Rodney Stepp has achieved greatness over and over again throughout his long career in music.
Stepp turned professional at age 13 as a member of the legendary Indianapolis funk band The Diplomatics.
In the '70s Stepp toured the world as a member of the iconic soul group The Spinners.
In the '90s, Stepp opened a successful recording studio and composed award-winning commercial jingles for local and national clients. Stepp's many contributions to arts and culture have been recognized by both the city of Indianapolis and the United States Congress. At age 64 Stepp remains an active participant in the local music scene, playing frequent gigs as a member of the rock band Flying Toasters and crafting funky smooth jazz with his own Steppin' Out Band.
Without question, Rodney Stepp is an important and widely respected figure in Indianapolis music. But some of his greatest moments as a musician and songwriter remain unheard and completely unknown to the majority of his colleagues and fans.
Enter The Stepp Treasures, a new series of archival releases.
The first volume of The Stepp Treasures was issued in April of 2016 and features a grab bag of unreleased '90s era demos cut in the new jack swing style. Future volumes will feature material from his work in gospel music and selections from his many songwriting collaborations with Joon Walker. The Stepp Treasures series will culminate with the first ever release of two never-before-heard albums by Stepp's late '70s Midwest funk supergroup Rapture.
From 1978 to 1981, Rapture was a force to be reckoned with in Indianapolis music, wowing audiences with their dynamic live performances and superbly written original material. They were a band poised on the brink of artistic greatness and stardom when personal disagreements caused the group to disintegrate from within.
Stepp and I sat for two long-ranging interviews about his body of work. During our first conversation, he told me Rapture was "probably one of the top five groups in the U.S. that never made it." After he played me a few tracks from Rapture's two aborted LPs, I'm inclined to agree. Rapture's music recalls the best moments from soul superstars like Earth, Wind and Fire and Parliament-Funkadelic.
Almost 40 years after the original sessions were recorded, Stepp is understandably excited to finally share Rapture's music with the public.
The release of the Rapture LPs closes the book on a long mystery, too. The Rapture sessions were assumed lost for nearly two decades, until the tapes mysteriously appeared on Stepp's front porch, packed inside an unmarked box. To this day Stepp has no idea how the tapes arrived there, or who left them.
In this Q&A, Stepp will tell the tale of Rapture's rise and fall for the first time as we examine his incredible legacy in music.
The Attucks Years
NUVO: Attucks is famous for the dozens of great musicians the school has produced. That was partially cultivated by Russell Brown, who was one of the great music educators there. Was he still part of the music program when you attended Attucks?
Oh, yes! He couldn't keep me out of the music room. [laughs] Russell would be like, "Okay Rodney, you know you got to go to class!"
I graduated in 1969. I was part of the Marching Tigers. Boy, that band! Attucks' marching band was something. Not only musically, but performance-wise. And Mr. Brown ... what can you say, man? Just the best. A caring teacher and educator, and that's the way most of the teachers at Attucks were. They were all loving and caring people and they wanted the kids to excel.
NUVO: Did you grew up around the Avenue neighborhood?
Actually I grew up on Brooks Street. You'll probably notice that my publishing company and in fact my first recording studio was called Brooks Street Music. That was in tribute to the hood, so to speak. I was actually a block and a half from Attucks. The back of the Attucks football field was on Brooks Street, and that's where the Fall Creek YMCA was. That was a historical part of Indianapolis. I was blessed to be a part of that neighborhood.
NUVO: You started as a musician at a young age. You were part of a funk group called The Diplomatics. Am I right that you were 13 years old when you started with that band?
Actually, we started when we were 12 years old. They say when you get your first paycheck you turn professional, and, well, we got our first paycheck when I was 13. We started as The Diplomats, but we had to record as The Diplomatics because we couldn't license The Diplomats name. There was a group in Washington D.C. that had already trademarked that name. So when we came out with that first recording "Hum Bug," which was on Herb Miller's Lamp Records label, we added the "ics" to the name. We still performed as The Diplomats, but the recording came out as The Diplomatics.
NUVO: How did you get this band together at 12 years old and what kind of venues were you playing? I can't imagine you were playing nightclubs at age 12.
