If you know Minnesota music, you know the Steele Family. Two sisters – Jearlyn and Jevetta – and three brothers – JD, Fred and Billy. Raised in a gospel singing family in Indiana, they migrated one by one to the Twin Cities. (A third sister, Janice, lives in California.)
The Minnesota Women’s Press sat down with the Steele sisters in March to listen to their take on singing with each other – as sisters and as best friends.
Minnesota Women’s Press: What is it like to be sisters who sing together? Do you think because you’re sisters, it brought something extra to the music? Or did the music help build the sister relationship?
Jearlyn Steele: I think the music helped build the relationship. Jevetta is five years younger than I am. We really cultivated our friendship after I got married at age 21. After she moved to Minnesota, my brothers said we needed to started singing as a family group again. When Jevetta got here, we felt whole.
When I sing alone, it’s fine. I enjoy what I do. I feel so blessed to be able to sing and make a living at it and share my gifts with people. I love it. But when I am with her – ohhhhhh, I am so happy!
I will never forget the first time she sang with me on “[A] Prairie Home [Companion].” I was in tears afterward. I just looked at her and said, “I cannot tell you how great it was.”
Jevetta Steele: I like being her sidekick. I am the little sister, and I get reduced to that job real quick – and I’m really OK with it. They let me know: I’m baby sister.
There is something special about our sisterhood, because we are best friends as well. There’s a trust factor that comes into play. It doesn’t matter if I’m not feeling well; she will compensate for me. Same thing for her. When Jearlyn was not feeling well on stage one night, I stood next to her and she put her arm around me. People think we’re just interacting [on stage], but it’s also a prop, a brace. If I’m having a tough day, we figure out a way to take care of each other. I think that’s what it is. I am always cared for, on and offstage.
MWP: How do you know when you need to prop up each other or fill in the notes?
Jevetta: We talk all the time, before or at the gig or on stage: “Help me out.” We have signals that we need to switch parts.
Jearlyn: We can switch in the middle of a line – she’ll go to soprano and I’ll go to alto. If someone needs to switch, we switch, no matter what.
MWP: What is that special bond or connection that can be developed as sisters?
Jevetta: My sister chose me and I chose her. Our relationship is really unique. I have friends who said they have sisters, but they are not close like that. I can’t blame it on genetics. It is our choice to be friends.
Jearlyn: That’s so true. I’ve said to Jevetta, “I need you to know that I am going to grow old with you.” It’s so much more than a friendship and laughing and talking and hanging out together. We have a special spiritual bond as well. I really admire her spiritual walk, her faith, her constant prayer life. She walks the talk. I’m the older sister, but she has been a great example.
L-R, above: Jearlyn Steele and Jevetta Steele; portraits courtesy of The Steeles.
Below: Sisters Jearlyn and Jevetta Steele sing regularly on the “A Prairie Home Companion” radio program. (Photo courtesy of PHC)
MWP: Music has the positive qualities of rhythm and harmony. What about times of disharmony?
Jevetta: There are times when we disagree and it can get heated. We are tenacious women.
Jearlyn: I get on her nerves because I talk too much. I am a radio talk-show host. I love to talk. Sometimes I’ll say, “Are you OK?” “Yeah.” “How come you’re not talking?” She goes: “You are talking.” “I’m talking too much, aren’t I?” “Yeah.” It’s just the sweetest thing.
Jevetta: We fight. We have different ideas about business and relationships and everything. We can have some knock-down drag-outs. She gets on me about taking better care of myself.
Jearlyn: But [the fights] don’t last long. You get past it. It’s that proverb: “You never let the sun go down … ” We’ll call each other the next day, and we know we’re good. We can agree to disagree. She does not start the fight; it’s usually me.
Jevetta: Sometimes we have very different opinions. She’ll say, “I am the older sister, you need to listen to me.”
Jearlyn: Didn’t you get that memo?
MWP: Is there something about being sisters that allows you to anticipate or hear differently than when you are singing with someone else?
Jevetta: We don’t have those kind of parameters on stage where I can’t act on my intuition. When you’re working with other people, you can’t do that. Even if they are falling, they don’t want you to rescue them. If I’m in concert with somebody, that is their moment and some can get offended. “Why did you step into my light?” That is never a question with us. It is not my light, it is our light. We are so much clearer about being better together.
Jearlyn: We are so close that we can walk into a room together, and I will be thinking of a song and I will start singing the line, and she will start singing the line at the exact same moment, in the exact same key. It’s happened for so long now, that we stopped trying to figure it out.
MWP: What kinds of music would be your preference to sing?
Jearlyn: I love pop music, but my foundation is gospel. I sing it a lot.
Jevetta: Gospel is my favorite, but I do everything … classical, jazz, opera.
Jearlyn: She thinks all of us can do anything.
Jevetta: You can! You could sing the phone book.
MWP: You two sisters have daughters. What do you think about daughters and friendship?
Jearlyn: Our daughters know us as Mom and Mom 2 and Mom 3 (with our mom). We have parented our daughters together. I cannot tell you how integral that has been. Our daughters are so close, even with 15 years between them.
Teach your daughters how to love one other. Our father taught us how to love our mother. Our mother taught us how to love our father. And they taught us how to love each other. Some people think that it’s automatic that if you’re in the same family, under the same roof, you’re going to love each other. But just think if everyone was taught how to love, the difference it would make.
Be there for each other. My mother used to say, “Family is family, you’re always there for family. If you’re mad at each other, get over it . No one will ever be able to take that away.”
And we have cherished that.