June 5, 2007, jefitoblog.com
By Michael Fortes
To the world at large, the late Minnie Riperton is largely known as the singer of the number one hit "Lovin' You." You know the tune. You've heard it mocked on South Park. You've heard it used in a commercial for Burger King. And if you were listening to pop radio in 1975, you probably got your fair of the song back then too. Though this song was her only big pop hit, it's really just scratches the surface of what Riperton accomplished in her brief career.
Though she began classical vocal studies as a child with a three octave coloratura soprano range, Minnie Julia Riperton actually got her professional start in music in 1963, when the Chicago native worked as a session vocalist and a secretary for Chess Records at the age of 15. She began singing in a girl group, the Gems, that achieved little success outside of Chicago. But even then, one could hear that Riperton was wise to take the rock n' roll path. The Gems released only two singles featuring Riperton on lead vocals, including "Happy New Love," which were right in line with the prevailing R&B girl group sound of the '60s exemplified by more successful contemporaries like the Shirelles and the Supremes.
After the Gems split in 1965, Riperton continued singing on Chess sessions, and made her first stab at a solo career as Andrea Davis in 1966. Her one single under this pseudonym, "Lonely Girl," again achieved success only in Chicago, though it demonstrated her vocal abilities far better than the Gems singles.
The following year, Marshall Chess – son of Chess Records founder Leonard Chess – came up with the brilliant idea of creating an integrated psychedelic rock/soul combo to inaugurate the new subsidiary label Cadet Concept. With high hopes of tapping the burgeoning youth market of the 1960s, Marshall hired producer Charles Stepney to help create the recorded work of the group that would be known as the Rotary Connection. With Riperton as one of the featured vocalists, alongside Sidney Barnes and a rotating cast of other singers and musicians, the group had boatloads of potential. Though widespread success would elude them, their tenure would cement Riperton 's reputation as a unique and gifted vocalist, and ultimately pave the way for her own substantial solo success in the 1970s.
The concept for the band itself was ambitious, and the Rotary Connection's self-titled debut was perhaps even more so. Though Brian Wilson failed to realize his "teenage symphony to God" during the Summer of Love, one could argue that Minnie and company at least made sure that something close to that idea of what SMiLE was to be (and eventually became) was in fact heard when it was supposed to have been heard. In fact, the album begins with an invocation to the almighty, "Amen," that takes us to the halls of a cathedral with reverb-heavy production and heavenly choral voices. As on most of the record, Riperton is not a featured lead vocalist for this recording. Rather, the high-pitched range of her voice is utilized as yet another instrument in the mix, resembling violins, or as in "Turn Me On," a theremin.
Five of the album's eight full-length songs (the remaining 5 tracks were short, trippy instrumental interludes and an album-closing medley of highlights separated by atmospheric "silence") were covers of pop hits of the day, which undoubtedly played a role in the album’s respectable chart peak of #37. Varying degrees of creative liberties were taken with these covers, so that they didn't seem like unnecessary exercises in repeating someone else's success (the one exception being a straightforward reading of the Lovin' Spoonful's "Didn't Want To Have To Do It"). For instance, the Rolling Stones' "Ruby Tuesday" featured Gregorian chant-like verses, while Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" dispensed with the original verses entirely. There was already a tradition in R&B for radical reinventions in cover tunes at this point (The Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes For You,” anyone?), but the Rotary Connection was taking this concept to new levels. They would continue to do so through the end of the decade.
For the Rotary Connection’s second album, no familiar hit covers were recorded. In fact, most of the material this time around was written by band members Bobby Simms, Sidney Barnes and Mitch Aliotta. More importantly, Riperton sang lead on some tunes for the first time on a Rotary Connection album. “I Took A Ride (Caravan)” found Riperton singing along to an arrangement that included brass flourishes and choral backing vocals – musical touches that by now had become Rotary Connection hallmarks. “Magical World” was Riperton’s other lead showcase, finding her leads sitting in a Bacharach-like bed of melancholy strings and voices. Elsewhere, she was in her usual role of using her stratospheric voice to provide more colors to the musical backdrop.
The band was apparently not quite ready to make the transition to all original material, as the record’s chart performance was considerably lesser than the debut album (Aladdin stalled at #176). This was in spite of the title track carrying the same sort of melodic qualities as its composers’ most famous hit, The Cowsils’ “The Rain, The Park and Other Things.” Being that this group was manufactured by a record executive, the band’s next recordings would be calculated very carefully to reap some additional sales based on what worked with the first album – presenting new versions of familiar material.
