B.U. Bridge is published by the Boston University Office of University Relations.
By David J. Craig
As a child enamored with music in Kingston, Jamaica, in the 1960s, Claude Steele was living in the cradle of reggae. But it was the U.S. and British pop music he heard on the radio, not Bob Marley's jam-prone Wailers, that most intrigued him.
"My favorite was the pop music from the '60s, like Elvis Presley, B. J. Thomas, and Smokey Robinson," says Steele, who moved to Boston in 1979 and has been a Buildings and Grounds crew manager at Boston University since 1987. "Later on, it was the Bee Gees."
Nearly 25 years after he first taught himself to play guitar as a 16-year-old, Steele finally gave voice to the songs in his own head. Beginning last March and lasting for months, nearly every free hour he could muster was spent in the recreation room of the Brockton home he shares with his wife of 10 years, Nikki, and their two sons, recording contemporary religious music that he says sprang from "something that had been building up in me for a long time."
The result, Steele's self-produced CD Jesus You're Mine, is evidence of the impression the sweet melodies and upbeat tunes made on him as a child. Set to modern soul rhythms heavy on bass and drums, and amid an atmospheric wash of electric piano, strings, brass, and wind instruments, Steele's vocals on songs like "Forever Grateful," "Oh God," and "You Are the Reason" are gentle and gospel-tinged. The tunes themselves, however, are poppy and infectious. If not for the religious content of the lyrics, his songs would not sound out of place among many of the Motown-flavored ballads commonly heard on FM radio today.
The creative outburst, Steele says, accompanied a deepening sense of spirituality in his life.
"I think making this music came from a compulsion to interact with other people," he says. "I believe we were put here on this earth by God for a reason, and my primary reason is that through singing I can relay to people God's message."
Apparently, penning the 13 songs on Jesus You're Mine didn't satisfy the compulsion, because less than three months after finishing that CD, Steele has already composed 16 songs for a second.
Musical ideas strike Steele anywhere and everywhere. "I think my workers always know when I'm coming, because they hear me before they see me," says Steele, who supervises about 30 custodians and grounds workers in and around the Towers. "If I'm working, I'm singing."
For that reason, Steele now carries a minicassette recorder so he won't forget the melodies he creates during the day.
"In the evening I listen to the tape, and if I find something I like, I'll put words to it," he says. "Then I'll orchestrate it and start laying down some tracks."
Steele plays and records his music on a Korg keyboard synthesizer with a built-in sequencer that allows him to record as many as 16 instruments on a single composition. He then edits the music on the sequencer and burns a compact disc.
Proficient on guitar, drums, and piano, Steele is also the main musician at the House of Prayer Number 5 Apostolic Church in Brockton. He has never performed his own songs publicly, however.
"I don't think I'd like to jump around on stage and do all the things that are associated with being a performer," he says. "I just want to do my own thing the way I like to do it, and to put a good package together for people to listen to."
Finding time to record is difficult while raising a family, Steele concedes, but making the time enriches his life in invaluable ways.
"Once my wife and I went shopping and when she got out of the car and walked off, I just sat in there staring and bopping my head," says Steele. "Later I was able to tell her, 'Here, listen. This is what I was thinking about.'
"When you start playing, you just forget about everything," he continues. "There's no stress involved at all. When I go on vacation now, most of that time is dedicated to music, and it doesn't faze me in the least. It's something I need to do."