*Before there was ever a Jackson 5 or The Sylvers, there was the family group The Five Stairsteps.
Known as the original “First Family of Soul,” the singing siblings – five of Betty and Clarence Burke Sr.’s six children – rose to prominence in the 1960s with about a dozen singles released via four different albums. But it wasn’t until their fifth album, “Stairsteps,” that the group would release their biggest hit, an enduring anthem encouraging us to see the glass half full.
With the passing last month of the group’s manager, co-writer, driver, protector and beloved father Clarence Burke Sr., we’re celebrating the life and longevity of “O-o-h Child,” a track that packs a bright, shiny burst of optimism in just nine repeated lines:
1. Ooh child, things are gonna get easier.
2. Ooh child, things’ll get brighter.
3. Some day, yeah, we’ll put it together and we’ll get it undone.
4. Some day, when your head is much lighter.
5. Some day, yeah, we’ll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun.
6. Some day, when the world is much brighter.
7. Ooh child, things are gonna be easier.
8. Ooh child, things’ll be brighter.
9. Right now.
Released as a single on the Buddah label in the spring of 1970, “O-o-h Child” – with its title that invokes a heavy load being lifted at last – was originally a B-side to their debut single “Dear Prudence,” a remake of the 1968 Beatles tune.
But “O-o-h Child” on the B-side was what resonated with audiences, first catching on in the key markets of Philadelphia and Detroit before rippling throughout the rest of the country. It was written and produced by Stan Vincent, an in-house producer for Buddah who began working with the group after their launch on Curtis Mayfield’s Windy City imprint, which was distributed by the Philadelphia-based Cameo Parkway record label.
The Burke siblings – Alohe Jean, Clarence Jr., James, Dennis, and Kenneth “Keni” (and briefly, Cubie) – were introduced to Mayfield in their native Chicago after winning a talent show as teens. Fred Cash, of the Mayfield-led group The Impressions, was a neighbor and close family friend. Clarence Sr., a detective for the Chicago Police Department at the time, co-wrote some of the group’s songs along with his son Clarence Jr., who did most of the songwriting. Under Mayfield’s label, the group released their debut album “The Five Stairsteps” in 1967, led by the double A-side singles “You Waited Too Long” b/w “Don’t Waste Your Time,” the latter a Mayfield song. The tunes became local hits.
It was around this time that Clarence Sr. went on the game show “To Tell the Truth,” where a celebrity panel asks questions of three mystery guests to guess which one is telling the truth about who they are. Watch below:
Clarence Burke Sr. and The Five Stairsteps on “To Tell the Truth” (February 27, 1967)
The Cameo Parkway record label folded in 1967 and Windy City moved to distributor Buddah Records. Clarence Jr., who had written songs for the group, took the reins as producer on their second album, “Our Family Portrait,” in 1968. Their 3-year-old brother Cubie was added to the group and The Five Stairsteps became The Five Stairsteps & Cubie. Two singles were released, “Something’s Missing” and a cover of Jimmy Charles and the Revelletts’ hit “A Million to One.”
After signing directly with Buddah, “O-o-h Child,” was released in April of 1970 under their original name The Five Stairsteps. Their signature song featured lone female member and eldest sister Alohe on lead vocals, with her brothers taking over briefly during various parts of the track. It reached No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100, and surprisingly, only No. 14 on the R&B chart. Billboard ranked the song No. 21 for the year. This disc went on to sell over one million copies.
It also famously ushered Dooky and Doughboy to jail in John Singleton’s debut film, “Boyz in the Hood.”
Preceding Clarence Burke, Sr. in death on July 16, 2020 are his sons Clarence Burke, Jr. and Cubie Burke.