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Minnie Riperton

Possessing the voice of an angel, five-octave soul singer MINNIE RIPERTON led the way for others (from PATRICE RUSHEN to MACY GRAY) to follow in her not too inconsiderable footsteps. But as similar quiet storm acts such as DENIECE WILLIAMS, RANDY CRAWFORD and CHAKA KHAN began to spread their word in a solo capacity, the multi Grammy-winning Minnie had sadly passed away after succumbing to cancer. RIPERTON was only 31, but she’d left behind a considerable legacy that included her awesome chart-topper, `Lovin’ You’, and wondrous album tracks, `Les Fleur’ and `I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun’ (the latter in her floruit days with the psych-soul pioneers ROTARY CONNECTION).
Born November 8, 1947, Chicago, Illinois, teenager Minnie studied music, drama and dance at the prestigious Abraham Lincoln Center. And with vocal chords in a league of their own, many had thought there might be an opera star in the making. That window of opportunity was abandoned forthwith when she secured a job as receptionist for legendary blues-orientated label, Chess, with whom she also recorded as a member of girl group, The Gems. Formed in 1963, the R&B outfit dropped several 45s, as well as giving her a platform to sing backing vocals for such luminaries as FONTELLA BASS, ETTA JAMES, RAMSEY LEWIS, BO DIDDLEY, CHUCK BERRY and others.
After a one-off solo single, `Lonely Girl’ (released in October ’66 under the nom de plume of Andrea Davis), RIPERTON materialized as lead singer of experimental soul outfit, ROTARY CONNECTION. They recorded some fine though underrated LPs between 1967 and 1971.
Beginning with an eponymous 1968 debut on the Chess-endorsed Cadet Concept Records, the rather large ensemble duly plugged away on the fringes of the mainstream. Although a few of their songs – most notably `Amen’ – enjoyed heavy rotation on FM radio stations, the group never crossed over in the same way as contemporaries like SLY & THE FAMILY STONE or the reinvigorated TEMPTATIONS.
By the time ROTARY CONNECTION had delivered their final album, `Hey Love’, in 1971, MINNIE RIPERTON had already initiated a solo career via the GRT label with the 1969-recorded COME TO MY GARDEN (1970) {*8}. Her spine-tingling, multi-octave vocals was especially dazzling on the sublime opening cut, `Les Fleur’, whilst the picturesque `Rainy Day In Centerville’ and nocturnal `Only When I’m Dreaming’ played their part in this evergreen classic LP; featured on the record were ROTARY CONNECTION’s Charles Stepney (as producer, arranger and co-scribe), husband/co-composer Richard Rudolph (also of RC) and guests Ramsey Lewis (piano), Phil Upchurch (guitar) and Maurice White (drums).
After taking time out in Florida with hubby Rudolph, RIPERTON returned to L.A. where she came to the attention of STEVIE WONDER, who allowed her to sing support vocals on his 1974 album, `Fulfillingness’ First Finale’. Minnie also toured with the Motown legend as a member of his Wonderlove backing band, whilst the soul superstar co-produced – under the pseudonym El Toro Negro – a number of tracks on her Epic Records-endorsed sophomore effort, PERFECT ANGEL (1974) {*8}; he also contributed the title track and `Take A Little Trip’; he even played drums, piano, synths and bass. And alongside the earthy and intimate `Every Time He Comes Around’, the LP featured the sentimental soul classic, `Lovin’ You’, a track written by the “Rudolphs” in order to soothe daughter Maya. The song furnished Minnie with a smash hit around the globe and finally gave her the exposure she deserved.
It wasn’t to last though and inexplicably, neither the Top 20 ADVENTURES IN PARADISE (1975) {*7} nor STAY IN LOVE (1977) {*6} – the latter described as “A Romantic Fantasy Set to Music” – made as much commercial headway outside America. The first of these sets allowed Minnie and Richard to explore fresh R&B/dance-orientated avenues with part-collaborator Leon Ware, whilst session men on show included guitarist Larry Carlton, keyboardist Joe Sample, saxophonist Tom Scott, and harpist Dorothy Ashby; all jazz people in their own right. The fact that Minnie and her team couldn’t re-create anything anywhere remotely near the success of her signature tune was fully apparent when `Inside My Love’ only scraped up a measley highest position of No.76 in the Hot 100.
Tragically, her pain lay not in any commercial downturn, but something far more serious. Minnie was therein revealed to be suffering from breast cancer; she’d undergo a mastectomy in 1976. She devoting much of her time throughout her final years to the American Cancer Society and although her illness became progressively worse, she courageously continued to perform and record during this terrible time.
A final album for Capitol Records; entitled simply MINNIE {*7}, reunited her with the Top 30 in May 1979. She was augmented by a plethora of friends and musicians from all walks of life, who probably couldn’t hold back the tears thinking this might be the soul sister’s swan song. By and large, any sombre touches (e.g. `Return To Forever’) were outweighed by the carefree and passionate `Memory Lane’, and some sensual and equally celebratory dance pieces such as `I’m A Woman’, and a concluding cover of The DOORS’ `Light My Fire’.
With her tragic death in the news on July 12th the same year, soul music (and popular music in general) had lost one of its most talented, beautiful and original singers. Like former SUPREMES star Florence Ballard, the “Perfect Angel” had been cut down in her prime. A posthumous collection of previously unreleased vocals (from 1978) and newly-recorded instrumentation from friends, LOVE LIVES FOREVER {*6}, was released into the Top 40 in 1980. The Grammy-nominated set featured fellow quiet storm act PEABO BRYSON on `Here We Go’, and most significantly, PATRICE RUSHEN, on `The Song Of Life (La-La-La)’.
© MC Strong 1994-2000/GRD // rev-up MCS Aug2019

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