Charles Stepney's Soul Symphony
by Mosi Reeves | April 22, 2013
Chicago producer and arranger Charles Stepney is one of a handful of men who remade soul music in the early 1970s with jazz licks and sweeping, incredibly lush string orchestras. As the staff producer and A&R executive at Chess Records, he experimented fearlessly, from giving blues icon Muddy Waters an electric guitar for the classic Electric Mud album to turning The Dells' "Stay in My Corner" into a six-minute suite, an impressive length for a 45 single. He produced Marlena Shaw's "California Soul," a seminal track that has found its way into countless film soundtracks and TV commercials (most recently for Dodge Ram). He helped create Rotary Connection, a collective of session musicians and background singers modeled after sunshine pop and psych-rock groups like The Fifth Dimension, The Association and Jefferson Airplane. Rotary Connection never scored a national hit but remain beloved for such creative breakthroughs as "Memory Band" (later sampled by A Tribe Called Quest for "Bonita Applebum") and the oft-covered "I Am the Black Gold of the Sun." Most importantly, The Rotary Connection yielded Minnie Riperton, the singer legendary for her five-octave voice.
Stepney is best known for his work with Earth, Wind & Fire, a project launched by former Chess Records session drummer Maurice White. From 1974 to 1976 and over the course of three albums (and a fourth, Last Days and Time, on which he played an uncredited role as arranger), his booming horn charts, intensely melodic string arrangements and rapid chord changes distinguished him from a sweet soul epoch that also included innovators like Isaac Hayes; the Philly soul of Thom Bell and Gamble & Huff; and Barry White. As Stepney evolved into a super-producer, and collaborated with Maurice White to create hits for The Emotions (the sublime "Flowers") and Deniece Williams (the feminist anthem "Free"), brand-name pop acts like Elton John and Barbra Streisand reportedly began to seek him out. Unfortunately, his career was cut short when he suffered a heart attack and died in 1976 at the age of 45, just before EWF completed work on Spirit. The band dedicated the title track to him.
Stepney created an extraordinary amount of music that has made him a favorite of crate-diggers and pop aesthetes ever since. This playlist only scratches the surface.