The story of how Minnie Riperton met Stevie Winder at a rehearsal during Chicago’s 1971 Black Expo is fast becoming pop legend. Riperton had released a debut album that won critical praise but, frustrated with her record company’s listless promotion effort, was preparing, at age 22, for semi-retirement Florida. “I saw Stevie backstage,” she recalls, “so I went over and whispered in his ear for him to keep up the good work. He asked me what my name was, and I said ‘Minnie.’ Well he started jumping up and down, saying ‘not Minnie Riperton—it’s been my dream to work with you, You sing like an angel’.”
—Margo Jefferson, “Stevie’s Angel”, Newsweek, July 28, 1975.
On the cover of her 1974 release Perfect Angel, Minnie Riperton is pictured bare shouldered in a pair of coveralls and holding a single dripping vanilla ice-cream cone. The photo is an indelible reminder of the sweet soulful music that Riperton produced from her early days as a back-burner artist at Chess to her stint as a vocalist in the vastly underrated psychedelic soul band Rotary Connection, and finally, her career as one of the most distinctive voices of the 1970s. Nearly two decades before Mariah Carey would be lauded for her alleged five-octave voice, Riperton’s signature “Lovin’ You” served as testament to her own five-octave range. The song, which begins with the simply playing of Richard Rudolph on guitar backed by Stevie Wonder on Fender Rhodes and the sound of a chirping bird has been lampooned through the years for its admittedly gooey sentimentality—Cheryl Dunye’s Watermelon Woman contains one of the more humorous efforts—but it is one of the most memorable recordings from the 1970s. Towards the end of the track Riperton replaces the “la, la, la, la, la” section that may be the most distinct aspect of the song with the lyric “Maya, Maya, Maya”, the name of her new-born daughter Maya who was in the studio that day. Though the song is synonymous with Riperton, “Lovin’ You” was incredibly the fourth single released from Perfect Angel—how many struggling artists would be allowed to release four singles from a full-length recording in today’s marketplace?—and it was largely responsible for making Perfect Angel the only RIAA-certified platinum release in Riperton’s career. Shortly after the success of “Lovin’ You”, in early 1975, Riperton was diagnosed with breast cancer and would succumb to the disease in July of 1979. Petals: The Minnie Riperton Collection, a two disc retrospective, is the first definitive collection of Riperton’s music, documenting her artistry from her first turn-table hits at the Chess label to her final posthumous release.
The title track to Perfect Angel was written for Riperton by Stevie Wonder. For two years prior to the release of Perfect Angel, Riperton toured with Wonder as part of his backing group Wonderlove, which also included future songbird Deniece Williams, and she was prominently featured on two tracks from Wonder’s Fulfillingness First Finale, most notably the classic “Creepin’”, which would later become a staple of Luther Vandross’s live performances. The chance meeting between Wonder and Riperton that Margo Jefferson documents came at a time in Riperton’s career when there were doubts that she would ever fully realize the promise apparent on her early recordings such as “You Gave Me Soul” and the touching “I’m a Lonely Girl”, which were recorded under her stage name of Andrea Davis in 1966.
Riperton’s debut release Come to My Garden was recorded in 1969 with the encouragement of her mentor Charles Stepney. Stepney, who was musical supervisor at Chess Records, was the genius behind Rotary Connection, a group that mixed 1960s psychedelia with the kind of classic soul music that the Chess label—the gem of Chicago’s famed “record row”—was renowned for. Riperton joined the group as a featured vocalist in 1967 and understandably some of the real treasures on Petals are the early Rotary Connection recordings with her on lead. Two songs from the group’s fourth album Songs, which featured covers of prominent pop hits, are included in the collection, most notably their surreal version of the Aretha Franklin classic “Respect” (penned by Sir Otis Redding). Also included is “Took a Ride (Caravan)” (Aladdin, 1968), which sounds like the product of a mythical recording that Grace Slick did in Memphis with producer Willie Mitchell (of Al Green fame). It was a strange brew that was largely the making of Stepney, who would then have a major impact on the embryonic Earth, Wind and Fire—founder Maurice White was a session drummer at Chess—working closely with the group until his premature death in 1976. Riperton’s work with Rotary Connection and her tutelage with Stepney allowed her to fine tune her musical sensibilities and Come to My Garden was the initial product of that apprenticeship.
The title track to Come to My Garden was written by Richard Rudolph, who would soon become Riperton’s primary musical and romantic collaborator. Riperton’s lilting vocals on the title track and others like “Les Fleurs”, which is sung from the viewpoint of a budding flower (the lyrics “kiss my petals weave me through a dream” provide the inspiration for the collection’s title), and the dramatic “Completeness”, give an early inking of the astounding range that she would exhibit on “Lovin’ You”. The recording is one of the many obscure gems, such as Valerie Simpson’s Exposed or Shuggie Otis’s Freedom Flight that were lost in the early 1970s because they could not be easily discerned as “soul” recordings. Riperton’s debut solo release was further complicated by the sale of Chess to the GRT corporation, thus her recording fell through corporate cracks.