We were. We were extremely blessed. First of all, we all lived in the neighborhood. All the musicians, except for one, was from the neighborhood. We started practicing in our garages. We'd go from our guitarist's garage, Jerry Miller on 1233 Fall Creek to be exact, to my garage at 1235 Brooks Street. Then, in the winter, we'd sometimes rehearse at the drummer's house. I tell you man, it was just a beautiful thing for it to happen in the neighborhood like that.
What branched us out was a group of four young men called Designated Productions: Guy Russell, Fred Thompson, Rudy Smith and Bo Ramsey. Those four guys were very instrumental in not only cultivating our career, but growing us up. They taught us a lot about the music industry. As a matter of fact, Rudy was the cousin of Billy Henderson from The Spinners.
Designated used to drive us, pick us up and take us to the gigs. Our parents trusted them. We were playing clubs like the 20 Grand, The Pink Poodle, we played all the Masonic halls and lodges. All this was between the ages of 13 and 15. But we were chaperoned and they would not let us mingle with the crowd. You come out onstage and entertain, then you're back to the dressing room. [laughs] Of course, I have to admit we were young men and we'd sneak out of the dressing room here and there to get a peek at what these adults were doing.
NUVO: Had The Jackson 5 hit by that point? Was there some hope The Diplomatics would follow in their wake?
They had hit and a lot of people compared us to The Jackson 5. We were a complete band where everybody played an instrument and sang. We did choreography with our instruments. We were a unique group. We had the uniforms and outfits. We'd go to the Army and Navy surplus store and buy the big white bell bottoms. Then we'd go to Harry Levinson's or somewhere and get the glitter-type shirts. The Designated would do all of that for us. Then as we progressed they started having our outfits tailor-made, as we were making more and more money. That band should have made it. We just felt like Motown went to Gary first! [laughs]
NUVO: That's a good way to put it. You mentioned earlier that The Diplomatics' sole 45 release was recorded for Herb Miller's Lamp Records label. Whenever I'm trying to explain to people what Lamp was all about, I always say it was kind of like Indy's version of Motown. Of course, Lamp never got that big, but it was the main place where local R&B, soul and funk talent would go to get their music released during the late '60s. What was it like working with Herb Miller?
It was a great experience. Herb was a pioneer. He was a fireman, that was his day gig. But he was motivated by music. I remember the first time that The Diplomats played behind The Vanguards. ... That was another thing, we played behind a lot of groups like Henry and Josephine, The Sentimentals, The Roulettes, Alan King and The Pearls, There were all kinds of groups here back then. We were one of the bands of choice to play behind these people. I know we'll get into this later, but that's how we got discovered at such a young age by The Spinners, The Dells, The O'Jays and a whole lot of other groups. We had a chance to play behind all of those groups through Designated Productions.
We recorded our song "Hum Bug" for Lamp at Ohmit Recording Studio. I think it was just a four track studio at the time. We recorded live. That was our first time recording in a studio, and of course I'll never forget that experience to this day. I thank Herb for sending us down the right path.
NUVO: Am I correct that The Diplomatics eventually morphed into Jazzie Cazzie and The Seven Sounds, or were those two completely different groups?
We morphed. We added some new members, a bigger horn section.
At one time we had a five-piece horn section in Jazzie Cazzie. That was the last version of the The Diplomats band and it was out of sight.
NUVO: Why the name change?
Well, we were having problems with our name. Every time we got ready to make a record, somebody would file some injunction. Even against The Diplomatics.
They started calling me Jazzie Cazzie, I think it was Lonnie Williams, the guitar player, who started it. Lonnie started calling me Jazzie Cazzie and the next thing you know somebody said, "Let's call ourselves Jazzie Cazzie and The Seven Sounds."
But guess what? When we got ready to record we couldn't use Seven Sounds.
NUVO: It was already taken?
It was already taken because of Harvey Scales and The Seven Sounds. We couldn't use Seven Sounds! (laughs) We were like "Oh my God, let's just call it Jazzie Cazzie and The Eight Sounds!" That's what we did and that's why the record of "Young Girl" and "Soul City" says The Eight Sounds.
NUVO: In 2003 the California label Stones Throw reissued The Diplomatics "Hum Bug." That reissue brought your music to a new generation of listeners and gave the music its widest distribution thus far. Original copies of those records you made in high school are in demand by collectors all over the world. The Jazzie Cazzie 45 has sold for nearly $1,000 on the collectors' market. How do you feel about the Stones Throw reissue and the continued interest in those records?
