When Eibur Stepney remembers her father, she hears the sounds of music being made in the basement studio of their South Side home.
Her father, the soul producer, arranger and songwriter Charles Stepney, would write arrangements by hand in that studio. Remembering her childhood, Eibur Stepney said, “the thing that I loved the most was just sometimes going to the bottom of the stairs and just quietly listening.”
“Those were my favorite memories, because that was just us and music together.”Charles Stepney’s compositions powered such groups as Rotary Connection; Earth, Wind & Fire; The Dells; and blues musician Muddy Waters, but due to Stepney’s untimely death at the age of 45 in 1976, the soul man didn’t receive the recognition that was due. In the decades since, Eibur Stepney and her sisters, Chanté and Charlene, have made it a mission to bring their father the spotlight deserving of a front man. On Thursday, a concert at the Millennium Park Jay Pritzker Pavilion dubbed “Charles Stepney: Out of the Shadows,” will publicize some of the vast catalog of work their father left behind.
The Millennium Park concert will be the first public airing of Step on Step, a record of never-before-heard music that Stepney made in his basement. The album will be released in full by the Chicago-based label International Anthem on Sept. 9.
Charlene Stepney said the music for Step on Step came from two musical reels out of the around 90 that Charles Stepney stored in his basement in the family’s South Side home.
“So much of his work is recognizable,” said Eibur Stepney, “but we want the name Charles Stepney to be recognizable along with it, because we watched him work so hard.”Scottie McNiece, the co-founder of International Anthem, said Charles Stepney was producing music at a level similar to better-known producers like Quincy Jones and Isaac Hayes. But he hypothesized they sought the spotlight more so than Stepney, who tended to focus on the work. “Isaac Hayes and Quincy Jones are both very colorful, very much spotlight personalities, hence I think they got a lot more credit for the work that they did,” McNiece said.
At the Millennium Park concert — which will mark the finale of the popular summer music series that sets up shop in the Pritzker Pavilion each summer — the newly formed group Rotary Connection 222 will play some of Stepney’s greatest hits as well as previously unreleased original music.
The group is inspired by Stepney’s own band, Rotary Connection, for which he served as composer and arranger.
Rotary Connection has been rebooted by Stepney’s daughters and Chicago musician Junius Paul, a bassist and Chicago bandleader who first connected with the Stepney family after reaching out to the daughters through Facebook. Like many people, Paul had listened to work that Stepney helped produce for much of his life without understanding who Charles Stepney was. The tunes of The Dells and Minnie Riperton’s 1970 album Come to My Garden — an album that Stepney orchestrated, conducted and arranged — were the soundtrack of much of his early life.
“This is stuff that my parents were listening to in the car, in the house, in the basement, at parties and family reunions,” Paul said. “I’ve been listening to him my whole life and didn’t realize it.”
It wasn’t until Paul began re-listening to the music of his childhood around eight years ago that he began researching Charles Stepney’s life and career. In 2017, he organized a Charles Stepney tribute performance at Navy Pier for Vocalo Radio and reached out to Eibur Stepney on social media to issue an invitation.
To Paul’s surprise, the family showed up, marking the beginnings of a collaboration between the leader of the Chicago-based Junius Paul Quartet and the Stepney family.
Charlene Stepney said although the original band Rotary Connection was well-liked, “they never quite made it the way they should have.”
“We wanted to revive some of their energy [by] doing a current band that I think Dad would really get a kick out of,” said Charlene Stepney. The band has already received offers to play in the United Kingdom.
The Aug. 18 performance will include an ensemble of around two dozen musicians, including performances by the Stepney Sisters themselves, who will be singing Rotary Connection’s “Memory Band,” which Charles Stepney wrote for his daughters.
The setlist for the concert will be organized into three distinct periods of Charles Stepney’s work: music that he arranged and produced, music that he composed, and music that later performers sampled from him. Those sampled works include the Rotary Connection song “Memory Band,” which can be heard in “Bonita Applebum” by A Tribe Called Quest and The Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” The Minnie Riperton song “Les Fleur,” which Stepney wrote, has been sampled by the hip-hop group Jurassic 5 and pop singer Nelly Furtado.
Now that there will be a Millennium Park concert and an upcoming album dedicated to her father, Chanté Stepney said her family can let out a “huge sigh.”
“It will be a celebration for our family to be able to see our dad honored respectfully in this manner,” she said.
For Charlene Stepney, the biggest joy is seeing the album. “I can’t wait until I can hold a copy,” she said. “We will be holding a copy on Thursday night.”
If you go: Charles Stepney: Out of the Shadows begins at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 18 and will take place at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park at 201 E. Randolph St. The Chicago-based band Black Monument Ensemble will open for Rotary Connection 222.