Minnie Riperton Chess Records photo 1967
This month, the TV-One channel will launch the new season of their popular documentary series “Unsung”. As I mentioned in a prior article regarding this program, “Unsung” shines its spotlight on R&B acts that are highly regarded by their fans yet may have been all but forgotten by much of the mainstream.
This year, TV-One couldn’t have picked a better list of acts for the Class of 2009. Florence Ballard - the founder of the Supremes whose departure from the group in 1967 and sad demise has been the subject of much discussion among the R&B audience since her death in 1976. Singer/actress Melba Moore – who went from session singer & Broadway’s “Purlie” in the late 1960s to hit maker in the 70s & 80s, and wound up almost financially destitute thanks to her ex-husband’s business dealings.
While it’s great to see Florence & Melba receiving the attention they so deserve, it’s this “Unsung” artist that made this writer jump up and say, “well it’s about time!” A singer/songwriter with a multi-octave range who set the bar for female vocalists that followed her after she left this earth thirty years ago this July. Y’all know who I’m talking about – Minnie Riperton.
Why does Minnie deserve this honor to have her life & career featured in “Unsung”? Here are some clues….
Many folks who have no idea of Minnie’s contributions to music have dismissed her as a “one-hit wonder”. Yeah, “Lovin’ You” was a #1 smash in 1975 but it wasn’t her ONLY hit record. In addition, Minnie’s body of work dates back to the early 1960s when she was still a teenager.
Second clue – as a victim of breast cancer, Minnie championed the early detection/mammogram charge immediately after she was diagnosed in 1976 and long before other entertainers who suffered the same lobbied the public for medical attention. Yet, her efforts have pretty much been forgotten.
Since there is so much info regarding Minnie, this article is a two-parter – and it begins in Chicago, Illinois.
THE EARLY YEARS
Born to Daniel & Thelma Riperton on November 8, 1947, Minnie was the youngest of eight children. Her childhood years found Minnie studying ballet & modern dance along with vocal music. Recognizing her talents early, Mom & Dad Riperton enrolled the young Minnie at Lincoln Center in Chicago. Under the training from voice instructor Miss Marion Jeffrey, Minnie developed her five and a half octave range with an ability to extend (as well as sustain) notes in the sixth & seventh registers (in addition to singing with perfect diction in those higher areas – a rare feat for vocalists).
Minnie sang operettas, show tunes and was encouraged by Miss Jeffrey to study the classics at Chicago’s Junior Lyric Opera (watch out, Kathleen Battle & Jessye Norman!). What made Minnie not pursue a possible future with the Metropolitan Opera? She was a teenager, it was the early 1960s and like most youngsters rock & soul music ruled her heart. So, Minnie formed a singing group called the Gems while in high school (she was an alumnus of Hyde Park High School). Composer Raynard Miner heard her sing at school and brought the Gems to Chess Records. They recorded “He Makes Me Feel So Good” and many other tunes for Chess which were local hits. In addition, Minnie was hired to work as a secretary at Chess.
Chess’ Artist & Repertoire Director Roquel Billy Davis was astounded by Minnie’s vocal abilities. “She was my baby”, he shared in a 2003 interview a year before he passed. “I made sure Minnie got as much session work as possible at Chess to prepare her for a solo career, which she so deserved.” And what a body of work – listen to Fontella Bass’ classic 1965 hit “Rescue Me”. Yeah, that was Minnie all over the background vocals. “All Minnie had to do was take the song to church,” Fontella indicated in a 2004 interview. “Simple call-and-response but she gave the part that extra sass.” Want another? How about “There Is” by the “Mighty-Mighty” Dells. “That was Minnie singing the girl’s part on ‘There Is’ ”, said the Dells’ Marvin Junior when I spoke with him in 2002. “We had Minnie & drummer Maurice White (founder of Earth Wind & Fire) on a bunch of our records.”
Under the pseudonym “Andrea Davis”, Minnie recorded her first solo single “Lonely Girl” b/w “You Gave Me Soul” in 1967. The former, a ballad, had Minnie/Andrea in deep Chicago soul-meets-Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound territory. Shortly after her single was released, Marshall Chess (the son of label co-founder Leonard Chess) launched the Cadet Concept label and offered Minnie a spot in a band that would combine progressive rock with soul & funk. The group was called Rotary Connection.
