As Jevetta Steele announces their names, her siblings take the stage one by one, and face the audience.
“J.D. … Fred … Jearlyn … Jevetta … and Billy Steele. Lovingly known as the Steeles.”
Except the stage is Jevetta’s spacious Golden Valley living room. The imaginary audience is a giant picture window. In place of Billy’s usual grand piano is a portable keyboard perched on the table where Jevetta will host 65 family members on Christmas Eve.
“Joy bells are ringing on Christmas Day.”
Jevetta sings the opening line, then turns to address her sister and three brothers.
“When we get to the instrumental section, we all turn this way,” she instructs. “Then our kids join us, and we turn forward again. We finish the song and take a bow. Put your microphone in the mike stand.”
These homey sessions are an annual winter ritual for the Steeles, whose holiday show is now in its 35th year.
There are weeks and weeks of rehearsals. A few on an actual stage. Eventually some with the band. And finally run-throughs with the 10 Steele children/cousins who will collaborate on one number after they arrive from Atlanta, Los Angeles, Boston and points elsewhere.
With two concerts this weekend at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, the five Steele siblings have been working on a new holiday program since summer.
Jevetta is the shaper of the show’s concept as well as its choreographer, lighting and stage designer, procurer of the women’s stage outfits, accountant, payroll clerk, lost-and-found coordinator — the Jevetta of all trades.
“The visionary,” Fred proclaims.
“We just follow along,” Jearlyn points out.
On a recent afternoon, the Steeles sat around Jevetta’s dining table to talk about the show. The conversation and jabs went back and forth as their mom, Sallie Birdsong — who has six children, 17 grandchildren, 27 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild — soaked up every comment with a proud and knowing smile.
One of Jevetta’s young grandsons was visiting because his dad, the Steeles’ drummer, had a gig that night in Duluth. It’s all in the family.
Real logs were aglow in the fireplace. A plate of fruit, cheese and crackers was on the kitchen counter for nibbling. Billy arrived late because he had to participate at a funeral for one of his congregants at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in north Minneapolis.
Jevetta kicked off the planning in August by asking each of her siblings for 10 songs they want to sing. Tunes with the most votes — whether Steele originals or yule classics (the family has recorded four holiday albums together) — make the list.
“J.D. puts the [show] together based on those songs,” Jevetta said.
“It’s maddening,” observed Jearlyn.
“Then I try to write new songs,” J.D. piped in.
“And if it’s not new songs, it’s new arrangements of stuff we do already,” Fred pointed out. “We’re always changing the delivery of the songs.”
“And as our knees get older, less choreography,” J.D. said with a straight face. The oldest at 67, he had both knees replaced last summer.
“I danced myself out of my knee last year,” Jearlyn reminded everyone. “Ambulance and all. The theater called it. I couldn’t walk. I bruised my knee, and it got worse and worse. Jevetta kept saying ‘Dance harder.’ ”
“No, I never use that word,” Jevetta countered. “Dance bigger.”
So it goes.
Each Steele has responsibilities for this annual show.
Billy, the youngest at 55, is the music director. Fred, 65, handles vocal arrangements and the sound system. J.D. is the creative director, overseeing the writing of new material and the show’s flow and rehearsal schedule. Jearlyn, 61, lords over the contracts and shares communications and marketing responsibilities with J.D. Jevetta, 57, is in charge of the women’s wardrobe.
The show starts coming together in September and October, though their mother starts playing Christmas songs in August.
While she’s not onstage, the matriarch is involved. Sometimes Sallie cooks and invites the Steeles over for rehearsal. She stores costumes from Christmases past in the basement of her north Minneapolis home.
“That’s where they go to die,” Jearlyn joked, launching into an impression of the costumes talking: “ ‘I’ll be back in a decade.’ ”
Fred handles the guys’ outfits.
“I trust Fred,” J.D. opined.
“Shots fired,” jabbed Jevetta, who picks out clothes for herself and Jearlyn.
Fred shops on the internet, but at Macy’s and Nordstrom, too.
“I’m the online girl,” Jevetta interjected. “I just don’t want to see us [our outfits] sitting in the audience.”
The Steeles broke into laughter.
“The outfits have been pretty good,” J.D. noted. “We had one fail — East Indian outfits.”
“You didn’t like it?” Jevetta said with dagger eyes. “You sure took it to India and wore it. I saw pictures.”
Crosstown from the Jacksons
The Steeles grew up in Gary, Ind., singing gospel music while the Jacksons were doing R&B across town.
In 1973, their father, J.D. Steele Sr., a union representative at the steel mills, was killed in a hit-and-run accident in front of their house. At the time, J.D. and Fred were away at Purdue University.
Three years later, J.D. was transferred to Minneapolis by a clothing-store chain where he worked. Soon, the rest of the Steeles moved to Minnesota.
In the early ’80s, they were all over the Twin Cities, singing gospel music. They got a big break appearing at the Guthrie Theater in a new musical, “Gospel at Colonus” (starring Morgan Freeman), which would take them to Broadway and around the world. (J.D. has appeared in it 1,376 times, including this summer in New York’s Central Park.)
Jevetta sparkled on the Oscar-nominated song “Calling You” for the 1987 movie “Bagdad Café.” The Steeles worked with Prince on the 1990 movie “Graffiti Bridge,” made a 1993 album for Elektra and have self-released several other records.
A sixth sibling, the Rev. Janice Steele, isn’t part of the group; she lived in California for years but is now pastor at Community United Church of Christ in St. Paul Park.
The next generation
The Steeles have staged their Christmas program all over the Twin Cities — from the Ordway and Orchestra Hall to the Guthrie and the Hennepin Center for the Arts.
They’re already looking at next year, in fact. They’ve landed a grant to undertake a six-city Minnesota holiday tour to Alexandria, Detroit Lakes and other locations.
Minnesota Public Radio is presenting this year’s show at the Fitzgerald and helping with the marketing. “It’s a very competitive market for Christmas shows,” J.D. noted.
The Steeles got a break because this year’s schedule doesn’t conflict with the multinight shows staged by the Blenders, the New Standards and Sounds of Blackness.
That also helps Billy when putting together the band. While he relies on some family members — including drummer Kenyari Jackson, Jevetta’s son, and their cousin Chris Smith, a bassist who flies in from New York — the Steeles are known for working with the top players in town. Some have gone on to higher-profile gigs. Bassist Sonny Thompson and keyboardist Tommy Barbarella wound up with Prince, while guitarists Mike Scott, Dave Barry and Cory Wong went on to play with Justin Timberlake, Janet Jackson and CBS’ “Late Night With Stephen Colbert,” respectively.
This year the band includes guitarist George Parrish, who has worked with R&B singer Alexander O’Neal, and saxophonist Kenni Holmen, who has played with Prince and pianist Lorie Line.
“They all say they leave as better musicians after playing with the Steeles,” Billy boasts. “That’s because of Fred’s ear and Jearlyn’s mouth. Jearlyn hears all the bad notes and lets everyone know it; she tries to do it in the sweetest way.”
Every Steele is a target for ribbing. Except their children.
The next generation has been part of the show for more than two decades. “They’ve all grown into talented artists on their own,” J.D. says.
Singers, rappers, dancers and even a magician, Jearlyn’s son Michael Battle.
“We try to fuse them into the show as much as possible,” Jevetta points out, “so they’re more than ready to take over for us when we all stop.”