“For The Record: Charles Stepney”
by Edwin Black, Article reproduced with kind permission of Downbeat Magazine.
Originally printed November 26, 1970.
One of those unseen workhorses whose business is other people’s success is Charles Stepney, music supervisor for Chess Records. Stepney, in four years with the label, assumed responsibility for styling Ramsey Lewis’ post-Young-Holt sound, electrifying Muddy Waters into the R&B limelight, giving Phil Upchurch’s guitar a salable image, and inventing, organizing and bringing into being the Rotary Connection.
Several years ago, when young Stepney was about to sell his vibes for $65, he thought he would never make it on the music scene. The northside clubs in Chicago were mostly white and non-jazz in the mid-’50s, and the southside clubs didn’t pay much bread. Coming from the same westside Chicago street school that produced Eddie Harris, Ramsey Lewis and Walter Perkins, among others, Stepney knew “it was play good or don’t even bother gettin’ up on that stage. ‘Cause if you got up there and played bad,”, he remembers, “the other musicians and audience would just kick your butt. Matter of fact, Eddie Harris was getting his kicked regularly back then; he just could not play the sax – of course, that was back then.
“Anyway”, Stepney continued, “I was broke and convinced I would never make it in this field maybe I ought to try being a shoe salesman or bookkeeper or something and I was going to sell my vibes, but my mother kept telling me to hang on a little longer. But the day I was going to deliver the vibes to some other cat, Phil Wright at Chess gave me a call and said he’d heard me playing with Eddie Harris I think we were the Jazz Jets or some cornball name like that and he asked me to come in and play a session in the studio. Okay, one day’s bread. I didn’t figure this would make my career, so I was still going to give up the vibes.
“But Wright talked me out of it and showed me how to get work – you know, hang around the studios and pick up sessions. Man, one thing I learned was that all that bullshit they teach you in school is just that – walk out of the toilet and it’s worth nothing.”
Four years ago, Wright left the company. Stepney had already charted a few LPs and accepted an offer to become Chess’ full-time music supervisor. “Now I was on the other side of the studio window,” says Stepney. And in his role as composer-arranger-producer, Stepney had to come up with that right musical combination that made albums like Maiden Voyage, Rotary Connection and Upchurch so popular; the unmistakable style of voce da lontano, syncopation and electronic sounds. But sitting behind the console sometimes gets Stepney down. He isn’t always pleased with the talent he has to record, and rightly so.
Many recording artists, including some on Chess, are accidental professionals, whose big break was some smart manager’s feat. “These artists are musically stupid,” insists Stepney. “I swear you’ve got to stand over some of them and yell out: one-two-three-four – now PLAY! They have no sense of counter-rhythms or polyrhythms, can’t hold their part against other parts, don’t know a note of music and have no concept of musical balance.”
“Oh yeah, in a live performance they get by,” asserts Stepney. “The listener has sight, sound and smell. It’s a visual as well as musical production. But the recorded performance originates mystically from this inanimate box – the phonograph. The listener uses only his ears. The appeal lies in the quality of the music – and here’s where the artist can easily fail from lack of talent, lack of skill, or sheer disinterest.
“I guess it’s no mystery,” says Stepney, “who the real talent behind a group like the Beatles always was – George Martin, their producer! Hate to shatter so many balloons, but no way could those four have pooled all the instrumental and electronic complexities involved in Day in the Life or Eleanor Rigby or I am The Walrus. Any trained ear can easily spot the songs the Beatles produced alone. They’re repetitive and shallow – you know, same three chords and that unmodified beat.
“That brings to mind a particular gripe of mine,” continues Stepney. “Critics. Music Critics. These self-appointed protectors of the literature, who are determined to save the artist from the evils of the arranger. Overproduction they call it. Overproduction. Anytime you extend harmonically above the 7th and have more than five guys playing in the background and use more than monosyllabic lyrics – like James Brown’s grunt; back to the cave, man! – critics call it overproducing. I’ve seen arrangers write for the critics. Man, I’ll have nothing to do with it. See, I know, and the other people in the business know, these artists simply need to be directed. That’s why we have producers – not the financial kind – because these Sinatras and the rest need to be played like instruments into the whole musical picture, even thought that picture may not exist around them.”