The familiar material Rotary Connection tackled this time around was none other than popular Christmas fare. Fortunately, this group was progressive enough to give the material a treatment so fresh that it doesn’t feel weird playing the album in, say, April or July. And in reality, it was only “Silent Night” (appearing in three completely different renditions) that was at all familiar to anyone who bought the album, while the remaining songs were originals written in the Christmas spirit. The arrangements are not all that different from the preceding albums, only with the addition of sleigh bells and such here and there to add that canned seasonal feel. Riperton had a featured lead vocal with Barnes on “Christmas Love,” and shared some leads on the first version of “Silent Night,” played fairly straight and classy until the acid-drenched, tripped out guitar solo turns the recording into an any-time-of-year hippie love fest. That acid-drenched guitar turns up again for the instrumental version of “Silent Night,” where the melody is played through once, and then again in unison with Riperton’s wordless, theremin-like vocal. (The third version, “Silent Night Chant,” is the most rockin’ of the three – the melody is played on electric guitar, while the “silent night, holy night” is chanted repeatedly over a primal rock beat – think of a drunken’ Christmas party with Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service). Elsewhere, the perversion of the meaning of Christmas is explored on “Shopping Bag Menagerie” and “Sidewalk Santa,” and the hippie youth’s calls for peace are echoed in “Last Call For Peace” and “If Peace Is All We Had.” In spite of the seasonal nature of the record, it turned out to be the band’s most psychedelic sounding. It was also the first of only two Rotary Connection albums to make it to the CD age stateside (the debut was the other, and both are now out of print).
The band’s fourth album consists entirely of wacky psychedelic renditions of mostly familiar pop, rock and blues tunes of the day. Three Cream songs are put through the ringer here, and come out sounding nothing at all like Clapton, Bruce and Baker. Barnes gets the leads on “Sunshine of Your Love” and “Tales Of Brave Ulysses,” leaving a moving reading of “We’re Going Wrong” to Riperton. The most well-known cover here is Riperton’s take on “Respect.” With its ominous strings and cool, calm pace, it’s even more different from Aretha Franklin’s version than Aretha’s is from Otis Redding’s original, especially since Barnes’ presence gives the song more of a feeling of a plea for mutual respect, rather than the strictly one-sided takes of Otis and Aretha’s recordings. In other words, “hippies, you’ll REALLY dig this version!” You know that’s what Marshall Chess was thinking... and with other popular songs of the day reworked into new creations, like The Band’s “The Weight” and Hendrix’s “Burning Of The Midnight Lamp,” it was assured that Songs would at least get some attention, if not scale the charts like Chess had hoped.
For a second time, Rotary Connection tried releasing an album of mostly original material. The lone cover here is the old standby “Stormy Monday Blues,” which is indicative of the album’s less-psychedelic direction and Riperton’s trying of more forceful and playful vocal techniques. The sonic weirdness is still present, though this time those moments are relegated to little between-song vignettes with odd titles like “Lektricks #1” and “Pointillism.” Singer/guitarist Jon Stocklin provided some of the best songs for the album, and the prettier ones like “A-Muse” and “Want You To Know” (the latter preceded by one of those weird vignettes titled “Pump Effect”) were perfect vehicles for Riperton’s sweet and innocent vocal stylings.
It was only a matter of time before Riperton stepped out on her own for her first solo album. With the help of Charles Stepney as composer, arranger and conductor, Riperton’s husband Richard Rudolph as lyricist, and the Ramsey Lewis Trio as the rhythm section, Riperton set out to make a grand statement. By this time, Chess had been bought out by GRT, and in the transition, Come to My Garden seemed to have slipped on by with little notice. Meaning, it would be another 4 or 5 years following the album’s initial release, when Riperton finally broke through to a pop audience, before the public at large really paid attention to the record.
The few who bought the record upon its initial release in 1970 were treated to lush orchestral arrangements, and copious use of Riperton’s voice as both a background instrument and a lead voice. There was even one cover, the old Rotary Connection tune “Memory Band,” which had no lyrics when it first appeared back in ’67. The light Brazilian feel and a complete set of lyrics make this version the definitive recording, though the Rotary Connection version probably pulled in more cash in the end due to the Fugees’ sampling of its sitar riff in their hit cover of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly.” “Les Fleur” nods in the direction of the hippies, with lyrics that are about, what else, a flower. English drum n’ bass combo 4hero had a hit with the song in 2001, while American soul singer Jean Carne scored a minor R&B hit with a version of “Completeness” in 1982. Unfortunately, none of this was of any consequence to Riperton in 1970, so it was back to the Rotary Connection for one more try.
