The Five Stairsteps were the prototype family soul group-predating the Jackson 5 and The Sylvers by several years. They were made up of five out of the six children of Betty and Clarence Burke,a detective for the CPD. They were Alohe Jean, James, Clarence Jr., Dennis and Kenneth-known as Keni. For a brief time, the late Cubie Burke (the youngest brother” was part of the outfit. The became known as Chicago’s “first family of soul”. Their second album Our Family Portrait yeilded the hit “Something’s Missing’. But their best known song was 1970’s “O-o-h Child”.
By that time, the group were known as The Stairsteps. Alohe left the group in 1972. This was just before the group were brought to The Beatles attention by Billy Preston. After a five year hiatus, Preston and Robert Margouleff all came together to produce a comeback along with The Stairsteps-in their new configuration as a quartet. This 1976 album was entitled 2nd Resurrection. I’ve never heard the entire album. But what I’ve heard about it is that, it had a more synthesizer oriented sound. One song I did hear from it was the Keni Burke composition “From Us To You”.
Alvin Taylor’s drums come right in along with Preston’s wailing synthesizer. It keeps a steady, occasionally marching rhythm throughout. The main melody is first played by the harmonizing of Preston’s synth and Dennis Burke’s guitar for a massive melodic sound. This also represents the chorus of the song. Between each chorus, Preston harmonizes with himself on his honky tonk piano, bluesy polyphonic synth riffing and sustained organ. For much of the rest of the song, the Stairsteps vocal harmonies and adlibs sing right along with Preston until the organ fades out on the main melody.
“From Us To You” doesn’t sound to me like anything I’d ever think The Five Stairsteps (by any other name) would do. The drawling chorus, style of singalong melody and the thick groove of the music is far closer in flavor to the Brothers Johnson’s “I’ll Be Good To You” or a Graham Central Station number. Of course, Billy Preston’s instrumentation probably has a lot to do with its heavy funkiness. Interestingly enough, the Preston connection got the band signed to George Harrison’s Dark Horse label to make this album as well. And it certainly started with a strongly funkified new direction for them.
George Harrison would’ve been 74 this Saturday. Remember very well the day he passed away because it was the delivery man for my parent’s new bed who told them he’d just heard the news. This was also around the time I was heavily exploring the music of “the quiet Beatle”. Harrison is said to have gone to Memphis on one of the Beatles trips to America and picked up some Booker T & The MG’s records. He loved playing the blues too. Later on,he developed a close musical relationship with Billy Preston. In addition to being one of the funkiest players around,Preston was also essentially a fifth Beatle during 1969.
Harrison’s first non experimental solo album All Things Must Pass was a huge success for him in 1970. His following albums didn’t fare so well. His mid 70’s album Dark Horse and Extra Texture began adding soul and jazz/rock elements into his sound. But a horse singing voice with Harrison at the time was part of what hindered their success. He had a huge comeback in 1976 with the debut release on his custom label Dark Horuse Thirty-Three & 1/3. The song that opened the album was originally a 12 bar electric blues piece he wrote while touring with Eric Clapton in 1969. It was called “Woman Don’t You Cry For Me”.
Alvin Tayler’s drums kick into his shuffling,funky shuffle. Willie Weeks chunky slap bass and Richard Tee’s organ provide the intro before Harrison’s slide guitar provides the main melody. David Foster himself counters with some serious Billy Preston style funky Clavinet. On the refrain,the drum and Clavinet go into a heavy break beat before Harrison’s guitar segues into the next chorus. That bluesy slide guitar plays the chorus as an instrumental on the bridge-before the musical combination used in the intro goes into the final choruses of the song before it finally fades out.
The first time I heard this song,turned out my father I both heard the song as something quite different. I heard it as a thick mid 70’s funk jam. He heard it as a total 12 bar blues. Actually, both of us were right. Funk is,as most 20th century American popular musical forms are,a blues based one. And this song does a superb job at bridging the musical generation gap. Harrison’ countrified blues slide guitar with the electrified “united funk” arrangement of the song showcases how important the form of it actually is to the instrumentation. Surely,this is one of George Harrison’s finest moments of the mid 70’s.
Writing about The Beatles for me (especially on a blog that isn’t essentially rock focused) proved to be grounds for a lot of reflection. Also,how much more writing and analysis can really be done about the Fab Four by anyone? In the end,The Beatles remain a band who always seem to engender new impressions of them. Only half of the band that defined a generation are alive today-namely Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney. Yet no matter what the two of them are doing today,whether doing albums of standards or performing in Maine with Todd Rundgren,its The Beatles that tend to always define them.
There’s one Beatle album I tend to view more as their definitive statement. And its not Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band-now itself an adjective describing any artist/band’s album masterpiece. The album I’m talking about is Revolver. It came out on August 5th,1966 in the UK. It represented for the Beatles a change in their performance ethic. The band members wished to concentrate more on their musicality as opposed to simply rocking hard for a sea of screaming fans in Beatlemania. So they stopped touring after this album. Which dovetails into the major revolution this Beatle album brought about.
Over the years,many rock musicians have tended to view their art in a rather more conservative way. Namely the idea of “rock is being able to pick up a guitar in a garage and just play 3 chords”. Rock ‘n roll is basically a very simplified variation of the 12 bar blues anyway. From the get go,The Beatles always had other things in mind. Songs such as “And I Love Her”,”If I Fell” and “In My Life” showcased the Lennon/McCartney talent for modulation-featuring unexpected chord progressions that were often very jazz and Brazilian in nature. Revolver took all of this to the next level.
McCartney for his part used his fascination with musique concrete by integrating backwards tape loops into many of the songs on this album-which came into play on Lennon’s Tibetan based psychedelic blowout album closer of “Tomorrow Never Knows”. These were fashioned in very melodic ways,not for showiness. Songs such as “Elenore Rigby” showcased producer George Martin’s symphonic strings as opposed to the Beatles rhythm section. John Lennon’s usually simple,almost punk style attitude about music began to change on the jazzy chord progressions of “I’m Only Sleeping”.
George Harrison even incorporated his newfound love of East Indian classical music into the song “Love You Too”. He combines Tabla drums and sitar with a melody that showcases that he is not writing a three chord pop song with Indian instruments. That he has come to understand the basics of the Indian classical forms fairly well. McCartney really shines strong on this album overall. One of my favorites is his melding of English marching band horns with a contemporary American soul shuffle in “Got To Get You Into My Life”,which inspired a hit cover version by Earth Wind & Fire twelve years later.
There’s little denying that all 14 songs on this album are amazing. But the ones I discussed merely reflect the level on which the Beatles were innovating rock. And at a time when the genre was entering its preteen years. This album contains a series of catchy pop songs,yet ones with unexpected chord changes. It also contains melodically strong music based in non Western forms such as Indian and middle eastern modalities. Above all,it does so with the keen understanding that what a rock band “rock” over is potentially the most enduring aspect of the music. And that’s what I feel as Revolver turns 50.
Filed under 1966, classic albums, European Classic Music, George Harrison, Indian Classic Music, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, pop rock, Psychedelia, Ringo Starr, rock 'n' roll, rock and soul, rock guitar, The Beatles