James Burke, whose shared lead vocals helped make “O-o-h Child” into a smash for his group the Five Stairsteps in 1970, has died at age 70.
Word of Burke’s death first began to circulate on Saturday and was confirmed to Rolling Stone on Tuesday by brother and bandmate Dennis Burke, who said the cause of death was pneumonia.
The Five Stairsteps are often thought of as a one-hit-wonder band because of the outsize popularity of “O-o-h Child,” which continues to rack up cover versions today, including one that was released just last month by KISS member Paul Stanley. But the group had 19 singles that charted on either the R&B or pop charts — usually both — between the years of 1966-80. “O-o-h Child” was their only song to crack the top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 8. But 11 of the Stairsteps’ singles made it into the top 20 of the R&B chart.
Artists that have covered “O-o-h Child” include Nina Simone, Daryl Hall & John Oates, Dusty Springfield, Mary WIlson, Kelly Rowland, Kamasi Washington, Trey Anastasio, Richie Havens, the Spinners, Lisa Loeb and the Wondermints, among many others. In 2014, the original version was introduced to a new generation via its use in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the soundtrack of which became the No. 1 album in the nation.
“’O-o-h Child’ is a song of optimism and hope,” KISS’s Stanley said when he released his cover in January. “I think we could all use some words about things getting ‘brighter’ and a time when ‘we’ll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun.’ … I remember first hearing the Five Stairsteps on the radio and I felt like my problems were lifted from my shoulders.”
The song was ranked by Rolling Stone at No. 402 on its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list.
The Five Stairsteps were a family group, and “O-o-h Child” begins with a plaintive opening verse from the Burkes’ sister Alohe, followed by contributions from brothers Keni, Dennis and Clarence as well as James.Fellow artists who championed the Five Stairsteps ranged from Curtis Mayfield, who signed the group to his label in the 1960s, to George Harrison, who was taken by some cover songs that hit close to home (“Dear Prudence” appeared as the flip side of “O-o-h Child,” and they recorded “My Sweet Lord” the following year) and signed them to his Dark Horse label for a 1976 release, “2nd Resurrection.”
The group split up after that Billy Preston-co-produced album, but several of the members, including James, soon reunited as the Invisible Man’s Band, which had a minor disco hit with “All Night Thing,” which peaked at No. 45 on the Billboard 100 in 1980 but again cracked the R&B top 10.
The Chicago-based siblings began their career in Chicago, where they known locally as “the First Family of Soul,” as teenagers, and had their first hit in 1966 with the Mayfield-backed “You Waited Too Long.” The group’s name was said to have been coined because of how the sister and brothers had incrementally varying heights when lined up together.