At first it was kind of unbelievable. I was like, "Why do you want that?" But then I read up on Stones Throw and saw their largest market was overseas. Having had the opportunity to go overseas, especially in Europe, I know they love R&B and Black music. They just love it. So I could kind of understand how all these records that may have only been known locally could go overseas and blow up. I was like what the heck, what do we have to lose. If people can listen to something we did almost 50 years ago, go for it. I love it!
During the mid-1970s Rodney Stepp embarked on what remains likely the most significant chapter in his music career, a four year stint as keyboardist for international soul superstars The Spinners. Stepp traveled around the world performing with The Spinners, even appearing at the legendary Zaire 74 concert in Kinshasa, Zaire as part of the build-up to Muhammad Ali's infamous "Rumble in the Jungle" match against George Foreman.
Stepp's contributions to The Spinners' sound earned him major notoriety in the music industry, but his desire to explore his own musical impulses eventually led Stepp back to his Indianapolis home.
NUVO: We've talked about the legendary Spinners from Detroit, Michigan who recorded timeless soul music classics like "I'll Be Around," "It's A Shame," "Rubberband Man," "Could It Be I'm Falling in Love" and so many other great hits. The Spinners were a big part of your life. You were The Spinners' keyboardist and assistant music director for several years. Take us from playing in Indianapolis with The Diplomatics and Jazzie Cazzie to joining one of the biggest soul music groups in history.
I was in school and I laid out for a semester. When I laid out I got a notice from the draft board of the U.S. Army. I left in April and did a 21-month stint for the army. The timing was perfect. I got out in January of '74 and as soon as I got out I registered back to school at IUPUI and I got a job at Indiana Bell. And two weeks after I got out of the Army I got a call to go audition with The Spinners.
I went to Detroit. My cousin Bill Simmons who is a member of Midnight Star drove me there as a matter of fact. We drove to Detroit and I auditioned for my "second father" Maurice King who was The Spinners' musical conductor.
Here again, I have to talk about my education at Attucks and Russell Brown. Reading music paid off. Maurice King put a chart in front of me and I read that chart like nothing. He walked out of the room and I'm thinking, "Uh-oh, I'm not going to get this gig." But he came back in the room and gave me another piece of music. He was like, "You've memorized this. They gave you this."
So he gave me this real hard piece. I'll never forget it, it was called "Fascinating Rhythm." It was something The Spinners opened up with. I looked at it and started playing. Mr. King looked at me and said, "So, you want this job?" The rest was history.
I learned so much from Maurice King. He taught me how to direct, I just became his right hand man so to speak. When he wasn't there, I became the man. I would've never been able to see the world the way I saw it if it hadn't have been for The Spinners.
NUVO: Speaking of seeing the world: You played with The Spinners in Zaire in 1974 as part of the festivities surrounding Muhammad Ali's Rumble in the Jungle fight.
Yes, that is true. Two movies were produced from that, When We Were Kings and also Soul Power. I'm in both movies! [laughs]
NUVO: And you played that concert alongside Bill Withers and many other extraordinary artists. What was that experience like?
Oh man, the Jazz Crusaders, Bill Withers, Sister Sledge and Ben E. King. It was phenomenal. That has to be the top of all the major concerts I've had the chance to do. Zaire? Nothing compares.
From the problems we had getting out of New York on the planes because of James Brown — he wanted to take everything but the kitchen sink on those cargo planes and they were telling him it was too much weight. I think we were grounded almost 16 hours before our flights left New York. But once we got there, oh man, the people. I remember we took a bunch of footballs and soccer balls with us. The Spinners band, we were socialites. We went out into the villages and I remember there was a grass hut. We have bars, right? Well, this grass hut was a bar where they sold beer and wine and whatever. There were some kids that came along so we started throwing footballs with them. They didn't even know what a football was. To see the poverty, it made me realize there are a lot of things in the world we take for granted. All of those things made us better people and made us appreciate our art and why we were doing it. We started becoming very humble young men at an early age and the travels did that to us. From Japan to the Philippines, there's hardly a place I haven't been and it was all because of our music. This little snotty-nosed kid from Crispus Attucks High School. Who would've ever thought?
