Clarence Burke Jr., the lead singer of the Five Stairsteps, a sibling R&B group once regarded as “the first family of soul” for a string of hits that included “O-o-h Child,” died Sunday, a day after he turned 64.
His death was confirmed by his manager, Joe Marno. No other details were released.
Formed in 1965 in Chicago, the group originally consisted of four young brothers and a sister who played their own instruments as well as sang. They owed their collective name to their mother, who observed they looked like stair steps when they stood by each other in order of age.
The eldest brother, Burke also played guitar, wrote many of the group’s songs, served as a producer and choreographed their dance routines. He penned their first single, the ballad “You Waited Too Long” that rose to No. 6 on Billboard’s R&B charts in 1966 – when he was almost 17.
Their other hits included “World of Fantasy,” “Don’t Change Your Love,” “From Us to You” and their biggest – “O-o-h Child,” released in 1970.
It was “a pop-soul classic that rivaled the hits of another sibling gang, the Jackson 5,” according to Rolling Stone magazine, which placed the song at No. 402 on its list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.
The magazine also credits the Five Stairsteps with helping to inspire the formation of the Jackson 5, another group that came out of the Midwest and later assumed the mantle of “first family of soul.”
An inspirational song of comfort and hope, “O-o-h Child” – written by producer-songwriter Stan Vincent – was the group’s only top 10 pop hit.
Born May 25, 1949, in Chicago, Burke was the son of Clarence Burke Sr., a police detective who played backup bass for the Five Stairsteps, and his wife, Betty.
When the group won a local talent contest, their career began to take off. They often toured with another group from Chicago, the Impressions. The other Stairsteps included brothers James, Dennis and Kenneth, and their sister, Alohe.
In the late 1960s, their 5-year-old brother joined the group so they renamed themselves the Five Stairsteps and Cubie in his honor. But when he left after two years, they reverted to their original name. They later dropped the “Five” altogether.
After the group disbanded in the late 1970s, the brothers reformed as the Invisible Man’s Band, whose dance single “All Night Thing” reached No. 9 on Billboard’s R&B charts in 1980.
Within a few years, the band broke up, and Burke continued to perform and record as a solo artist.