Keni Burke
Keni Burke

Keni Burke

About Keni Burke

Keni Burke has a three-decade career that includes singing with the Five Stairsteps and being a top session musician. Born Kenneth M. Burke on September 28, 1953, in Chicago, he first tasted musical stardom in his teens as a member of the family group the Five Stairsteps, best known for the 1970 million-selling single "O-o-h Child." The Chicago-based group was dubbed "the First Family of Soul" because of their successful five-year chart run; the moniker was later passed on to the Jackson 5. Initially a teenage five-member brothers and sister vocal group made up of the offspring of Betty and Clarence Burke, the Five Stairsteps (named by Mrs. Burke who thought her kids looked like stair steps when lined up according to their age) featured lead singer Clarence Jr., Alohe, James, Dennis, and 13-year-old Kenneth. Most of the members attended Harlan High School. Clarence Sr. was a detective for the Chicago Police Department and a strict and loving father. Like the Jackson 5's father Joe Jackson, "Papa Burke," as he was called, had a passion for music and honed his children into a talented singing and dancing group. He backed the group on bass guitar, managed them, and co-wrote songs with Clarence Jr. and Gregory Fowler. After winning first prize in a talent contest at the legendary Regal Theater, the Five Stairsteps were beset with recording contract offers. A close neighbor and family friend was Fred Cash of the Impressions, who introduced the group to Curtis Mayfield. Signed to Mayfield's Windy City imprint, which was distributed by Philadelphia-based Cameo Parkway Records, their first single was the Burkes-written ballad "You Waited Too Long" b/w the upbeat "Don't Waste Your Time," a Mayfield song. A double-sided hit in Chicago, the A-side, "You Waited Too Long," charted number 16 R&B in spring of 1966, and the hits kept coming. Around the end of 1967, Cameo-Parkway folded and Windy C switched to Art Kass' New York-based Buddah Records through former Cameo-Parkway executive Neil Bogart who joined the new label as co-president. The group's second album, Family Portrait (complete with a montage of Burke family photos), was recorded and produced in Chicago by Clarence Jr. With the addition of their three-year-old brother, the group became the Five Stairsteps & Cubie. Family Portrait yielded two hit singles, "Something's Missing" and a cover of Jimmy Charles and the Revelletts' hit "A Million to One." The group often toured with the Impressions. Signing with Buddah Records, the group was once again known as the Five Stairsteps. In the spring of 1970, the group released their sole certified million-seller and biggest pop hit, "O-o-h Child" (written by Stan Vincent), which hit number 14 R&B and number eight op. The flip side, a cover of Lennon and McCartney' "Dear Prudence," charted number 49 R&B. The following year, the group resurfaced as the Stairsteps with two charting Buddah singles: "Didn't It Look So Easy" and "I Love You-Stop." The group appeared in the 1970 movie Soul to Soul, a documentary of a benefit concert filmed at New York's Yankee Stadium and on the NY-produced, nationally syndicated show Soul. In the early '70s, sister Alohe married and both she and Cubie left the group, which now billed themselves as the Stairsteps. Billy Preston introduced the Stairsteps to the Beatles, and the group signed with George Harrison's Dark Horse label distributed by A&M Records. An album, 2nd Resurrection, was released in February 1976, produced by Billy Preston, Robert Margouleff, and the Stairsteps. "From Us to You," written by Clarence Jr. and Kenneth Burke, was the group's biggest hit since "O-o-h Child," peaking at number ten R&B in early 1976. The follow-up single, "Passado," received airplay in Chicago, New York, and other markets. Kenneth sang, played bass, and wrote both songs on the third single, "Tell Me Why" b/w "Salaam." After the Stairsteps disbanded, Kenneth remained with Dark Horse as a solo artist. His self-produced debut solo LP, Keni Burke, was released in August 1977. The singles were "Keep on Singing" and the brassy "Shuffle" b/w "From Me to You," an instrumental remake of "From Us to You." Becoming an in-demand session bass player, he can be heard on everyone from Sly & the Family Stone, Natalie Cole, Billy Preston, Les McCann, the Emotions, Raffi, and the Four Tops to Redman, Terry Callier, Stargard, Curtis Mayfield, Bill Withers, D.J. Rogers, Linda Clifford, Silk, Narada Michael Walden, Ramsey Lewis, Dusty Springfield, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, and Larry John McNally. In 1981, Burke got a new solo album deal with RCA Records. The self-produced LP You're the Best included the singles, the jubilant "Let Somebody Love You" and the title track "You're the Best." Both became post-release 12" collectibles. His next RCA album, 1982's Changes, yielded his biggest solo hit. Though the inspiring "Risin' to the Top" peaked at number 63 R&B in late summer 1982, it was a huge hit in his native Chicago and has been sampled ad nauseam by a myriad of hip-hop/rap and urban artists. First by Doug E. Fresh ("Keep Risin' to the Top"), then by Mary J. Blige ("Love No Limit") and Ali's "Feelin' You." The second Changes single, the pumpin' "Shakin'," has DJs and dance/funk music collectors scouring used record bins. Changes is also notable because it includes one of the last songs by Philly songwriter Linda Creed (co-written with Thom Bell), the mid-tempo ballad "One Minute More." Burke worked as a writer/producer (frequently with keyboardist Dean Gant and former Average White Band drummer Steve Ferrone) with the O'Jays, the Jones Girls, the Whispers, the Whitehead Brothers, Keith Sweat, George Howard, Peabo Bryson, Bill Withers, and Perri, among others. After meeting Expansion Records executive Ralph Tee at a Berwick Soul Weekender, Burke signed with the Sony-distributed U.K. label. Nothin' but Love was his first album for the label and was released March 1998. The first 12" single was "I Need Your Love" with vocals by Burke's son, Osaze Burke, but the flip side, the mellow "Indigenous Love," became a hit with the steppers crowd. ~ Ed Hogan

    Chicago, IL
  • BORN
    September 28, 1953

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