A fine vibraphonist (and pianist) and a visionary producer, conductor and arranger, Charles Stepney was the psychedelic soul man over at Chess Records and their subsidiary Cadet Concept. Producer of classics by Ramsey Lewis, Minnie Ripperton, The Howlin' Wolf Album, Muddy Waters (Electric Mud), Terry Callier, Marlena Shaw, The Dells, The Emotions, Phil Upchurch and more, he was co-founder of Rotary Connection and Earth, Wind & Fire (although due to his contract with Chess could not always be listed in the credits).
As a sideman he performed on many Chess songs, as well as played on albums by Eddie Harris, Ramsey Lewis, Johnny Pate and others. He also conducted an orchestral jazz/soul concert with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. At the time of his early death in '76 he was planning to work with Michael Jackson and had just co-founded Kalimba Productions with Maurice White.
He was a mentor to many and a Chicago legend, and his orchestral soul set the template for artfully crafted jazz-pop. Not only do Stevie Wonder and Elton John claim Stepney as a huge influence, but you can also hear it in the work of CTI Records.
Let's check out a few Stepney productions, beginning with this magical Terry Callier track:
Here's the sublime "Les Fleur", co-composed, produced and arranged by Stepney, recorded by Minnie Riperton, who sings from the point of view of a flower in the song intro ("will some lady pin me in her hair...will a child find me by a stream..."):
Stepney co-produced and arranged this classic:
And one of my favorite tunes, by the Stepney master project Rotary Connection:
Here is a short doc about Charles: