Friday, 15 April 2011

Minnie Riperton - Perfect Angel - An appreciation

It’s 1969 and a decade which has seen such social and political change is coming to an end. The Beatles are on the brink of splitting up and the Stones are facing their own demons at Altamont while Jimi has just months left to live. In Chicago however, a mixed-race, mixed-gender band have just released an album of cover versions which will create a considerable musical legacy and provide a launch pad for one of the greatest and most unique soul voices…

The significance of what the Rotary Connection were doing and what their uniquely talented singer Minnie Riperton would go on to achieve artistically, wouldn’t really be appreciated until long after their demise. Nevertheless, they paved the way for Sly and the Family Stone, Funkadelic and the exponents of the Philadelphia sound to name just a few. Minnie herself has been cited as an influence on everyone from Mariah Carey to Jill Scott.

Struck down by cancer at the age of 31 we will never know what she might have achieved had she lived. But she leaves an extraordinary body of work which encompasses the soul movement of the mid 1960’s, the psychedelia of the end of that decade and the more contemporary smooth soul sound of the 1970’s which would eventually lead to disco. In recent years, her work and that of the Rotary Connection’s legendary producer, Charles Stepney, has found a new audience via a wide range of artists spanning soul, funk, hip hop and dance all paying their dues to the woman with the extraordinary voice with a five octave range.

Minnie was born in the South of Chicago in 1947, the youngest of eight. It didn’t take long for her parents to figure out that her voice was unique and they sent her to an operatic voice coach who encouraged her to make full use of her voice – not least the 7th octave generally regarded as beyond the range of most opera musicians. At the time, Chicago was a breeding ground for a new soul sound being driven forward by artists such as the Impressions featuring Curtis Mayfield as well as the jazz of the Ramsay Lewis Trio and the blues sound which had thrived on the Chess record label.

Minnie soon fell in love with these sounds admitting ‘I got swayed off my path once I got a little rock n’ roll dangling in front of my eyes’. She got her break when The Gems, a local act signed to Chess, parted way with their singer and Minnie was plucked out of High School to fill the gap. The Gems released a couple of singles which didn’t make the national chart but did well in regional markets. The group dissolved in 1966 and Minnie released a single Lonely Girl as a solo act under the name of Andrea Davis. It did well locally but her vocal style featuring an impressive range and distinctive falsetto was not typical of female black singers of the time and failed to go any further.

Meanwhile, at Chess, Leonard Chess had given his son Marshall his own label called Cadet. Marshall, a fan of the emerging British acts had the idea of fusing rock and soul sounds into a single act. This act would become known as the Rotary Connection.

Minnie was, by this time, a secretary at the label but Marshall brought her into the fold as a foil for an experienced male singer-songwriter, Sidney Barnes. Barnes still remembers the first time the band heard Minnie’s unique voice in the studio; ‘we just sat looking at each other thinking, what the hell was that?’ Labelmate Terry Callier was another drawn to Minnie’s unique voice and she sang backing vocals on a number of his own compositions. He recalls, ‘on some passages, we used Minnie like a synthesiser because her tone was so unique. She would use the high part of her range as part of a song rather than just singing it’. The result was an ethereal wail that would almost glide over the rest of the orchestration creating a sense of other-worldness which suited the psychedelic times.

At first Marshall himself produced the band. Their eponymous debut album was released in 1967 and featured original songs as well as overblown psychedelic soul versions of standards such as Like a Rolling Stone and Ruby Tuesday. For second album Aladdin however, one of his copyists Charles Stepney took on the role to produce music which managed to fuse classical orchestration with soul vocals and rock rhythms. This proved a real turning point with tracks like Magical World allowing Minnie to explore her full vocal range with her soprano soaring above Stepney’s stately swell. Stepney would use a 30 piece orchestra to provide lavish arrangements to underpin the main band and thus take the music beyond the usual confines of the time.

Live, the band could not hope to replicate these sounds and so Barnes took on more of a leadership role. Minnie had initially been unsure about using her vocal range in the live setting so Stepney had used a theramin which sent tripped out audiences wild. Minnie, seeing the impact of this, soon took the high pitched sounds on herself and the band had a real point of distinction. Barnes recalls ‘The night before, Min decided she doesn’t want to do the high thing but of course, people at the gig were dropping acid and mescalin and there were strobe lights and everything so by the time we were through using the theramin the place was crazy. After that Minnie said OK I’m doing it. We never looked back. After that we were signing autographs and doing radio.’

The Connection soon gained a reputation as an impressive live band and supported both the Stones and Led Zeppelin. They were also invited to play Woodstock but instead chose to play a festival in Canada instead because it was less far to travel. This was symptomatic of the band’s luck more generally. Despite recording seven albums of experimental but accessible material they struggled to make ends meet. ‘Booking agents were robbing us. They were driving Mercedes while we were still catching the bus’ remembers Barnes. The band also released a Christmas album (Peace) in 1968 and a full covers collection in 1969 (Songs) which was probably their musical peak and featured a versions of The Weight, Sunshine of your Love and an almost unrecognisable version of Otis Redding’s Respect.

