The Perfect Angel: Minnie Riperton

“When Minnie sings I feel my insides rush and quiver. She touches a place in me where no one else can go. It’s hard to believe how incredibly high and beautiful Minnie can sing… But I know her, and I believe. Sometimes I just lay back and try to imagine how sweet her soul must be. Thank you for your music, Minnie… A gift of love for all the world to see.” – A Very Special Fan

In a way, those words from that special fan (*cough* Stevie Wonder *cough*) in the liner notes of the Perfect Angel LP sum up the feelings of most Minnie Riperton fans. Her most famous song, a sweet little acoustic ditty that finds Minnie singing alongside a mockingbird, showed off that unreal high note she could play like an instrument. This song is something of a paradox for me as a fan. While over the years, I have become more familiar with the full range of Minnie’s musical prowess, I have to concede that this song probably best exemplifies this range.

The sweetness of the melody shows off the voice she wanted to use to sing songs more in the style of Dionne Warwick rather than hard rock and R&B, which had been her lot as part of Rotary Connection in the late 60s. Underneath that sweetness lied an unabashed sexuality only hinted at in a coy line “And every time that we… Ooohh.” Even with that display, it does not detract from the lullaby sung to her daughter Maya in the end. In that way, “Lovin’ You” is Minnie Riperton.

Hailing from the South Side of Chicago, Minnie studied ballet and modern dance as a child. That amazing vocal range was no accident. She received operatic vocal training at a black community arts space called the Lincoln Center. Even though she was poised to become an opera singer, Minnie began to show an interest in pop music and the growing psychedelic rock movement. Keep in mind that this was the 1960s and Minnie was a teenager. At age 15, she joined a group called The Gems, a girl group much in the style of The Ronettes or The Dixie Cups. She also performed under the alias of Andrea Davis in 1966.

However, the fall of 1967 brought Rotary Connection. A simple concept: white rock musicians fronted by black singers. Interestingly, Minnie was not the lead female vocalist on the group’s self-titled debut. That distinction belonged to white singer Judy Hauff along side Sidney Barnes. While I personally like Judy’s vocals on most of the album’s tracks, it boggles the mind that the studio would choose a white singer when the entire premise of the band was the interracial component with black singers.

Fortunately, even on this debut, Minnie’s background vocals are not wasted. The opening track “Amen” finds Minnie wailing “hallelujah” in the background in that awesome high note. She utilizes it further on tracks like “Turn Me On” and “Lady Jane” without actually singing words; she just rides that note and beats it into submission and owns it without ever sounding like a novelty. In fact, the ethereal quality of that note helped define Rotary Connection as a psychedelic rock group, particularly on tracks like the mostly instrumental “Memory Band.”

Minnie would become the group’s female lead singer and at one time the only female member of the group during its various incarnations. The revolving lineup also meant that the group’s musical style never stayed the same and changed with each album. 1968’s Aladdin got more heavily into psychedelic soul and the Christmas album Peace is definitely a product of its time with protests against Vietnam and criticisms against Nixon.

Minnie became the sole female vocalist with Peace and the follow-up 1969 album Dinner Music. Dinner Music was something of a departure from Rotary Connection’s previous outings with a mix of country, blues, folk and rock. Incidentally, this is also the album that showcased the style Minnie truly wanted with her own vocals. Lilting, folky melodies accompany Minnie’s soft vocals through melancholy lyrics tracks like “A-Muse” and “Living All Alone,” the former of which features none of the vocal pyrotechnics she often displayed. Yet, these are beautiful melodies and may have given her the push she needed to go with her solo debut Come to My Garden.

Come to My Garden was one of the projects Minnie completed in 1969 along with another Rotary Connection album Songs, an album of covers ranging from Otis Redding’s “Respect” and Cream’s “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” “We’re Going Wrong” and “Sunshine of Your Love.” The two albums could not be any more different. Come to My Garden is the album Minnie always wanted to make, a heavenly swirl of violins, horns and acoustic sounds to show off her softer side. This was the Dionne Warwick style she liked. Songs like “Completeness” and “Les Fleur” used those vocal pyrotechnics to the fullest while others like “Rainy Day in Centerville” and “Only When I’m Dreaming” have a wistful nostalgic feel.

However, commercially Come to My Garden was a failure. Apparently, black women singing over such lush orchestral arrangements was reserved for Warwick. Minnie went on to complete another Rotary Connection album, Hey Love, in 1971. This effort is thought to have been intended to be Minnie’s second album, but it became a Rotary Connection work when Come to My Garden did not perform as well as hoped. The group was soon dropped by their label.