THE ROTARY CONNECTION YEARS
Rotary Connection’s membership changed constantly during the band’s four year tenure at Chess/Cadet Concept as did the musical direction of each of their six albums, from their self-titled debut to their last disc “Hey Love”. What was consistent though was the use of Minnie’s multi-octave range, which shined through each record they made. For example, their Christmas album “Peace” contained their take on “Silent Night”, which Minnie’s vocals were beautiful yet haunting. On the “Songs” disc – where Rotary Connection took the hit songs of the day and turned them inside out – Minnie sang lead on “We’re Going Wrong”, which was composed by Cream’s bassist/co-lead singer Jack Bruce. The arrangement was stark & disturbing as were Minnie’s vocals – especially at the chorus where she hit the seventh octave at the end of the lyric. This song alone not only captured the feel of the then-turbulent times, when this writer first heard this track it was shortly after September 11, 2001 while living in New York City. R.C.’S “We’re Going Wrong” made a rather disturbing soundtrack for the moment.
It was backstage at a Rotary Connection in Chicago that Minnie met the man who would become her partner in marriage & life, Richard Rudolph. Rudolph was working backstage when he saw Minnie walking down the stairs. He explained in the liner notes of the 2001 2CD anthology “Petals” that it was indeed love at first sight. Minnie & Richard moved in together and later married – an interracial union that was lasted until her passing. They had two children – son Marc and daughter Maya.
While the band’s recording & touring schedule kept Minnie busy, so did the session work. She provided the vocals on Ramsey Lewis’ 1968 album, “Maiden Voyage” – which was arranged & produced by Charles Stepney (who also supervised the Rotary Connection sessions). In addition, Roquel Billy Davis hired her to sing on radio commercial jingles when he left Chess Records in ’68 and became an advertising executive for Young & Rubicam.
COME TO MY GARDEN
In 1970, Charles Stepney felt it was time for Minnie to cut her first solo album, “Come To My Garden”. With songs contributed by Richard Rudolph such as “Completeness” and “Expecting” (Rudolph was a budding composer whose compositions earned Stepney’s approval) as well as updated versions of Ramsey Lewis’ “Les Fleur” and “Only When I’m Dreaming” (Ramsey along with Maurice White, Louis Satterfield & Phil Upchurch was in the rhythm section), Stepney created lush orchestrations that didn’t overshadow Minnie’s vocals. As for Minnie, her vocals revealed a gentle urgency along with her higher octaves.
“Come Into My Garden” would’ve been a Chess release if the label’s then-new owners, General Recorded Tape (GRT) hadn’t assigned the album to their other record company, Janus Records. The problem – Chess’ marketing staff, that was more familiar with Minnie’s career & work, knew how to promote Minnie’s releases (they successfully placed Rotary Connection’s work with progressive rock & college radio stations). GRT/Janus, that was located in New York City, didn’t know what to do with an artist or record of this caliber. Even a well-received solo gig for Minnie at Chicago’s London House in December 1970 (hosted by Ramsey Lewis) only rallied a small number of folks to the record stores. “Come Into My Garden” was an artistic masterpiece that suffered from poor promotion.
Disenchanted with the music biz as well as the prejudice Richard & Minnie faced in certain areas of Chicago (they won a lawsuit against a potential landlord that wouldn’t rent an apartment to them because they were a mixed couple), the Rudolphs packed their bags into their Volkswagen bus and traveled across country. Prior to their move, Minnie recorded some demos to drop off at labels in New York City. After a few days in the Big Apple, the family headed south to Gainesville, Florida. Richard was hired at a radio station as an announcer & Minnie went into semi-retirement to raise Marc & Maya.
NEXT ARTICLE – PART TWO……..
Rotary Connection - Memory Band http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Kt7R6Xf6DU
Rotary Connection - We're Going Wrong http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EOgAaJoHtuI
Minnie Riperton - Completeness http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7_c9hrbFow
Minnie Riperton - Only When I'm Dreaming http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZyUc7WYgFX0