In Random Tracks, I’m reviewing a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. To make my site more interactive, if you like what I’m doing comment and let me know what random hit song you want me to review.
The Five Stairsteps- “O-o-h Child”
HOT 100 PEAK: #8
WEEK OF PEAK: July 18, 1970
Here’s a funny situation that was happening in 1970: a family singing group from the Midwest becomes the biggest breakout act of that year scoring four massive #1 hits becoming superstars and launching the career of music’s King of Pop. Also around that time, another family singing group from the Midwest make their big breakthrough after years of bubbling under. Unlike the other group though, that big hit would become the defining hit turning them into a one-hit-wonder but a one-hit-wonder with a long-lasting song.
That’s the story of the Five Stairsteps. This family singing group from Chicago had been around since the doo-wop days of the late ‘50s. After over a decade, they had their moment in 1970 with “O-o-h Child,” a song about reassurance amid tough times breaking them into the Top 10 right when their friends in the Jackson 5 from Gary, Indiana were enjoying their massive breakout success. The group was once nicknamed The First Family of Soul before the Jackson 5 took it away. The Five Stairsteps wouldn’t be this big again but that one hit has left a huge mark on pop culture through various samples and placements in TV and film. It’s a song that has existed as a constant force of good in the world providing us with the hope that things will get better even in the darkest of situations.
The Five Stairsteps date back to 1958 consisting of the Burke siblings of brothers Clarence Jr., James, Dennis, and Kenneth “Keni” along with sister Alohe. Their name came from a remark their mother made on how her kids looked like stair steps when lined up according to age. Like with the Jackson 5, their father Clarence Sr., a Chicago police officer, guided the group becoming its manager, producer, played bass, and even co-wrote some songs.
After winning a talent show at Chicago’s Regal Theater, the Five Stairsteps signed with Curtis Mayfield’s Windy City label and were recording music immediately. The group released their first single, “You Waited Too Long” in 1966 peaking at #16 on Billboard’s R&B charts. That success would become routine for the rest of the ‘60s. Their singles would often do better on the R&B charts than the Hot 100 where the singles usually peaked in the lower half.
Things started to change after 1967 when their major label distributor Cameo Parkway went under switching to Buddah Records. Their second album, 1968’s Our Family Portrait, was credited to The Five Stairsteps & Cubie after their youngest brother joined at only three years old. (They reverted back to their original name after signing to Buddah.) They also went out on tour with Mayfield’s group The Impressions. After a decade in the business, the group was still in search of a song that could bring them all the way. Enter Stan Vincent.
Vincent is a behind the scenes industry person working at the time for Buddah Records arranging hits for their artists. Before “O-o-h Child,” Vincent had his first success with producing Lou Christie’s 1969 hit “I’m Gonna Make You Mine.” (“I’m Gonna Make You Mine” peaked at #10. It’s a 5.) Soon after, he wrote “O-o-h Child.” There’s no real origin story I could find regarding the song in terms of its inspiration or how it got to the Five Stairsteps. The song seemed like business as usual. But it wasn’t a hit at first. The song was a B-side to a cover of the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” but after that flopped a Philadelphia DJ flipped the record to play “O-o-h Child” and from there it took off nationwide giving the Five Stairsteps the breakout hit they needed.
As a song, “O-o-h Child” doesn’t follow much of a structure. It’s just two parts being repeated over and over. The song reads like a vague optimistic reassurance with the members taking turns in the verses singing that things will be easier and brighter. On the chorus, all the members join in singing about how we’ll be able to put it together, get it undone, and walk in the rays of a beautiful sun when the world is better someday. The only differences come in the bridge with the members going “la la la” and ending with a declarative “Right now” in the world getting better. There’s no real deep lyrical detail or subtext but that’s perfectly fine here as it delivers what it sets out to do.
It also helps that the performances sell the song. Each member sings in a soothing comforting style that makes it feel like they’re singing directly to you. The chorus brings a gospel level of vocal and musical transcendence to the song. Musically, it fits the sunny tone as an effective piece of early ‘70s soul music. There’s twinkly piano, murmuring bass, bluesy guitar runs, bright horns, and on-point drumming by drumming aficionado Bernard Purdie. Every one of these elements helps bring the song’s message home. It’s the type of song that works best to lift your spirits when you’re feeling down and out about your day or life.
The song’s message came at a time when America needed to be reassured that things were gonna be easier. I mentioned in my Bridge Over Troubled Water review about America entering the ‘70s still dealing with protests and turmoil over the Vietnam War among the many social upheavals the ‘60s brought. Songs like “O-o-h Child” certainly fit into the many songs of reassurance that got big in 1970 and probably convinced many at the time that a brighter world was possible. As Keni himself said, “The lyrics are on point. They speak to everyday life no matter where you are in your own life. People are going through struggles. The Vietnam War was ending when it came out. There was social change. But the record also has a feel to it. Something about it brightens your day. And when my dear sister sings the first verse, her voice is so soothing it puts everybody in this mood. It’s like a warm blanket to the soul.” I’ve never been crazy about the song as many others have but it still holds up. Listening to the song in the turmoils of 2020, “O-o-h Child” continues to show us that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
After the success of “O-o-h Child,” the Five Stairsteps would stick around continuing to land hits on the R&B charts but never scored a major pop crossover single again. They shortened their name to just The Stairsteps and signed to George Harrison’s Dark Horse label through their connection with fifth Beatle Billy Preston. All of this happening as members left with Cubie leaving the group to become a dancer and Alohe leaving to focus on education. The group officially disbanded after their sole release on Dark Horse, 1976’s 2nd Resurrection.
The remaining members moved on creating another group the Invisible Man’s Band releasing two albums that didn’t sell much but netted a Top 10 R&B hit in 1980 with “All Night Thing.” By 1983, the group had disbanded with Kenneth going on to more musical work working with various R&B acts and releasing solo material. It was Kenneth who was the first of the group to die in 2014 at age 64. Cubie followed that same year at age 49.
The Five Stairsteps may not have reached Jackson 5 levels of success but they managed to create a timeless piece of music that’ll forever provide us with much-needed sunshine in an often dreary world. That’s not a bad legacy to leave behind.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s “O-o-h Child” soundtracking an arrest scene in 1991’s Boyz N The Hood:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: 2Pac interpolated “O-o-h Child” on his 1993 single “Keep Ya Head Up” which peaked at #12. Here’s the video:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Zoey Deschanel singing “O-o-h Child” to her class in 2007’s Bridge To Terabithia:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the 2014 Saturday Night Live skit where Cecily Strong, Taran Killam, Kenan Thompson, and Lena Dunham sing along to “O-o-h Child” while driving with Dunham getting interrupted by the GPS every time she sings:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Chris Pratt singing and dancing along to “O-o-h Child” during the dance-off scene in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy:
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