they changed their name from Five Stairsteps to The Stairsteps. The name change came about because they never knew how many or few would be onstage. But with 3 or 8 they knew how to put on a show.

The song most associated with The Five Stairsteps is "Ooh Child" which became their trademark song and it became a hit instantly turning gold in 1970. "Ooh Child" came out during a time when music was changing and the world was changing. A war was breaking out, riots were going on; "Ooh Child" was just what the world needed at the time. It's no wonder it became a hit and a standard. "Ooh Child" gave people hope, encouragement that times would get better and no matter what, whether it be love or life, whatever you were going through would get easier. "Ooh Child" until this day is still a favorite...even if some don't even know who The Five Stairsteps are; they know "Ooh Child." "Ooh Child" has become a standard, apart of American Music. "Ooh Child" has been used in many movie soundtracks such as "Crooklyn" and "Riding in Cars with Boys." Ooh Child added to The Five Stairsteps repertoire of songs of love, hope, and believing. The Five Stairsteps started with a bang and ended with a bang.

After "Ooh Child," The Burke family experimented with rock music which didn't set well with fans because they were use to the passionate side of the Burkes. The Burke Family in the early 1970s took a breather from Show Business to be apart of society, to live normal lives which they never led. They wanted to be apart of life outside of Show Business. They all went to the same employment agency, sometimes working the same jobs. They didn't stay out of Show Business long. Some came back to the music business gradually.

Around 1971, The Stairsteps became somewhat silent. Fans and people in the music business wondered about them. Soul magazine ran an article on August 30, 1971 asking "Why Are The Stairsteps Hiding?" Was it because of family problems? Overpowered by The Jackson Five? Were they tired of the business? No one knew at the time but "Soul" magazine told in the article of their ordeal and failed chances of communication with The Burkes. “Soul” practically begged and was adamant to know what was going on with The Burkes and wanted to know about the marriages and children born, and wanted to see if the rumors at the time were true but whatever was going on, "Soul" along with fans reassured The Burkes they were still loved and if they needed any help they would be happy to do whatever. Even after 33 years, fans still wonder about The Burkes. It seems when The Five Stairsteps days came to an end, the family closed up and their many disappearing and reappearing acts brought many questions unanswered.

Around 1975, the Burke brothers got back together and signed to Dark Horse Records and recorded the album "Second Resurrection." They were now full grown men in their 20s with manly jubilant voices but still maintain that enthusiasm which was evident in "2nd Resurrection." The album didn't do well at the time but now people regret overlooking Second Resurrection. The album now is in demand and selling for hundreds and Second Resurrection is considered the best album The Stairsteps ever recorded. Had The Stairsteps recorded the 2nd Resurrection in the early 1970s or even the late 1960s, when just about every artist had a message album, I'm sure 2nd Resurrection would have been a smash. "Second Resurrection" came about a time when message albums weren't a craze as was in the early 1970s. The songs on "Second Resurrection" were about spirituality, being one with yourself, being true and faithful. It was like a message or even love album, telling people to clean up their lives, wake up and give love and be about love. The Stairsteps as they went by then, really spilled their creative juices all over this album. They really showed what they were made of. Clarence Jr., James, Dennis and Keni all contributed to 2nd Resurrection, arranging, producing, writing and playing on songs "From Us to You," "Pasado," "Lifting 2nd Resurrection," "Time," "Throwin' Stone Atcha," "In the Beginning," "Tell me Why," "Far East," "Salaam," and "Theme of Angels." The album had a lot to do with their religion at the time which was Islam but you didn't have to be a Muslim or take it as a "message" album to take note of the talent and really feel the soothing, refreshing, emotional vibe they set off. You could hear so many influences, different genres of jazz, latin, soul. The instrumentals of "Theme of Angels" and "Far East" were really deep, relaxing, and takes one into deep thought. People missed the opportunity of the diverse "2nd Resurrection" in the mid 1970s, but message album or not it was a beautiful album. People today are starting to notice the Burke men musical talents through their versatility in this album.