Hey Love was actually credited to “The New Rotary Connection,” as Riperton was the only remaining original member left at this point. Again produced by Charles Stepney, the main influences here are Sergio Mendes and the Fifth Dimension. Riperton was sharing vocal duties with Kitty Haywood, Shirley Wahls and Dave Scott, and the blend of the four was most beautifully realized on the opening track, “If I Sing My Song.” Aside from this tune and the stunning, funky “I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun” (successfully covered by Nuyorican Soul in 1997 and remixed by the aforementioned 4hero), Riperton’s presence hadn’t felt so relegated to the background since the first Rotary Connection album. “Love Has Fallen On Me” barely featured some vocals from Riperton peeking through the mix, though they made all the difference and sat quite nicely next to the pounding piano so reminiscent of Joe Cocker’s version of “Feelin’ Alright.” (Chaka Khan would later cover “Love Has Fallen On Me” on her first solo record). Riperton had come full circle with the group. They hadn’t achieved enough of a measure of success for anyone to stick around, and so Riperton retreated to Florida with husband Richard and their son Marc.
Three very significant events took place during the three years between the release of the last Rotary Connection album and Riperton’s second solo record. First, Riperton gave birth to her second child, daughter Maya. Second, Mr. and Mrs. Rudolph started writing songs together. Finally, our angelic voiced subject was tracked down by a talent scout from Epic records who was eager to sign her.
Despite the lack of financial success with the Rotary Connection, the group’s records and live shows had earned Riperton a solid reputation as a gifted vocalist. Finally, all that work would pay off, and the song that would pay the dividends was Riperton’s biggest hit, the number one pop smash “Lovin’ You.” Inspired by her daughter Maya (on the LP version, Riperton sings “Maya Maya, Maya Maya” in the outro), co-written with hubby, and released as the third single from Riperton’s Epic Records debut, the song became a phenomenon that is still recognizable to this day. It’s more of a punchline today than anything, however, due to the overly sentimental nature of the tune and Riperton’s envy-inducing vocal theatrics. Fortunately, there’s far more to the Perfect Angel album than “Lovin’ You.” Riperton’s request to have Stevie Wonder produce the album was happily granted, and not only did Wonder produce and arrange the album, he also contributed drums, electric piano, harmonica, and a couple of songs, including the sublime title track. Riperton started letting her sexy side show with “Every Time He Comes Around,” and “The Edge Of A Dream” also brought Riperton’s almost sickeningly positive outlook on life into her music as well. The record was more infused with her own personality than anything she had done prior, and it set the template for the records she would continue to release for the rest of her life.
Meanwhile, she was finding herself in demand, making a cameo with Leon Ware on Quincy Jones’ Body Heat album and its hit single “If I Ever Lose This Heaven,” not to mention being drafted by Stevie Wonder for background vocal duties in his band Wonderlove and his 1974 album, Fulfillingness’ First Finale. Finally, Riperton was a star.
On the heels of a big hit single and album, Riperton forged ahead with Stewart Levine as co-producer for her second Epic LP. She continued co-writing with hubby, and for three songs, the husband and wife team collaborated with Leon Ware. Aside from the aforementioned duet on “If I Ever Lose This Heaven,” Ware had also scored with a hit for young Michael Jackson, “I Wanna Be Where You Are.” That innocent pop tune was not entirely indicative of what Ware was really about, however. He essentially took Riperton from the veiled suggestiveness of “Every Time He Comes Around,” from the last album, to more overtly sensual territory. How else could one hear a lyric like “I can’t believe what seemed so hard / Comes so easily / It came all over me” in “Feelin’ That Your Feelin’s Right”? And he did it again on the song that was the closest thing to a hit the album generated, “Inside My Love.” Chorus: “You can see inside me / Will you come inside me? / Do you wanna ride inside my love?” Yet still, Riperton hadn’t let go of her sweet and innocent side. She closed side one with a fairy tale about “Love And Its Glory,” in which a bride and groom living in a “tropical paradise” triumph in holy matrimony over the objections of the bride’s father. Flip over the record, and you’ll hear towards the end of the side an ode to life’s “Simple Things,” like pretty birds, sunsets, playing in the rain, and all those other things that rich folk can only appreciate on month-long vacations in the tropics. She closed the record with one of her most comforting songs, “Don’t Let Anyone Bring You Down.”
