Despite family crisis, the singing Steeles return for annual Christmas concert

  • Article by: JON BREAM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 2, 2004 - 10:00 PM

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Jearlyn Steele was living in Los Angeles. J.D. and Jevetta Steele were performing in Europe for four months and then in New York City for two weeks. But logistical complications weren't why Saturday's 20th annual Christmas concert by the Steeles -- the Twin Cities' famous singing siblings -- has been their most trying show to put together.

Last month, their 87-year-old stepfather, Lee Birdsong, went to the emergency room and was told he had internal bleeding and would die before the night was over. Not only did he hang on, but he eventually went home, started eating his favorite foods and even answered the phone. But as the Steeles reconvened to prepare their show and finish their third holiday CD, "A Christmas Celebration," their stepfather of 27 years began to fade.

So the singers huddled around Pops' bed and sang. He passed away Monday.

In times of crisis, the Steeles find strength in one another. They did it when their father was killed in an accident in front of their house in Gary, Ind., in 1973. They did it when each of the five singers, who relocated to Minnesota in the 1980s, went through a divorce.

"We are truly each other's source and resource for support and love and foundation, second only to God," Jevetta says.

Says Fred: "Our parents taught us: No matter what happens, you're family. And you've got to stay together."

Billy, the youngest, says the resolve comes from their mother. "She's always shown us great strength," he says, "so we can't be out here being weak."

Like any siblings, the Steeles do argue. Fred recalled how his two brothers recently fought over the lyrics that J.D. wrote for Billy's music for a song for the new album. Billy thought it should be a religious piece, but J.D. penned romantic lyrics and titled the tune "What Do You Want for Christmas."

"I try not to be so preachy, but I want everybody to have a clear conscience about what we do," Billy said. "J.D. loves to do stuff with double-entendres. I wanted the song to be more Christmas-y, family, Jesus' birth or something. J.D. wrote a love song."

J.D. prevailed. He's the leader, the idea man, the Energizer bunny who makes things happen for the Steeles. All five make a living with music and entertainment. Yet neither the Steeles nor any of the individuals has an agent or a manager.

In the 1987 art-house movie hit "Bagdad Cafe," Jevetta sang "Calling You," which received an Oscar nomination. Both she and the Steeles have made albums for a major record label. But big-time commercial success has eluded the Steeles.

"Whenever you're able to make a living at what you love, then you've made it. That is success for me," Jevetta said. "We're respected in the industry -- internationally. Go on the Internet and put in our names; a résumé comes up in five languages."

Their careers have been more cobbled together than conventional. Twin Cities audiences don't see the Steeles singing in local clubs anymore because performances for out-of-town corporate meetings and parties pay more. Billy, who is the assistant music director of the Sounds of Blackness, once turned down a Sounds tour of Ghana for a more lucrative Steeles corporate gig just so he could pay his bills. In '93, the Steeles, at the 11th hour, bowed out of a European tour with Prince because the money wasn't right.

Family is a priority for each of the Steeles. This year, when Jevetta went to Spain for four months to appear in the new musical "Bagdad Cafe," she took her 6-year-old daughter (and homework) and her own mom.

Jearlyn spent the first 11 months of 2004 living in Los Angeles, setting up her son -- a 19-year-old magician who hosted the St. Paul-based PBS kids show "Dragonfly TV" for four years -- with an apartment, a manager and agents to pursue a show-biz career. She commuted to Minneapolis and elsewhere for her singing and speaking gigs.

Juggling schedules is a way of life for the Steeles -- even for the sixth sibling, Janice, who is pursuing a master's degree in theater in Sacramento. Because of school obligations, she hasn't been able to attend rehearsals for the Christmas show, but she'll fly in today and participate in one segment.

This fall, the Steeles have been so pressed for time that they actually turned a photo shoot for this story into an ad hoc hour-long rehearsal, singing along to their CD. They have been preoccupied with their individual responsibilities and attending to their stepfather.

"He's been absolutely incredible through all of this," Fred said of Pops. "He's really teaching all of us a little different way to deal with death, where faith really becomes important. He's an incredible individual. We're going to miss him a lot."

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