Five Stairsteps singer James Burke dies at 70

The 'O-o-h Chile' singer who helped made the classic song a hit, has passed

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The classic song “O-o-h Chile,” released in 1970, was created by the legendary Chicago group The Five Stairsteps. The song has been remade by a variety of acts, including most recently by Paul Stanley of KISS, who released a version last month. It was announced Tuesday that James Burke, one of the sibling singers who provided the outstanding vocal stylings died of pneumonia at 70, as reported by Rolling Stone.

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James, along with his sister Alohe and brothers Keni, Dennis, and Clarence, Jr. was the linchpin of the family group that was managed by his father, Clarence Sr., a Chicago police detective who also played bass and co-wrote songs for the group. (Another brother, Cubie, was briefly in the Stairsteps but became a dancer with ensembles like Dance Theater of Harlem instead.) Reports say that their mother, Betty named the group, noting that her children were like ‘stairsteps’ because they were close in age.

Five Stairsteps album cover

Though most people know the group via their most famous song, they had 19 charting singles between 1966-1980, according to Variety.

Burke’s death was confirmed to RS by his brother, Dennis. As reported by theGrio, Clarence Burke, Jr. died in 2013. Their father, Clarence Sr., died last August. He was 90.

The Five Stairsteps were once known as the First Family of Soul, a name that would be later adopted by the Jackson 5. The Stairsteps were actually discovered via a Chicago talent showcase, and they bragged that they actually beat the Jackson 5 that night. But their big break came from Fred Cash of the Impressions, who was a neighbor of the Burkes, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Cash played the group’s vocals over the phone for Curtis Mayfield, who signed them to his Windy City label and began recording them.

The Five Stairsteps enjoyed success over the seven albums they made as a family group, then reunited as the Invisible Man’s Band and recorded two more, scoring a hit with “All Night Thing” in 1980. But the enduring popularity of their biggest hit, written by Stan Vincent, outstripped everything else.

“O-o-h Chile” has been remade by artists from Nina Simone to Kelly Rowland and was on the soundtrack for Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014 as well as in Boyz in the Hood, Crooklyn and Shark Tale. It’s the chorus of Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head Up” and has also been used in the video game Grand Theft Auto. Most recently it was heard in a segment on Joe and Jill Biden at the Democratic National Convention last year.

“’O-o-h Child’ is a song of optimism and hope,” Stanley said in January when he released his own version. “I think we could all use some words about things getting ‘brighter’ and a time when ‘we’ll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun.’ … I remember first hearing the Five Stairsteps on the radio and I felt like my problems were lifted from my shoulders.”

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Dennis told Rolling Stone he remembers his brother as “very creative.” James was also a talented painter who Dennis says had a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago at 10 years old and focused on his art in his later years. Dennis credits James, who played guitar and wrote songs, and his late brother, Clarence, as the anchors of the group.

“They really had a focus on the music that helped to bring us all together into the industry,” Dennis told Rolling Stone.

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