Stepney has his own idea of overproduction. “I hate to criticize,” half-apologizes Stepney, “but these groups that insist on playing louder than 85 decibels are not really keeping their image. I mean, they protest water and air pollution as a disease of our times, but go right ahead and commit ear pollution. That’s as dangerous as cigarettes, as far as I’m concerned. It’s a known fact that sounds about 85 decibels are dangerous to the ear. These rock-acid groups average over 100 decibels, and this erodes the highest layers of your audio perception; since it’s at the top, the person doesn’t know he’s going deaf. He just begins perceiving less sounds at the peak range.”
Members of groups like the Vanilla Fudge, Cream and the Stones have enthusiastically admitted they’re going deaf, and consider it the necessary consequence of their ‘message’. But Stepney qualifies, “if a group plays loud enough they can cause pain, but there’s a difference between pain and honest emotion. Musical quality gets inside of you and makes you emotional. Part of that quality is the very loud sections. But to confuse emotion and a pain in the ear is clearly unmusical. We need more groups like Peter, Paul and Mary, Chicago, and Blood, Sweat & Tears. Try to tell me they don’t have a message, or they don’t evoke feelings in the listener! But they can do it without endangering the hearing.”
“As an arranger-composer-producer, Stepney maintains a musical stockpile that ranges from R&B images for the Dells to the electronic images of Mother Nature’s Son. Although Stepney operates widely within the electronic field his approach is unusual. At a time when the rage is the synthesizer, Stepney cranks out a great volume of material using alternative methods. “I had been anticipating working with the Moog for about 10 years before we did Mother Nature’s Son on one,” recalls Stepney. “Frankly, I wasn’t that turned on. That may have been because right now, there’s only one Moog in Chicago and the rent is so high every breath costs a fortune. But here I had been expecting all kinds of wonderful and beautiful sounds, and found that the Moog produced no more than a new version of what we had before. Right now, they’re very limited.”
“I really prefer,” he says, “what some might call the old-fashioned means, but what I consider the more resourceful and inventive means of producing the sounds we accept as electronic. I can get excellent effects by altering and distorting legitimate sounds with tapes and stuff. If you keep up on the latest developments in acoustics and electronics – you know, subscribe to various international engineering magazines, you can pick up all sorts of techniques.”
Stepney’s effects for Ramsey Lewis are mainly derived from a rare, out-of-print volume, New Musical Resources by Henry Cowell. Page after page of that book defines revolutionary (at least in Cowell’s day) piano concepts, including techniques for elbow and forearm, cluster overtones, and resonant muting. Stays Stepney, “There are other sounds worthy of musical organization besides the conventional, sonorous ones. So we can take a cluster and know which overtones to expect, score that for divided strings and winds, and the difference sounds electronic. Sort of like Lygeti’s Requiem. Or Atmosphere is another one, where a whole new quality of sounds is scored for natural voice and instruments. We do the same for Ramsey and instill that electronic texture, although, like I said, we did use the Moog on Mother Nature’s Son.”
When Stepney arranged for Phil Upchurch, a favourite device of his is overloading the amps to cause a distorted rasp. “We produced a low, distorted, really raw sound for Voodoo Chile that we couldn’t ever get on a Moog – at least not of the same texture.”
The charts for Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters normally don’t go beyond electronic guitars and brass, “because these stars just don’t feel comfortable in a musical atmosphere that exceeds a simple ensemble of guitar and brass,” Stepney says.
But what seems Stepney’s greatest continuing project has been the Rotary Connection, an idea for a group he conceived and executed. “It was 1966,” recalls Stepney. “Marshall Chess wanted to get into some psychedelic or acid-rock material. Chess owned a small European label, Pye, and he thought we could fill the time between bands with something.
“I arranged related percussion and some new-stream vocal into those spaces,” remembers Stepney. “Chess was so impressed with the thing, we took the studio kids that did the work and gave them a name – I think it was Chess’ idea – Rotary Connection. We did a whole album of the stuff, a little Moog, a little electronic alteration, and the style caught on instantly.
A consequence of the Rotary Connection was the emergence of a singular talent, Minnie Riperton. “This chick,” exults Stepney, “has a soprano range of about four octaves, a whole lot of soul, she’s good-looking and she’s got the experience of Rotary behind her.”
Stepney is producing an album, Come to my Garden, featuring Minnie’s solo voice on 10 Stepney compositions and one other arrangement. Minnie will stay with the Rotary and also work solo for a while. If she soars, she’ll be another luminary in the Stepney-made sky.