The Steeles work hard to keep annual holiday concert fresh and new


The Steeles. Just say those words, and folks prick up their ears and want to know what these Twin Cities-based, nationally renowned and internationally accomplished performers — Jevetta, J.D., Billy, Jearlyn and Fred Steele — are doing next.

Accordingly, “An Acoustic Christmas with The Steeles” at the Fitzgerald Theater stage is a hot ticket. Every holiday season, the famous siblings turn the cavernous venue into their living room; and every year fans converge in droves to enjoy the occasion. It’s been that way the past 24 years.

Minnesota Public Radio presents “An Acoustic Christmas with The Steeles” on December 12 and 13, 8 pm at Fitzgerald Theater, 10 East Exchange Street, Saint Paul. Tickets are $38, $33 and $28 plus a $2.50 facility fee. Call the box office at 651-290-1200 for tickets or more information.

J.D., the event’s musical director, recalls, “We got started on doing the shows in 1983. The Cricket Theater’s artistic director, Bill Partland, asked us about doing a holiday run at their theater, which is now the Music Box.

We did about 24 shows, and it proved fairly successful.” Steele understates the case.

There’s no longer running, more popular annual hit for soul folk in either town.

The Steeles are saddled with something of a mixed blessing: how to do the same thing yet make it different. “A lot of people,” says J.D., “are familiar with the songs and want to hear their favorites. We try to make the show a little different each year with the set and lighting changes as well as arrangements and new songs. In addition, with our kids in the show, they keep getting bigger and better.”

You can count on The Steeles keeping the flavor fresh as they perform numbers from This Must Be Christmas, It’s Christmas and A Christmas Celebration and, as he said, they throw in a surprise or two.

One interesting twist is the program’s title, “An Acoustic Christmas.” Backing them up in the natural-sound outing is a fine lineup of musicians:

percussionist Daryl Boudreaux (Jody Watley, Sounds of Blackness), guitarist Dave Barry (Janet Jackson, Cher) and bassist Jeff Bailey (Lorie Line, Sara Renner). Billy Steele is on piano, and Jevetta Steele’s son, Kinjari Jackson, drums.

Billy comments, “The musicians playing with us are second to none.” Seeing as how Billy Steele is a three-time Grammy Award winner for his work with Sounds of Blackness, one tends to take his word.

It’s not surprising, considering all the talent rolled into this one ensemble, that The Steeles each enjoy successful solo careers. Jevetta, among a laundry list of triumphs, starred with Morgan Freeman in Broadway’s The Gospel at Colonus, was featured in the opera God, Mississippi & A Man Named Evers with the New Jersey Symphony, and is an Academy Award nominee for singing the theme song of the movie Baghdad Café. Her hit musical drama Two Queens, One Castle premiered at Mixed Blood Theatre and then set box office records at Horizon Theatre in Atlanta and Metro Stage in Washington, D.C.; then it was brought back to Minneapolis for a second run.

J.D., who wrote music for Two Queens, One Castle, has produced, sung and recorded with the likes of Prince, George Clinton and Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen. Billy’s been featured on soundtracks with Luther Vandross and Rod Stewart. Fred’s album Gospel is the Lifescapes label’s best selling release to date.

Jearlyn’s credits include work with Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion over Minnesota Public Radio. She also hosts Steele Talkin’ on WCCO-AM.

Jevetta’s and J.D.’s credits alone would fill an article each, but you get the idea.

None of which put a cramp in The Steeles’ style. J.D. states, “We all love doing the various projects we get to do individually, but we most enjoy performing together. We don’t necessarily have to cut back with the group performances; we just kind of let the game come to us.”

Following “An Acoustic Christmas with The Steeles,” they’ll get back to their individual irons in the fire. “Billy is working on a new album with gospel artist Sarah Renner. Jearlyn tours with Garrison Keillor. Jevetta [will] record with the Detroit Symphony on ‘Letters to Rosa’ for Warner Classical. Fred and I are headed to Phoenix in February for a corporate show. I return to Kenya in May to work with my youth choir Shangilia. Then we reunite for Gospel at Colonus in Brisbane, Australia.” Certainly, boredom is not a concern for this family.

Most families are lucky to have one member with such success. Asked whether she’s surprised at what her children have done, The Steeles’ mom, Sallie Elizabeth Steele Birdsong, readily replies, “No, because J.D. Steele, Sr. [and myself] taught them they could be anything they want to be. Even when I wasn’t sure this was the way they should go, I said, ‘Whatever’s in your mind and on your heart, go for it. Then I would stand behind them and pray for them.”

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