NUVO: Was that an easy transition for you? It seems like you went straight from playing around Indy with your high school friends to touring the world with The Spinners.
The transition for me came relatively easy, because it was in my blood. I was an entertainer. I'm not going to say there weren't times in the beginning where I was nervous at first. My second gig with The Spinners was at Madison Square Garden. Ashford & Simpson were the headliners and it was Graham Central Station's debut. That was their first gig, period. Being a Sly fan I was out there watching everything. That was my second gig with The Spinners and from there it only got better.
NUVO: Is there a particular track you recorded with The Spinners where they really shined a light on your talents?
Oh yeah, "Mighty Love" from the 1975 live album. I'll never forget that concert at Cherry Hill, New Jersey in the Latin Casino. That's where my solos actually started. They told us we were recording a live album and Philippé said to me "Rod, you know how you doodle around every once in a while? Go on ahead and go for it." He didn't say anything about it to Thom Bell or anyone else. Me and Philippé just started cutting loose.
What can I say? That solo put me on a new level in the industry. I started getting phone calls to play clavinet or organ on this or that record. I played sessions with the Motown writer Eddie Holland, Fred Wesley from James Brown's band and a whole lot of others.
NUVO: Your talent also started attracting attention from other major soul acts. I understand you were offered a position as keyboardist for The Jacksons.
In 1976, The Spinners were playing the Painters Mill Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland. It was a theatre in the round. The Jacksons were following us. The Spinners had just broken Tom Jones' attendance record for seven straight days playing two shows a night. The Jacksons came to our final show there on a Saturday night. They were starting their engagement that next Monday at the venue.
They happened to see me, and they had been looking for a Black musician who kind of fit in with their style. At the time I was a slender young man, with big hair. They asked me to stay over and I met the family and their musical director. He told me, "Man, you'd be perfect for this."
We talked about a week later and they made me an offer. I took that offer back to my group The Spinners. The sad part of this time period is that this is when The Jacksons were being sued by Motown. The Jacksons were leaving Motown and Jermaine wanted to leave the group because he was married to Berry Gordy's daughter Hazel.
The Spinners' entourage kind of talked me out of going. The Jacksons made me a great offer and I was ready for the challenge. But Thom Bell and the production team behind The Spinners started offering more writing opportunities and they made me all these promises. "We're going to take a good look at you and start using you more," and blah, blah. They made it make sense to stay. "If you go with The Jacksons you'll have to prove yourself all over again."
About a year later I'm saying to myself, "You dummy!" Especially knowing the person I was, I was the guy that ate, slept, lived and breathed music. Knowing the kind of workaholic Michael was, I think it would've only been a matter of time before the chemistry would've connected and maybe I would've been in there on the ground floor.
You know I turned that opportunity down to stay with The Spinners, but I ended up leaving The Spinners two years later. I was disillusioned. Nothing they promised happened.
NUVO: Was your desire to start writing more and producing what inspired you to leave the Spinners and form Rapture?
That helped, but Rapture was inevitable. Rapture was destined to be. I never saw myself as just a backup musician for this group or that group. I always felt my time would come.
What really made me leave The Spinners was when Philippé Wynne left. I'll never forget his last gig at the Circle Star Theatre on New Year's Eve of 1976. On January 1 of 1977 he was no longer part of the group. But I was blessed. I was with The Spinners during the best years of their career. That period between 1974 and 1978 was really hot, and I was there for that. You know, the Grammy awards, the big venues, the festivals with 100,000 people, Zaire, Radio City Music Hall, Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, hosting The Midnight Special, appearing on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, on all the major talk shows — everything. I could go on and on.
As Stepp's time with The Spinners came to an end, he began focusing all of his creative energy and resources into his own group, Rapture. Featuring some of the greatest soul players in the Midwest scene, Rapture appeared to be destined for music stardom until internal issues collapsed the band's dreams. Here, for the first time, Stepp gives an inside account on the rise and fall of Rapture.
NUVO: Was Rapture an Indianapolis-based band?
