The Missing Music: Minnie Riperton   Leave a comment

September 22, 2011

Part 5: Minnie Riperton: I Want You To Know

This is the fifth of ten posts about ten important women in the recording industry, each of whom died long before their time. If you haven’t already read through the introduction to this series, please follow this link to the “introduction“, and then go on to any of the individual posts.

Minnie Ripperton (1947-1979)

Years ago there was a Chicago treasure named  Minnie Riperton. From within a group effort—Rotary Connection—she emerged as a singular star.

For a couple of years in the late 1960s I worked at WZMF-FM, Milwaukee’s first, and arguably it’s definitive album-rock (in those days, “underground”) radio station. The station was somewhat adventurous in its day, with a format that moved easily among The Doors, The Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix, Moby Grape, Cream, The Byrds, Sly & The Family Stone, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and of course the Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who, Animals, Yardbirds, and on and on. At that moment in the evolution of popular music, a recording inconsistent with most of the records being released by major and indie labels showed up at WZMF.

That first album, the self-titled Rotary Connection album, started to surface within the record community in 1967, in the form of advance copies. People who heard it were all over the map with opinions. Those early listeners loved it, hated it, liked it, disliked it, or didn’t know what to make of it. It was a grand production with orchestrations by Charles Stepney. (Stepney was the primary, driving force creating an orchestral sound at a label—Cadet Concept—that Chicago’s famous Chess brothers—Marshall and Leonard—created to appeal to a larger audience. (It was often a 1960s and 1970s reality for R&B labels to create an alter-ego label for a particular genre of music other than R&B. The motivation (fear) for these labels was that radio stations would instantly categorize anything coming from them as being R&B, regardless of the artist, their musical style, talent, skin color, producer’s credentials, etc.) The Chess Brothers added Cadet Concept to their label group (alongside Chess, Checker, Cadet, etc.,) and Rotary Connection was a “launch vehicle” for the label and the group. Back to my earlier assertion that radio and record people listening to advance copies of Rotary Connection knew instinctively it wasn’t R&B, but it was soulful. It wasn’t pop but it would have appeal to a more general audience than R&B. It wasn’t a lot of things. But that wasn’t necessarily bad.

On each album, there was something for almost any musical fan to sink their teeth into. When you, and I mean you, dive into their music you might agree with me on my favorites. Or not. Some of the tracks were original compositions, often with Stepney’s name attached to them. On the first album they were also covering songs from one of the two most influential and prolific bands to emerge from the British Invasion just a few years earlier: The Beatles and the Rolling Stones; and covering icons is always a difficult proposition. Nevertheless, their cover versions of “Lady Jane” and “Ruby Tuesday”, were tracks that resonated with me. On the second album  Aladdin,  hands down, the tracks to hear were “Teach Me How To Fly” and “I Took A Ride (on a caravan)”. Both songs, arrangements, and production kept Rotary Connection on the edge of psychedelia. Their third album was another twist in the road for the band; they relased a Christmas album titled, simply, Peace. Listen to “Christmas Love” and “If Peace Was All We Had”. With the release of Songs, their fourth album, song selection (and writer) was paramount, and they were all covers, from some of the best: “Respect” (Otis Redding;) “The Weight” (Robbie Robertson;) “Sunshine of Your Love” (Pete Brown and Eric Clapton;) “I’ve Got My Mojo Working” (Muddy Waters;) “Burning of the Midnight Lamp” (Jimi Hendrix;) “Tales of Brave Ulysses (Clapton and Martin Sharp;) “This Town” (Stevie Wonder;) “We’re Going Wrong” (Jack Bruce;) and the Mick Jagger and Keith Richards opus “Salt Of The Earth”. This was the first of the Rotary Connection albums that I could place on the turntable, drop the needle, and forget about (until I had to flip it to side two….) There was another album, Dinner Music, and the final album Hey LoveDinner Music was blessed with “Want You To Know”, one of the most simple, and simply haunting little songs. Period. All of this is prelude to telling you that Minnie Riperton was a singular talent, a unique voice, and a gifted singer with a five-octave range.

As the heart and soul of he original Rotary Connection went their separate ways as the decade turned, Riperton signed a solo deal with GRT Records. She didn’t travel far from home, at least in terms of production values. Her first solo album, Come to My Garden was another Charles Stepney production, which was likely a source of comfort a now-solo artist named Riperton needed.  The lack of commercial success of that 1970 GRT Records album—although produced, arranged, and orchestrated by Stepney—was probably mitigated by the respect Riperton continued to garner as a performer. A few years later she was signed to Columbia’s Epic label, and with the “stay with it” philosophy of many good labels in the 1970s, a 1974 album titled Perfect Angel, a single emerged that had everything going for it. It was a ballad, it was romantic, it was beautifully arranged, and it took full advantage of Riperton’s five-octave range. Surprising pundits who might have believed that a 3rd or 4th track that the label worked from Perfect Angel, “Loving You” couldn’t break through. But it did. And like a successful space shot by NASA, Minnie Riperton’s solo career was soundly launched.

The mid-1970s were going to be memorable years. But not simply for music. In 1976 she was diagnosed with breast cancer, in an advanced stage. While she would undergo surgery and treatment, and in fact, continue recording, “Loving You” would be the apex of her career’s commercial success. She died in 1979. As I look back on her career, I will always remember her, but not most fondly for “Loving You”. Instead, it was “the little track that could” from the Dinner Music album: “Want You to know”. When I hear this recording I always believe I’m hearing the perfect little song. Succinct, romantic, disarming, with a closing line that can be read, sung, or heard as an appeal, an exhortation, a confirmation. In my case, I hear it as an elegy for Minnie Riperton:

“Want You To Know, You Made Me Happy, Want You To Know, You Made Me Sad,

Want You To Know You Made Me Happy, You are The Best Thing That I Ever Had”.

Regardless of its simplicity, or because of its simplicity, I’ll aver that songwriting doesn’t get much better than this.

Prior: Sandy Denny

Next: Karen Carpenter

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2011

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Posted September 22, 2011 by Jazzdavid in Music History, Obituary, Popular Music, Uncategorized

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