After completing a final Rotary Connection disc Riperton and her new husband and collaborator Richard Rudolph, left her home town in Chicago—where they were harassed by neighbors uncomfortable with an interracial marriage—eventually settling in Gainesville, Florida. It was there that Epic records—which incredulously dropped Shuggie Otis from the label after dropping the ball promoting his “classic” Inspiration Information—reached out to Riperton and signed her. Despite obvious objections from Motown, Stevie Wonders served as the shadow producer for Perfect Angel, Riperton’s debut recording for the Epic label. If not for the breakout success of “Lovin’ You”—soon the become the anthem of first-time love—Riperton might have be cosigned the same fate of obscurity that befell Shuggie Otis. Some of the cuts on Perfect Angel such as the driving “Reasons” and especially “Every Time He Comes Around”, recall the recordings of Rotary Connection. Wonder’s “Take a Little Trip” and his title track were quintessential Stevie, who was in the throes of his most fertile creative period with a string of ground-breaking projects like Innervisions (1973), the aforementioned Fulfillingness First Finale (1974) and later, his career defining double disc Songs in the Key of Life (1976).
Riperton quickly followed-up Perfect Angel with Adventures in Paradise (1975), a much more sensual recording in which singer/songwriter Leon Ware’s services were enlisted. Riperton and Ware had worked together the year before dueting on the simmering “If I Ever Lose This Heaven” from Quincy Jones’ Body Heat. Ware’s impact on Adventures in Paradise is most powerfully witnessed on the project’s lead single “Inside My Love”. The song’s fairly explicit lyrics (“you can see inside me / Will you come inside / Do you wanna ride inside my love”) did not endear the project to radio programmers, particularly those at pop/top 40 stations like WABC in New York City that were crucial to the success of “Lovin’ You”, but the song has become a staple of late night Quiet Storm formats, no doubt because it is a finely crafted song. A year later Ware would be behind the boards of Marvin Gaye’s most explicitly sexual release to date, I Want You, which suggest that Gaye was one of the many “geniuses” that was digging the genius of Riperton’s music. Seventeen years after its release, Riperton’s Adventures in Paradise would be recalled as the Ware, Riperton, Rudolph composition “Baby, This Love I Have”, would be sampled by A Tribe Called Quest on “Check the Rhime” from the brilliant Low End Theory. Riperton was in the process of promoting Adventures in Paradise when she was diagnosed with the breast cancer that would take her life in July of 1979. Riperton publicly announced her trauma on national television, confiding with Tonight Show guest host Filp Wilson. She would soon become a public spokesperson for the American Cancer Society, receiving the society’s “Courage Award” at a White House ceremony with then President Jimmy Carter.
Amazingly Riperton would return to the studio to record two full-length projects before her death. Woefully underpromoted by Epic, ironically at a time when she was a well known public figure, Stay in Love: A Romantic Fantasy Set to Music would be her last for the label. The project was likely undermined also by the changing landscape of pop music, particularly R&B, as the disco craze began to have an affect of A&R folks and listening audiences—a landscape where a litany of folks such as Johnnie Taylor (“Disco Lady”), the jazz vocalist Johnny Hartman, and Isaac Hayes were compelled to record “disco” albums. Despite the shifting of audience tastes, tracks like “Can You Feel What I’m saying?” (written with Ware), “Getting’ Ready for Your Love” and the exquisite “Stay in Love” spoke volumes about the spirit of a woman, who was essentially under siege. In this regard, Riperton’s later music recalls Linda Jones’s tormented struggles with diabetes—struggles that co-exist with the “fits of melisma” which defined her vocal style as witnessed on classics such as “Hypnotized”, and “I’ll Be Sweeter Tomorrow”. Sadly, much like Riperton who died at the young age of 31, Jones would die at the age of 28 in 1972.
In the year before her death, Riperton and her entire Epic catalogue moved to Capitol Records where she recorded her final project Minnie (1979). The project’s lead single “Memory Lane” was a musical testament to the years of struggle that Riperton and Rudolph faced in the previous decade and that which he and their two children would face in the aftermath of Riperton’s impeding death. Other highlights from those final sessions include her remake of “Light My Fire” with Jose Feliciano, who initially covered The Door’s classic in 1968, the bouncy “Lover and Friend” and the heart-wrenching “Return to Forever”, which may be one her finest performances. One of the most ethereal moments of Riperton’s final session was her cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woman of Heart and Mind”, which was not included on Minnie but is thoughtfully included on Petals, as is a posthumous duet with Peabo Bryson (“Here We Go”) and a live rendition of “Lovin’ You” that was recorded in May of 1977 with George Benson.
Petals: The Minnie Riperton Collection provides an exceptional overview of the late singer/songwriter’s body of work, even more so because of the care that A. Scott Galloway brought to the compilation including the wonderfully extensive linear notes. In the aftermath of her death, the Minnie Riperton Fund was established to support Breast Cancer research. Stevie Wonder raised over $200,000 in a benefit concert in Los Angeles in 1989. Donations can be sent to: The Minnie Riperton Fund for Breast Cancer Research, c/o The Concern Foundation, 9350 Civic Center Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90210.
// Notes from the Road
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