Clarence Burke Jr. in 1966 (Getty Images / Redferns / Gilles Petard)
Clarence Burke Jr., the lead singer of the Five Stairsteps, a sibling rhythm-and-blues group that had its best-known hit in 1970 with “O-o-h Child,” died Sunday in Marietta, Ga. He had turned 64 the day before.
His death was confirmed by Joe Marno, his friend and manager. No cause was given.
The Five Stairsteps — four brothers and a sister — formed in Chicago in the mid-1960s, having learned to play instruments and sing from their father, Clarence Sr., a police officer, and their mother, Betty. They were once called “the first family of soul,” a moniker later adopted by the Jackson 5.
It was Betty Burke who came up with the name the Five Stairsteps after noticing that when the siblings stood next to one another in order of age, they resembled a staircase.
Besides being the lead singer, Burke was the group’s choreographer and guitar player and wrote a number of its songs. At 16 he was the co-author of the group’s first hit, “You Waited Too Long,” which reached No. 16 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1966.
The Stairsteps had a string of hits, including “World of Fantasy” and “Something’s Missing,” but their only Top 10 pop hit was the tender ballad “O-o-h Child,” written by Stan Vincent, which sold more than a million copies and reached No. 8. The song has been sampled by many hip-hop artists, notably Tupac Shakur in his 1993 hit “Keep Ya Head Up.”
The others in the group were his sister, Alohe (contralto), and his brothers James III (first tenor), Kenneth (second tenor) and Dennis (baritone). A younger brother, Cubie, joined the group later.
Clarence N. Burke Jr. was born on May 25, 1949, in Chicago and attended Harlan High School there, as did his siblings. They survive him, as do his parents; two more brothers, Leonard and Martin; his wife, Crystal Howell-Burke; three sons, Clarence III, James IV and Khabeer; two daughters, Dichelle Connell and Nadirah Bannister; and many grandchildren. He lived in Marietta.
The Stairsteps’ last hit was “From Us to You,” released on George Harrison’s Dark Horse label in 1976. The band broke up soon after, but four of the brothers, including Burke, formed another group, the Invisible Man’s Band, in 1980. That group’s biggest hit was “All Night Thing.”
At his death Burke was still recording and performing as a solo artist.
By DANIEL E. SLOTNIK
Copyright © 2013 New York Times News Service
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