Musically, the funk was a bit smoother than on Perfect Angel, thanks to the help of Crusaders members Joe Sample (keyboards) and Larry Carlton (guitar), and Tom Scott on sax, among others. In the end, the album wasn’t as huge of a hit as its predecessor (Perfect Angel earned a gold record award, Adventures did not), but it certainly yielded plenty of sample-worthy moments.
After completing Adventures, Riperton was diagnosed with breast cancer. This devastating news didn’t stop her from making music, however. While campaigning for breast cancer awareness, she also completed her third and final Epic album, Stay In Love, subtitled “A Romantic Fantasy Set To Music.” It’s pretty straightforward in that it’s exactly what it claims to be. You get songs following a couple’s early courtship (“Could It Be I’m In Love”) to preparing to live together (“Getting’ Ready For Your Love”), to separation (“Wouldn’t Matter Where You Are”) and ultimately reuniting and committing (the title track). The nine-song LP found her collaborating again with Leon Ware on the album’s best, most convincingly sensual tune, “Can You Feel What I’m Saying,” and again with Stevie Wonder on the two-part disco single “Stick Together.” Stronger disco overtones, funkier guitar… but no big hits. Riperton optimistically kept working after this album’s release and the end of her Epic contract, signing with Capitol the following year and beginning work on what would be the last album she’d live to complete.
Perhaps optimism wasn’t strong enough a word to describe where Riperton was at in 1978 when she signed with Capitol. In ’76, when she received her cancer diagnosis and mastectomy, she was given 6 months to live, according to A. Scott Galloway’s liners to the 2-disc compilation Petals: The Minnie Riperton Collection. Two years later, Riperton was telling Jet Magazine about a new diet she was on that made all her hair grow back, her success in keeping nausea and depression at bay by smoking marijuana on the advice of her doctors, and the creative understanding she had with her new label. “I don’t want to make records that are just song after song,” she said in the June 1, 1978 issue of Jet. Yet, Minnie is exactly that – a collection of eight songs that don’t veer too far off from the course she had already set with her three Epic albums. Maybe that more ambitious record she had in mind would have been the follow-up, but unfortunately we’ll never know.
What we did get was a classy soul record, led by the melancholy single “Memory Lane.” Wonder was back again, playing more or less everything except the horns on the album’s second single, the bouncy “Lover And Friend.” We got another disco jam with the playful “Dancin’ and Actin’ Crazy,” a final sensual number with “I’m A Woman,” and an expectedly weepy tune titled “Return To Forever,” in which we can essentially hear Riperton saying goodbye through her husband’s lyrics, cradled in a bed of strings. The last word was a cover, however – a silly take on the Doors’ “Light My Fire” modeled more on the Jose Feliciano version. Feliciano himself shows up for a cameo, playfully flirting with Riperton and singing in Spanish. They share a laugh at the end, and leave us feeling pretty positive overall. [Another cover recorded during the Minnie sessions, an ornately arranged rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Woman Of Heart And Mind,” was held over for Riperton’s first ‘greatest hits’ collection.]
The Minnie album was released in April, 1979. Three months later, Riperton finally lost her battle with breast cancer. She was 31 years old.
Riperton still had one final album left for us to hear, and it was up to Dick Rudolph and his late wife’s many musical friends to see it through. Love Lives Forever is as much a testament to the love and respect of Riperton’s friends and associates as it is to her artistry. If glancing at the back cover of the album, filled with testimonials and signatures from those who participated in the album’s creation, wasn’t enough to make the point, listening should clear all that up. Each of the album’s seven songs contains some contributions from the album’s superstar guests, some more obvious than others. For instance, Peabo Bryson stands out on “Here We Go,” though it’s clear that he and Riperton were not in the studio together – there’s zero chemistry. George Benson’s cameo on “You Take My Breath Away” sounds a little less canned, and his presence is still unmistakable. And when you hear that harmonica on “Give Me Time,” a song that sounds like it was written for Barbra Streisand, there’s no question as to who it is. However, Michael Jackson’s vocal on the snoozy ballad “I’m In Love Again” is a bit harder to pick out. The first couple of times I listened back when I first bought the cassette, I had no idea he was even there since he’s singing very gently and in Minnie’s style. Likewise, Patrice Rushen’s presence on “The Song Of Life (La-La-La)” isn’t terribly obvious, either.
The album works in spite of all the special guests, however. What ties it all together is Minnie, and the sunny attitude she projected, even in the face of death. This is what makes ending the record with “The Song Of Life” so beautiful. If it were anyone else, it might have seemed insincere. Not so with Minnie. Cheesy, maybe. But it’s honest, and there’s no better way to go out than that.