It was an Indianapolis-based band, but by way of Chicago. I had a good friend in Chicago at the time named Alfonzo Surrett who had been working with Curtis Mayfield and Al Hudson. Alfonzo and I had always said we wanted to do something together. So we started messing around and I started putting together the musicians I wanted to be with. So it was me and Rodney Vorhis who played bass with me in The Diplomats and The Spinners, and we added Lonnie Williams, Greg Russell who played for After 7, and Harry Eaton who'd been with Betty Wright.
My people were handpicked. My horn section was Jay Majors who'd been with The Diplomats on trombone, Herman Walker who was with Amnesty, and then a guy named Michael Jones out of Cincinnati who got turned on to us by Midnight Star. We had a singer by the name of Tony Hayes that had a falsetto that was out of sight. That brother was just bad. And Lonnie Williams, I used to tell people that Lonnie was Prince before I knew Prince. That's how phenomenal this guy was.
NUVO: Am I correct that Rapture started as a recording project, not a live band?
Rapture started as a studio project. Alfonzo Surrett and I decided we needed to get some music out. We said, "We're songwriters, that's us." We started putting things together piecemeal. On the first session, the horn section and string section came from the Chicago symphony. We came in with our rhythm section and did the vocals. A guy by the name of Jesus Wayne in Chicago wrote a lot of the arrangements.
That's how we started. But, eventually, I said, "I want to play." That's when we started getting the horn section and that's how Rapture was born. Of course pressure started mounting because we were rehearsing and recording, rehearsing and recording, but not playing a lot because I was always gone with The Spinners. When I'd come back to Indy after touring six months with The Spinners, the guys in Rapture would start putting pressure on me. "Man, what you gonna do? Are you gonna come play with us, or are you gonna stay with The Spinners?" That's when the pressure started coming. So I tried to do them both. I'm trying to keep my meal ticket and then invest that money into Rapture. But there came a time when I had to make a choice, so I made the choice to leave The Spinners because I could see their ship was sinking.
NUVO: So what happened after you made these initial recordings in Chicago?
We were playing a lot of showcases. Do you remember when Earth, Wind and Fire did that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band movie? We were the band that played at the New York premiere party for the movie. They showcased us there.
We were killing audiences everywhere we played. The group was a total success. People could not believe the sound and musicianship of Rapture. We were so complete. We were not afraid to play our original music. We felt like we had good material and people would start requesting our original material when we'd play. We had a song we started closing our shows with. It was an original called "The Message." It was written by our trumpet player Herman Walker. We started closing our shows with that song, and at home here especially, we'd see tears in people's eyes. We're performing this last song of the night and they're listening to the words. They're not dancing, they're holding hands. It was unreal.
One thing I can say about that group is that we took chances. We moved to New York and lived with 12 people on the fourth floor of a bungalow. Twelve of us there struggling in New York. We were playing in Connecticut and Jersey. Eventually we were picked up by Earth, Wind and Fire's production company and they had us go out to L.A.
NUVO: Rapture made a second series of recordings while the group was in L.A., correct?
Some of that was recorded in California and some here in Indianapolis before we left for California.
NUVO: What was the rationale behind this second batch of recordings? For whatever reason the tapes you made in Chicago hadn't scored Rapture a record deal. Were you thinking you might have more success if you changed up the sound?
No, the first batch of recordings were different because it was basically session players. It wasn't a group at that time. It was more like a studio thing. We didn't have that identifiable group sound.
So that second batch of recordings really captured Rapture as a band. That's who we were, that mixture of P-Funk, Earth, Wind and Fire and Kool and The Gang all mixed together. But basically we got shelved. Really I can't even say we were shelved because we were never signed. But we were on the verge of being signed, and that's when all heck broke out. The group broke up in L.A.
NUVO: So what exactly went wrong in California for Rapture?
Frustration. It's hard to tell a group of hungry musicians to just be patient. Frustration led to disagreements, which led to disappointments. There were a lot of decisions made in Los Angeles that I honestly believe every member of Rapture will never forget.
You know when you're right there on the edge of making it? We were right there. We could taste it, smell it, touch it and see it. We were on our way and we let a dispute get out of hand and it caused a major breakup within the group.
My heart was broken and I said, "Let's go on back home to Indianapolis and see what happens." But the group just wasn't the same. That was the first time in my life that I thought I was done with music forever.