The intensity of recording five albums in just over two years began to take its toll and the sale of the Chess label to GRT a subsidiary of Universal and the death of Leonard Chess meant that the band had became increasingly unstable. Sidney Barnes left soon after and Minnie began to look at the possibility of a solo career. By this time, she had fallen in love with Dick Rudolph, a local club owner who had become a lyricist for the band after Minnie had played one of his songs to Stepney. Minnie’s debut, came out in 1969 and was produced by Stepney as well as featuring the Ramsay Lewis Trio as the rhythm section. Without a full band ensemble, Riperton’s voice was able to breathe and the result was stunning. One track in particular, Les Fleurs, a song sung from the perspective of a flower, was extraordinary for combining folky tenderness in the verses with real intensity in the chorus. More than any other in her catalogue, it is this song that has reinvigorated interest in Minnie in recent years. Rediscovered by a new generation thanks to DJs such as Gilles Peterson and covered in 2001 by jazz dance act 4 Hero. It has since become a classic end of night torch song at club nights around the world.

The album did not sell in huge quantities, partly because it was poorly promoted. Minnie claimed ‘Chess did nothing for the album whatsoever. I put a lot of work and energy into it. I was kinda hurt when it didn’t make it.’ However, it gave Minnie the impetus to become a solo singer. She recorded a final album with a new line up of the Rotary Connection – Hey Love (which featured another future club classic in Black Gold of the Sun) and left Chicago to travel around the US with Rudolph for two years before they finally settled in Florida and then California where Minnie had befriended the soul superstar who would have such an impact on the next phase of her career.

In 1973, Stevie Wonder was at the height of his powers. He had just crafted soul masterpieces Innervisions and Talking Book and was pushing musical boundaries forward again with the Moog influenced Fulfillingness First Finale. Having met Minnie at Chicago’s Black Expo in 1971 Stevie had followed Minnie’s career with interest and had claimed that ‘When Minnie sings, I feel my insides rush and quiver.’ He invited her to sing backing vocals on the album and soon she was touring as a member of his tour entourage Wonderlove.

Wonder subsequently agreed to co-produce Riperton's 1974 album Perfect Angel, which would include the international bestseller Lovin' You; the record that would eventually make her a household name. The album fused soul, country and funk and still stands up today as an unsung classic of its time. Reasons was a funky, guitar driven opener, the first fruit of Minnie’s new songwriting partnership with her (now husband) Rudolph while the jazzy Take A Little Trip could have been an outtake from Talking Book especially as it was written by Wonder and his wife Syreeta Wright. It was fourth single Lovin’ You however which would come to define the album and for many, Minnie’s career as a whole. An American number one hit in the Summer of 1975, it has since become a karaoke and love compilation staple which does Minnie a disservice for there can be few songs that illustrate the flush of first love quite so beautifully. The falsetto at the end of the chorus is the most memorable part of the song (famously being sampled by the Orb on their debut album) but check out the bridge and its ‘everytime that we, ooh’ for the definitive evocation of post-coital bliss. The song went on to vindicate Minnie’s career but also came to define it at the expense of her other material.

Subsequent LPs 1975's Adventures in Paradise and 1977's Stay in Love failed to repeat its success as record companies struggled with promoting a black woman who didn’t sing straight rn’b but both contained excellent material. A particular highlight was the track Inside My Love which would later feature in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown soundtrack. By this time, however, Minnie had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She was determined to use her profile to highlight the need for early detection and publicly announced her diagnosis on the Tonight Show. She underwent a mastectomy in 1976 and later became a spokesperson for the American Cancer Society, earning a Society Courage Award from President Jimmy Carter. Minnie continued performing despite her declining condition claiming ‘Just because a woman has had a mastectomy and now has one breast, there’s no reason to think her life has been ruined – sexually or physically I have three scars – one on my leg, where I was hit by a car when I was a kid, one from having my babies, and now this one.’ Sidney Barnes would hook up with Minnie again in the last part of her life and recalls ‘us crying at each other at the mic when we sang the song Memory Lane one time.’ 1979's Minnie was the final record completed during her lifetime - she died in Los Angeles on July 12 of that year and Stevie Wonder sang at her funeral. Unreleased vocal tracks with new instrumental backing comprised 1980's posthumous collection Love Lives Forever and a tribute album featuring Wonder, Michael Jackson, Roberta Flack and others followed soon after, highlighting the respect she was afforded by her peers.

Minnie was a unique artist – pushing the boundaries at a time when black women were expected to sing only soul or funk. Her voice was truly memorable and once heard never forgotten. Unlike many of today’s female soul singers who struggle to hit the very top notes, her voice seemed to glide back and forth through the scale and was versatile enough to sing simple love songs or provide a spooky falsetto over the top of a rock band. Despite singing a number of songs that can truly be regarded as classics she does not receive the plaudits of Aretha or Diana and yet in many ways her career is more interesting and varied than both. She was also well liked within the industry with all her peers speaking of the happy woman who refused to let her illness stop her doing what she loved. Even today a fun run in Minnie’s memory takes place in Los Angles annually to raise funds to fight the disease that killed her. Asked how he remembers Minnie, Terry Callier seems a little lost for words but sums up the thoughts of those who knew her. ‘She was a beautiful person and she still is.’

3 to get

The Rotary Connection Album - Songs

A full on collision of soul and rock covers showcasing the multi instrumental and layered vocal approach taken by Charles Stepney which utilised Minnie’s voice more as an instrument rather than a voice in itself. Check the version of Otis Redding’s Respect.

The classic debut - Come into my garden

Fusing the orchestration of the Rotary connection with a folk sensibility Minnie’s debut is a thing of great beauty. Les Fleurs provides the main focus but other standout tracks include jazzy Completeness and folky epic Expecting.

The best seller - Perfect Angel

Lovin’ You is the one everyone knows – on every romance compilation since – but this album perfectly highlights Minnie’s versatility. Reasons is a funky opener and Take a little trip written by producer Stevie Wonder and his late wife Syreeta Wright provides another highlight.

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