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REVIEW: The First Family of Twin Cities Music: The Steeles (Crooners Lounge and Supper Club)

A promotional photo of The Steeles, one of the Twin Cities’ most legendary music families.

The Steeles – J.D., Fred, Jearlyn, Jevetta, and Billy Steele – are a musical family ensemble of five (of six) siblings who grew up in Gary, Indiana. Each made their eventual way to Minnesota; having grown up singing together, eventually they went into the music business. This music is in their genes, apparently: their father and grandfather were also part of family singing groups.

The Steeles are fixtures of the local music scene, but their work far transcends the local. Various combinations of the Steeles have appeared on film soundtracks; albums by Prince, Mavis Staples, George Clinton, Soul Asylum, and many others; and area stages including the Guthrie Theater, Penumbra Theater, Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, the Old Log Theater, History Theatre, Mixed Blood Theatre, Southern Theatre, and more. They have had albums, world tours, roles in movies, and a show on Broadway (The Gospel at Colonus). They have an Academy Award nomination (Jevetta, for Baghdad Café’s Calling You), and the PBS version of Gospel at Colonus earned an Emmy Award nomination. They put on an annual Christmas show. Family members continue to have prominent roles throughout town, including Jearlyn’s work at WCCO Radio and TPT Television, and J.D.’s work as the director of the MacPhail Community Youth Choir.

Thursday evening’s performance at Crooners was a rare opportunity to see The Steeles in an intimate setting. The room holds perhaps 80 people, and the Steeles mingled among the crowd before and after the performance (J.D. and Fred also ventured into the audience during a sultry performance of Quincy Jones’ “Secret Garden”). The performing area was not large, though the Steeles still found a way to move to their music.

Musically, the concert was even more of a family event than usual. The Crooners’ Steinway on which Billy played throughout the evening is said to be one of the best in the state. That sound was enhanced by Jevetta’s son joining the core group as the sixth person onstage, playing the drums. The singers’ mother was in the audience, as was the sixth Steele sibling, Janice. (Janice is a pastor who had been living in California, but recently took up a pulpit in St. Paul.) Janice was persuaded to join her siblings for their second encore, the gospel song “It’s Gonna Rain”.

The night had begun with another gospel standard, “Oh Happy Day” by Edwin Hawkins. In between, the show was mostly love songs, drawing heavily on the great American songbook and Gershwin in particular. Many of these were original arrangements by members of The Steeles, which were marvelous. Some of these notable performances included “Our Love is Here to Stay” (one gets a sense of Billy’s arrangement here ); Fred’s arrangement of “Someone to Watch Over Me”, “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”, and an a cappella version of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. There were also more recent songs, including “My Love” by Paul McCartney and Wings, and Janet Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes”. Before the latter, each Steele told a personal story of love, not stinting on either heartbreak or hope.

Another promotional photo of The Steeles.

Over the course of the 90 minutes, each of the five singers alternated between singing lead and singing the group’s well-honed harmonies. Fred seemed to specialize in the lower ranges, J.D. in the higher, with Billy offering a nice mixture of smooth and growling for “My Love.” Jevetta and Jearlyn each belted out song lines in ways that recalled their work in gospel and opera. Throughout there was the sort of banter and bickering (perhaps rehearsed, perhaps not) that one would expect from a family that has been practicing and performing together for decades.

If you missed Thursday’s concert, The Steeles will be performing with Charles Lazarus on April 6 at Orchestra Hall. The program, titled Our Love is Here to Stay, is described as “a journey through the New American Songbook from Gershwin and Ellington to Stevie Wonder and Prince”. While the setting will not be nearly as intimate as at Crooners, the music should be just as wonderful.

Brian Bix