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Charles Stepney is one of those artists whose name may not be common currency, but whose music is at the bedrock of sounds everyone’s heard. As a house producer for Chess Records, a freelancer and the innovator of the lush orchestral arrangement style known as Baroque Soul, the Chicago native produced, composed, arranged or played on dozens of records for the likes of Earth Wind & Fire, Ramsey Lewis, Terry Callier, Minnie Riperton, the Rotary Connection, Deniece Williams, the Dells, Eddie Harris, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf before his untimely death in 1976. Stepney had always planned to do a solo album, which he intended to title Step on Step, and now, through the efforts of his three daughters, that album has finally arrived, if not exactly in the form its author intended.
Since Stepney never got around to making the record before he died, the Stepney sisters gathered nearly two dozen demos recorded by their father in his home studio to comprise it. Based around keyboards, vibraphone, bass and an early drum machine, these instrumentals find Stepney both working out arrangements of songs he’d written for other artists, and writing music for its own sake. Under the former heading, EWF’s “That’s the Way of the World” shows that the arrangement was fully intact from the beginning, while “Imagination” (which one daughter claims as the song she wants to walk her down the aisle of her wedding) presents the backbone of the song that would anchor EWF’s album Spirit, released after Stepney’s death (and dedicated to him). Originally composed as an instrumental showcase for session guitarist and Stepney regular Phil Upchurch, the groovy Latinized piano overdubs of “Black Gold” would eventually morph into the Rotary Connection’s psych/soul gem “I Am the Black Hole of the Sun.”
But it’s the category of unattached originals that contains the most striking delights, from groovy experiments like “Funky Sci-Fi” and “Look B4U Leap” to the sparkling piano/vibes duet on “Denim Groove” and the warmly soulful “Notes From Dad.” The record ends with the title track, another gorgeous melody revolving around the interweaving of vibraphone and piano. It’s tempting to imagine what these songs might have sounded like fleshed out by studio musicians and the Baroque Soul sound, but, as bare bones as they are here, they sound like fully expressed ideas given appropriate performances. Demos they may be, but the tracks compiled on Step on Step still confidently convey the soul of Charles Stepney.
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