If you don’t know the name Charles Stepney, you’d surely be familiar with his work and probably even own a whole stack of records he’s worked on, having produced, arranged, co-wrote and played on multi-platinum albums by Earth Wind & Fire, Minnie Riperton, Chaka Khan, Ramsey Lewis, Rotary Connection, Terry Callier and more. As it turns out, when he wasn’t conducting sweeping symphonic arrangements or tracking major label soul acts in the country's most state-of-the-art studios, he was quietly laying down instrumental synth funk and drum machine grooves to 8-track tape in his modest basement setup on Chicago’s south side. Step On Step is the first official release of those recordings, imbued with the sophistication of a seasoned orchestra conductor, but with enough lo-fi grit to make Numero or PPU salivate. The occasional sound of Charles calibrating his tape reels and the expository interludes taken from a conversation between his daughters drive home just how special of a release this is, and how it almost never came to be. Sonically, Step By Step is characterized by primitive drum machines and the then-cutting edge Moog synthesizer which, as his daughters explain in one interlude, wasn’t just a first or second generation, it was first or second *off the assembly line*. “In The Basement,” “Funky Sci Fi” and “Around The House” feature his synthesizer hand playing a scrappy lead, not dissimilar to the work of east coast kindred spirit Patrick Adams. Tracks like “Look B4U Leap,” “Gotta Dig It To Dig It” and “On Your Face” wring out the full potential of the Moog, producing growling, guttural basslines to rival the most expensive studio bassist. Elsewhere, “Step On Step,” “Denim Groove” and “Black Gold” are completely devoid of synthesizer and demonstrate Charles’ arrangement chops with thick swells of dueling vibraphone and grand piano. Stepney’s storied original demo version of EWF’s “That’s The Way Of The World” is a literal dream come true. “No Credit For This” and “Daddy’s Diddies” recall the sugary soul sides of his daytime work (more EWF scratch tracks perhaps? We’ll never know). On the whole, Step On Step is an uplifting, heartwarming listen and an essential artifact from one of soul music’s greatest and most underrated proprietors. Recommended.
- black double vinyl pressing
- housed in gatefold sleeve w/ obi strip
- music label: International Anthem Recording Company 2022
reviewed by miss abuse 07/2022