In the meantime, Minnie had married Richard Rudolph and the two decided to move to Florida when they expected their first child. The two left the music industry for a few years until Minnie was extended an invitation to join Stevie Wonder’s Wonderlove band. Her vocals shine on his 1974 masterpiece Fulfillingness’ First Finale in the background of tracks like “Smile Please,” “It Ain’t No Use” and “Bird of Beauty.” However, she is featured more prominently on “Creepin’” in which she nearly duets with Wonder.

Perhaps this collaboration prompted Wonder to produce Minnie’s next solo project. In any case, she left behind the psychedelic rock of the 1960s and embraced the R&B of the mid-1970s. Perfect Angel was released in 1974 with the lead single “Reasons” that did not chart as highly as it should have. It was the lovely little acoustic number “Lovin’ You” that made Minnie a household name that year.

“Lovin’ You” could stand out as an anomaly on the album, but it doesn’t. While Perfect Angel is heavily R&B laden, it is also very eclectic with rock-tinged tracks like “Reasons” and sweet melodies like “The Edge of a Dream,” written in tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. Perfect Angel was perfect Minnie.

And yet, she continued to evolve. She followed the next year with Adventures in Paradise that was not only funkier but also sexier. Minnie co-wrote every track on the album with her husband Richard for another rather eclectic mix of sexy funk like “Baby, This Love I Have” and “Feelin’ That Your Feelin’s Right” and more wistful and heavy numbers like “Minnie’s Lament” and “Alone on Brewster Bay.” There are even more joyful numbers inspired by Minnie and Richard’s children including “Love and Its Glory” and “Simple Things.” However, the most enduring track from this album is the song that was once banned from radio play – “Inside My Love.”

“Inside My Love” has now endured as an R&B radio staple despite its “banning” in the mid-70s. One risque line from a song about two soul mates coming together was a bit much for radio stations accustomed to playing the likes of “You Sexy Thing” and “Skin Tight.” A black woman singing beautifully about intimacy with her partner was (and sometimes still is) labeled as dirty. However, Minnie performs those vocal acrobatics that made her stand out from the rest. With swirling violins in a perfect instrumental track accompanying her, it’s hard to hear this song for anything other than what it is: pure beauty and perfection.

In 1976, Minnie was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. She was one of the first celebrities to speak publicly about her condition, revealing to Flip Wilson as he guest hosted The Tonight Show about her diagnosis and treatment. In 1977, she released her next album Stay in Love. Minnie still stayed with the R&B ballads, but she also moved into a disco mode that was still gaining in popularity at the time. Minnie from 1979 was both bouncy and wistful with tracks like “Lover and Friend,” “Dancing and Acting Crazy” and “Return to Forever.” The album also included two of Minnie’s most enduring songs, “Memory Lane” and a cover of “Light My Fire” featuring legendary guitarist Jose Feliciano.

Minnie would be the last album released during Minnie Riperton’s lifetime. She succumbed to her disease in July of 1979 at the young age of 31. Her last studio album, Love Lives Forever, was released posthumously in 1980 with some assistance from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Peabo Bryson, Patrice Rushen and others contributing to the album’s completion. Stevie Wonder even contributed to an hour-long Soul Train special honoring Minnie’s musical legacy shortly after her death.

Minnie’s legacy in music and her work to bring awareness to breast cancer has grown over the years as new generations of fans discover her music. Many of us got a taste of Rotary Connection’s “Memory Band” for the first time when it was so effectively sampled in A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebaum.” Tribe went to Minnie’s repertoire again for “Baby This Love I Have” providing the basis for “Check the Rhime” as well. Needless to say, Q-Tip is a huge Minnie fan.

Through her entire legacy, Minnie’s rock roots have to be acknowledged. Rotary Connection existed before Sly and the Family Stone and WAR but does not get the credit it’s due in forming interracial bands. The band also gave Minnie the opportunity to perform the type of music she wanted during the late 60s. We got one of the foremothers of modern rock and a voice that continues to inspire many.

“I was unaware of this request 2 give a quote 4 Minnie when, 10-minutes prior, I was listening 2 ‘Memory Lane’ and an assortment of other genius songs. The word ‘genius’ is a powerful word and Minnie clearly wears it. She effortlessly pours her innovative tone into each phrase making us feel her sex, eroticism, passion, truth, power and genius. Yes, GENIUS!!” – Q-Tip

Advertisements