NUVO: That's understandable. You'd left a very successful gig with The Spinners and invested everything you had into Rapture.
Right. The demise of Rapture affected many of my future decisions. I vowed that I would never play in a band again. I was done.
Then around 1983 my cousin Bill Simmons, who was in Midnight Star, calls me and says, "Hey, Rod, we got Babyface, we got L.A. Reid. We're putting together a group called The Deele and we'd like for you to be the keyboard player."
I immediately said no! There was no thought, and no reaction. I was done. I was working at the post office at the time carrying mail. It was just a bad time for me. It's not that I wanted to say no. I just couldn't stand another disappointment.
NUVO: I get the feeling that you regard the music you recorded with Rapture as sort of the magnum opus of your career as an artist.
That's hard to say because I feel like I have so much left in me. I would put it a little differently: maybe some of the greatest songs I ever wrote were never heard. Now because of technology we can give them to the people. Maybe it's an older format, but it's about the quality of the lyrics, and the melodies. But I want to feel that my best work is yet to come. [sighs]
You know, it's sad but sweet, man. I feel deep down in my heart that God doesn't make any mistakes and I have to accept everything that has happened. But Rapture was supposed to make it. It truly was. Rapture was probably one of the top five groups in the U.S. that never made it. We were unsung.
NUVO: Does it bother you that one of the highest points of your music career has remained completely unknown to the public?
Honestly it doesn't, and it never has. Now is my opportunity to let people know. It's like anything man, I've had a good run. I've had a good season. If I walked away from it today I have no regrets. None whatsoever.
NUVO: To add some major intrigue to this story, I understand the Rapture tapes were assumed to be lost for many years until they unexpectedly came back into your life.
That's right, and I don't know who had them. Maybe it was a band member, or the family of a band member. But I had no idea where the tapes were, especially the stuff we recorded in Chicago.
I went out to my porch one day to get the mail and there was this box. It had all kinds of Rapture tapes in it. There were cassette tapes, reel-to-reel tapes, two inch reels and the whole nine yards. We've tried to digitize everything and get it back together for The Stepp Treasures release. There's maybe only two or three songs where the tape is so oxidized that the music is gone.
So, now I have all this music. And I feel like before my life is over, whether you want to or not you're going to get a chance to hear it. I'm going to give you the opportunity to hear it, buy it or throw it away. [laughs] Whatever you want to do with it.
Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. After recovering from the deep disappointment of Rapture's breakup, Stepp eventually returned to making music. He also became more active behind the scenes, opening a successful recording studio, producing and composing award winning jingles for advertisements.
NUVO: You began getting more involved behind the scenes in music during the '90s, correct?
In 1991 I opened my first studio. We were a hot success very quickly because we were creative. We came up with different stuff. Instead of your normal little jingle, we came up with your hit song jingle that people would hear and start singing. The Indiana and Kentucky Lottery were two of our original clients. Then came Hardees, Eli Lilly, the Pacers, ESPN — you name it. We were doing stuff everywhere. We wrote the theme song for the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. We got on the fast track very quickly.
NUVO: Mr. Stepp, you've maintained a successful career in music through six decades of activity. Any advice you'd want to share with young artists looking to devote their lives to this craft?
Be passionate about what you do. That sums it up. You've got to love it, live it, eat it, breathe it. If you don't have a passion for this, if it's about everything but the love for the music, then something is wrong.
Special thanks to Patricia Reese Maryam for making this interview possible.
Listen to rare Stepp tracks on WFYI
Starting this October, the radio edition of Cultural Manifesto will begin airing twice weekly on 90.1 WFYI Public Radio: Wednesday evenings at 9, with an encore presentation Saturday nights at 10 p.m.
Tune in this week for a full hour of music and conversation with Rodney Stepp. I'll be sharing tracks from Stepp's work with The Spinners, The Diplomatics, and Jazzie Cazzie. I'll also be featuring the world premiere broadcast of music from Rodney Stepp's unreleased Rapture tapes.
The unreleased Rapture tapes reveal a band that excelled in every aspect of their art. Don't miss the first ever broadcast of Rapture's music on the radio edition of Cultural Manifesto airing October 5 at 9 p.m. and October 8 at 10 p.m. on 90.1 WFYI Public Radio.