January 23, 2015

Chicago Steppers


The popularity of artists like R. Kelly, has taken Stepping — the dance and music phenomenon born in Chicago’s dance clubs — onto the world stage.

 by Peter J. Gianakopoulos

Stepping music originated in the city of Chicago in African American communities and is a very unique dance in that it combines doo-wop, blues, soul, jazz, rock, house music, hip hop, electro and many other genres that are suitable for its eight count dance steps. Evolving out of styles of dances such as the Bop, the Jitterbug and the Cakewalk, stepping uses striding, gliding and dipping to all sorts of music that have the right beat and tempo. Steppin’ has a 6-count basic pattern equal to 1 1/2 measures of 4/4 music in tempos of 70 to 100 bpm. The pattern consists of a double and two syncopated triples. It starts on the downbeat of one with the leader’s footwork starting on the left and finishing on the right with the follower doing the opposite closely deriving from the Jitterbug. Dances may also be done in a line dance style similar to Western Swing and the New York Hustle.

The jitterbug of the 1930’s slowed down in the 1960’s became the Bop evolving into Steppin’. Others claim the Lindy Hop evolving out of swing dancing birthed the steppers during the disco era. A dress etiquette came along with the suave gliding and dipping your partner style with people decked out in chic fancy clothes and shiny suits a la the Temptations. One of the hottest cuts was a “Joneses” remix only available on a 12” single by the Temps that would fetch $50-100 at one time prior to the digital age. Lasting much longer than the disco craze like the ever popular house music scene, steppers became popular with black and white audiences alike. Even some white artists like Curiosity Killed The Cat and Style Council had tunes popular in steppers sets and records by obscure prog bands like Sopwith Camel became sought after for the latest tune to breakout with the deejays.

In the late 1970’s two records by the obscure R&B MCA artist Jeffree called “Love’s Gonna Last” and “Mr. Fix-It” amassed radio airplay in Chicago even though neither song achieved any chart success. The radio station WBMX made these two songs instant Steppers cuts and sent the cutout LP and long out-of-print CD into collectors and deejays hands at super inflated prices. Jeffree had already been dropped from his label after a sophomore slump and moved into gospel before his early untimely death. He never lived to see the regional success his debut achieved. William DeVaughn’s “Be Thankful For What You Got” also became a Chicago-breaking steppers cut long after he had moved into secular music as well.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s steppers became a huge record-collecting phenomenon not unlike the Northern Soul success in the U.K. that has since spawned a revival here stateside with the young twenty-somethings. Deejays seeking out the latest promo-only rap instrumental that would have a jazzy beat or some chill-out electronica like Art Of Noise’s “Moments In Love” became dance floor gliders with import extended 12” versions fetching major money as the demand to stock them in steppers spinners crates. Deejays introducing the latest obscure track at sets without revealing the artist send other jocks and collectors frantically scoring record stores for unknown obscurities long before apps like Shazam came along that could easily identify the songs.

Obscure artists on 45s like Donald & The Delighters “Elephant Walk” and jazzy soul cuts by Kool & The Gang like “Summer Madness” would become in-demand records across the city. Other cities like Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, Baltimore, Washington D.C. and other African American populated cities caught on the steppers craze with some of the same favorite cuts and local regional numbers deejays would introduce to their own dance floors that fit the beat. Most of James Brown’s instrumental funk group The JB’s material became instant roller-skating and steppers mainstays to hear at any popular steppin’ set.

Older audiences demanded old jazz cuts like ones by Roy Ayers while younger fans wanted the latest hip hop instrumentals that widened the mass appeal and gave new life to old songs and created underground new releases hot steppers cuts that might not have had the same success on the radio or the charts as they did in the clubs similar to the disco era.

It was not until R. Kelly emerged with the first deliberately marketed song, “Step In The Name Of Love” that it finally hit with a national steppers audience by the 2000s. The craze then appeared in the TV show, The Soul Man and in films like, Love Jones and Beauty Shop, to reveal the Chicago-Style Stepping to a worldwide audience. The scene today continues to flourish and grow even if only still in the underground party and club scene like house and disco music worldwide.

This website address contains a pretty extensive but not complete list to research on the ever building catalog of steppers music.


Peter Gianakopoulos is co-owner of The Old School Records in Forest Park, IL which was also a record label (now dormant) in the 1990’s as well as a musician/member of the groups The Now and Castle Broadway and staff writer at the Forest Park Post as well as deejay at WRRG in River Grove, IL hosting the avant garde show “A Joyful Noise”.”


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