After that short-lived affair, the brothers went their separate ways again. Keni Burke remained in Show Business becoming an in demand session bass player, playing a role in many soul stars' hits. You may even hear him playing his bass guitar on many tunes of the 1970s and 1980s. His bass line and guitar playing became a very significant sound in music and has been duplicated by many. Keni also became a solo artist as well as legendary bass guitarist. By the time Keni became a solo artist, he was somewhat of a veteran in music in his young years. So he had a lot of years of learning and developing which helped and showed in his solo efforts. His music is excellent; as sincere, moving, and scintillant as the songs he sung with The Five Stairsteps. Songs such as "Rising to the Top," "Paintings of Love" and "'Indigenous Love" are songs that had critics raving but the songs never really got full acclaim like they should. Someone once said of Keni Burke that his music is just too good for some people. Some people are afraid of something new. Keni's music was profound, smooth, and cool. Keni's music didn't sound like the average songs recorded of the time even though they were hits, they didn't stand alone like Keni's music did. Keni's music was a winner and he didn't need a Grammy or spot in the top 10 to say so, his fans since his early Five Stairsteps days said so.

In 1980, The Burke gentlemen came back as "The Invisible Man's Band" with a hit song called "All Night Thing," it was a dance craze for the post disco era generation. Most thought The Invisible Man's Band was a new group. Many loved the song but many didn't know the group singing had been in the business more then 15 years and that "All Night Thing" was just one of many of their hits. Many didn't know because the Burke brothers changed their group name to "The Invisible Man's Band" and had no presence of themselves on the album cover.

The Invisible Man's Band was the last hurrah for the Burke brothers together. Invisible Man's Band was the right name for them because the whole Burke family became invisible after that. Clarence remained in the music business, Keni remained in the business...mostly successful behind the scenes (Keni has a son who sings and his name is Osaze Burke); the rest went their separate ways. Father Clarence was said to have worked with the New Jersey Racing Commission. Alohe was said to have been doing various things; at one time she was attending college studying Biological Engineering and said at one time to be managing a book store in the early 1990's. Alohe is an intellectual; an insightful lady with a sense of humor. She is a Star Trek fan and also a science fiction fan. James at one time put his time into another art...painting and selling his work. Dennis became a hair stylist and has his own hair salon. Cubie became a popular professional dancer; formerly was with The Dance Theater of Harlem. He also recorded in the early 1980's. The song most associated with him is "Down for Double."

For the last 15 years The Burke family's music has been in demand from The Five Stairsteps to The Stairsteps to the Invisible Man's Band and to Keni Burke, through the entire name changes and musical changes, their music remained mesmerizing and excellent; bringing fans many hours of enjoyment and love of their good music. Their fan numbers have grew and still growing. They have fans now of all age groups and races who say their the best.

For all you ones who never heard of The Five Stairsteps or only heard "Ooh Child," pick up The Five Stairsteps first album then 2nd Resurrection and I guarantee you'll be hooked. Singers and wannabe singers today should really take notice of the Burke family's music because they are what "real music and singing" is all about. A lot of young male performers today are using the same techniques in the same manner as The Five Stairsteps but don't know the styles of songs they sing and the dances they dance were originated and perfected by The Five Stairsteps.

The Burke family is a respected, loved group of people who fans feel contributed to Soul Music, American Music, and Black Achievement. The Burke's accomplishments and achievements is a glorious addition to Black history. The story of their life and career is a story filled with many highs. The Burkes songs of love, dreams, and encouragement were not only the sound of Young Black America but crossed over and became the sound of all young and old alike. All of us fans thank the Burke family from the bottom of our hearts for taking the time to bring smiles, enjoyment, love, and encouragement into our lives...Alohe, Clarence Jr., James, Dennis, Kenneth, Cubie, Clarence Sr., and Betty Burke, thank you and I hope we brought smiles and enjoyment into your life as well.

Older ones from The Burkes time are reacquainting their love and younger ones are just discovering the music and the effect on them is profound. There's no generation gap. The music brings us all together and has left a lasting impression on our hearts.

Sadly, The Burke family is becoming more and more aloof, obscure, fastidious, mysterious even. Too many rumors and gossip have surface over the years to determine fact or fiction. What is known goes back 20, 30 years ago...but times change and people change. Dedicated fans would love to know the story behind the wonderful music and be able to put a story and personality with the beautiful music and smiling faces that won us over. We'd hate for them to be completely forgotten and beautiful music wasted. Hopefully one day they will tell their story for their legacy sake and take their well-deserved place in history.