J.D. Steele, producer-vocalist-songsmith, puts stardom to use, continuing his commitment to altruism with the upcoming musical fundraiser “I’ve Come Up from Down.”
Steele is famed for performing with his siblings as The Steeles, most notably premiering 1983’s The Gospel at Colonus, adapted from Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus.
Steele’s solo career encompasses a litany of accomplishments, including composing and arranging the soundtrack for Corrina, Corrina starring Whoopi Goldberg, and Damon Wayans’ Blankman, as well as staying steadily in demand as a musical director for theater productions.
He has also enjoyed traversing the globe to teach choral music to disadvantaged youngsters in, among other locales, Tanzania and Nairobi. In this spirit, the “I’ve Come Up from Down” fundraiser hits close to home.
“I’ve never been destitute on the street, but, yes, I’ve been down and, well, nearly out,” confided Steele. “I have been hungry — ate mayonnaise sandwiches. [There were] times I couldn’t pay rent; got kicked out of my apartment, had to crash on friends’ couches.” Refusing to lose, Steele made it through a Purdue University scholarship, determinedly embarking on a career.
He now gladly gives his son the kind of break he didn’t get coming up. “He can call and say, ‘Dad, would you put something in my bank account?’ That’s a good thing,” said Steele.
Giving back isn’t just a figure of speech to Steele. Accordingly, when Dignity Center, an ecumenical outreach ministry of Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church designed to help people in poverty, knocked on his door to raise funds, he couldn’t agree quickly enough. “I think back on hard times,” said Steele, “and when I see a person sitting on the corner with a sign, I might not have money in my pocket then and there, but I don’t ignore them and look away.
“My whole thing is, I wave and acknowledge the person. That humanizes them, lets them know you know [that] they matter.”
Discussing the Benefit and reflecting on his career, Steele (JDS) spoke with the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder (MSR) at Milda’s in North Minneapolis over chicken and waffles. An excerpt of the conversation appears below.
MSR: You just got back from reviving Colonus in New York. How was that? Did your brothers and sisters join you?
JD Steele: It was great. No, they couldn’t make it; the family wasn’t able to do it.
MSR: You enjoy, to say the least, a successful career. Not eating mayo sandwiches these days, that’s for sure.Even so, it had to be an experience working with Mavis Staples in 1993.
JDS: It was wonderful. When we were kids — me, my brothers and sisters — we opened for the Staple Singers. My father used to get us on these gospel shows. He called the promoter. We didn’t get paid, but it was exposure, opening for the Staples [and] Mahalia Jackson.
MSR: How’d recording with Mavis come about?
JDS: Prince asked me to produce vocal tracks for [Mavis’ CD] The Voice on his Paisley Park label. It’s a smokin’ album. I learned a lot from [someone] who’s been singing longer than I’ve been alive. She would come in the studio, “Hey, how you doin’? What’s goin’ on?” And she’d be so hoarse, I’d be like, how can she sing?
She’d leave, take 20 minutes, come back and sing her behind off. I’m like, “What’d you do?” She said, “I had to warm up.” I had never warmed up in my life. I do now. Ever since then, I warm up all my students and community choirs I work with. Everybody warms up.
MSR: This show is billed as “JD Steele and Friends presents…” Who’re the friends?
JDS: Tonia Hughes, for one, and she is the bomb! She keeps getting better every day. I don’t know how she does it. She’s somethin’ else.
MSR: Who else?
JDS: My brother Fred, he’s going to be sharing the stage. Without question, he’s a bad boy. Got this musician, Yonathan Pekure from Ethiopia. He’s a young, bad musician. So, he’s gonna be playing. And my nephew, Kenyari Jackson. He has become literally one of the best drummers in the country. Studied under Michael Bland and has just blossomed.
MSR: Care to say anything more?
JDS: Someone who works in the homeless advocates community said to me recently — a lady named Claudia Kittock — that she thinks we’re going to be the first community to eradicate homelessness. That it’s not just optimism. That’s looking at what’s going on in the Twin Cities.
She really believes this will be the first community to eradicate homelessness. That tells me something. The attitude [here] is so strong, stronger than New York City, than Los Angeles. My attitude is this has got to change. We have to do something.
J.D. Steele & Friends present “I’ve Come Up from Down, a Musical Celebration of Triumph Over Adversity,” Sept. 21, 7 pm at Westminster Presbyterian Church located at 1200 S. Marquette Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. For tickets, call 612-874-8892. $50. For more information, go to http://haumc.org/dignity.