Sunday, October 14, 2007

One-Hit Wonder Week: "O-o-h Child," by the Five Stairsteps

The Five Stairsteps were four brothers and a sister, the children of detective Clarence Burke of the Chicago Police Department: Clarence Jr. and his sister Alohe sang, Dennis played drums, James played guitar and Keni played bass (eventually little brother Cubie, just three years old at the time, joined as well, making the Five Stairsteps the Big Ten of R&B groups; near as I can tell, Cubie never did much more than dance, although he eventually became a performer with the Dance Theatre of Harlem).

The rest of the group wasn't much older, all being 17 or younger when they were signed. They were discovered after winning a talent contest at Chicago's Regal Theatre and were signed by the great Curtis Mayfield to his Windy City Records in 1966, which issued their first big single, the Top Twenty R&B hit "You Waited Too Long," which the Burkes themselves had written.

And there they sat, stumbling around in the middle reaches of the R&B charts, until they had a chance to record a song called "O-o-h Child," written by a man named Stan Vincent, in early 1970. I haven't been able to find out very much about Stan Vincent; he worked with such unexceptional R&B groups as Soul Generation and the Legionnaires, but "O-o-h Child" seems to stand head and shoulders above everything else he's done.

What strikes you about the song, above its amazing melody, is that it's so repetitive. There's basically one verse, except that the opening "O-o-h child" changes to "Some day," and the key shifts a half-step higher. And that's it. The Five Stairsteps do the rest.

"O-o-h Child" entered the Billboard charts in June of 1970, the Stairsteps' first (and only) Top 40 hit, and peaked at Number Eight. (The B side of the single was a cover of "Dear Prudence.") That doesn't sound like such a huge smash, but it's never really gone away, as a mainstay on oldies radio, TV commercials, and movies such as Boyz n the Hood and Shark Tale.

The Five Stairsteps, on the other hand, pretty much did go away, although they kicked around the R&B charts for a while and appeared in the concert film The Isley Brothers Live at Yankee Stadium. Through Billy Preston, they met George Harrison, who signed them to his Dark Horse Records, which released their inaptly titled 1976 album Second Resurrection. They later also recorded a disco album as the Invisible Man's Band, which never became very visible.

The early Seventies were especially kind to sibling quintets, and despite its oddly hyphenated title, "O-o-h Child" measures up favorably with anything in the Jackson Five catalog, which is a very impressive catalog. It's a shame they never came close to repeating that song's success.

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