Minnie Riperton - The Angel Lives On
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The standard by which all multi-octave voiced soul divas are judged, Riperton broke new ground with an exciting blend of operatic proficiency and supple soul-jazz that was unheard of when she made her national breakthrough in the mid 1970s. Via six solo albums and hit singles like ‘Lovin’ You’ and ‘Memory Lane,’ Riperton set the blueprint that everyone from Deniece Williams to Mariah Carey would eventually follow to fame.
…with the major-label push of, say, Diana Ross’ equally engaging solo debut, the record might have stood a chance. Unfortunately it was not to be, and a series of problems with her label left the record for dead
A native of Chicago, Riperton cut her teeth at Chess Records as a teenager, first as part of The Gems and then as a soloist under the pseudonym Andrea Davis. While she met little commercial success, she developed her craft doing backing vocals for a variety of artists. If you listen closely to Fontella Bass’ hit single ‘Rescue Me’ you can hear a young Riperton, along with The Gems, singing the soulful chorus.
When Chess set out create a psychedelic multi-racial rock band in the late 1960s for its Cadet Concept imprint, the label tapped Riperton, already hailed by insiders for her expansive range, to serve as the act’s female vocalist. As part of Rotary Connection, Riperton’s vocal contributions were initially restricted to wails and shrieks that added great atmosphere but little substance. Touring colleges and clubs, the band made a name for itself and released a series of high-concept, colorful concoctions, with ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Songs’ being among the best. As the band progressed and Riperton’s vocals became the focal point, a solo album for the singer made perfect sense.
Her 1970 solo debut, Come to My Garden, was produced by the late Charles Stepney (who would later help elevate Earth, Wind and Fire to fame) and featured a first-rate cast of supporting musicians that included Phil Upchurch, Ramsey Lewis and the Kitty Haywood Singers. A patchwork of folk, soul and jazz, or ‘chamber soul’ as many critics have called it, the album is the striking antithesis of what was happening in black music at the time. Set against Stepney’s ethereal, complex orchestrations and husband Richard Rudolph’s vivid lyrical imagery, Riperton’s instrument conveys a kind of emotional intensity that leaps off the vinyl. And with the major-label push of, say, Diana Ross’ equally engaging solo debut, the record might have stood a chance. Unfortunately it was not to be, and a series of problems with her label left the record for dead.
As the classic cover shot of Riperton in overalls holding a dripping ice cream cone conveys, the album was steeped in the joys of girlish innocence and burgeoning womanhood
Disappointed, Riperton and her family relocated to Florida to take a breather from the hustle and bustle of record making. It wasn’t long, however, before the quiet buzz surrounding the singer led a college representative from Epic Records to her doorstep. After hearing a short demo the label quickly inked a deal with the songbird, who made it clear that there was one man she wanted to have man the boards on her Epic debut: Stevie Wonder. A chance meeting with Wonder led to a personal and professional bond that not only birthed Riperton’s notable contributions to Wonder’s classic ‘Fulfillingness’ First Finale,’ but her Epic debut, 1974’s Perfect Angel.
As the classic cover shot of Riperton in overalls holding a dripping ice cream cone conveys, the album was steeped in the joys of girlish innocence and burgeoning womanhood. From the sweet title track to the intense, slow-burning ‘Every Time He Comes Around,’ the album was chock full of mellow soul treasures with a soft rock twist. But it was the fourth single, ‘Lovin’ You,’ that made Riperton a breakout star. A sparse gem that gave the masses their first taste of the singer’s stratospheric five-octave range, the single was a million seller and helped turn the Perfect Angel album gold.
On July 12, 1979, Riperton died in the arms of her husband as a recording made by Wonder played in the background
The follow-up, 1975’s jazzy, seductive Adventures in Paradise, didn’t pack the same commercial punch but remains the favorite of both hardcore and casual fans. Released during the same era as Marvin Gaye’s I Want You, Quincy Jones’ Body Heat and Leon Ware’s criminally underrated Musical Massage (the latter two featured Riperton), Paradise rounds out what is ultimately a circle of progressive, sexy soul. The album, as well as its hit single ‘Inside My Love’ revealed eroticism absent from her first two efforts. The beauty of Riperton’s approach here, however, was its powerful restraint: while the aural sex of Donna Summer and Barry White hit listeners over the head with explicit moans and carnal pronouncements, Riperton reeled you in with a simple whisper. Indeed, Paradise remains the ultimate exercise in subtle sensuality.
Sadly, it was during this fruitful period that tragedy struck. Riperton was diagnosed with breast cancer and initially given just six months to live. The singer carried on in spite of the devastating setback, living three more years and releasing two more albums in her lifetime, her 1977 Epic parting shot Stay In Love and her 1979 Capitol debut, Minnie. While pop audiences had long moved on, black buyers pushed the Minnie album into the pop Top 20 and the R&B Top 5, and handed the singer her final hit singles in the form of ‘Memory Lane’ and ‘Lover and Friend.’ Despite vibrant appearances from the likes of Wonder and Latin pop star Jose Feliciano, the album carries a dark undercurrent of finality that’s hard to overlook. Just as the record was taking off, doctors discovered Riperton’s cancer had returned and her condition began to deteriorate.
Riperton’s contributions to not only black music, but music overall, stand strong. Her songs are widely covered and sampled in modern hip hop, as everyone from A Tribe Called Quest to Junior M.A.F.I.A. have dipped into the Riperton canon for inspiration
On July 12, 1979, Riperton died in the arms of her husband as a recording made by Wonder played in the background. An outpouring of sorrow from the black musical community followed, as everyone from Teena Marie to Jean Carn dedicated their current releases to the fallen songbird. Flutist Hubert Laws recorded the lovely ballad ‘Memory of Minnie (Riperton)’ for his Family LP, and ‘Soul Train’ dedicated an entire episode to honoring Riperton’s memory. In a recent Vibe magazine article, Don Cornelius was quoted as saying the episode remains his favorite in the show’s history.
As music lovers reflected on the singer’s legacy, Capitol issued 1980’s Love Lives Forever, a Grammy-nominated collection of unreleased tracks augmented by an all-star cast of guests that included Peabo Bryson, Michael Jackson and George Benson. The album’s big hit, the Bryson-Riperton duet ‘Here We Go,’ made the R&B Top 20, and a best-of collection followed in 1981 that collated hits, live tracks and other rarities.
Riperton’s contributions to not only black music, but music overall, stand strong. Her songs are widely covered and sampled in modern hip hop, as everyone from A Tribe Called Quest to Junior M.A.F.I.A. have dipped into the Riperton canon for inspiration. Renewed interest in her back catalog yielded the excellent Petals: The Minnie Riperton Collection, the only overview of the singer’s career spanning her Chess days to her time at Capitol. And at long last, her entire catalog of solo albums is in circulation in various forms after years of being out of print. Beyond her records, Riperton lives on in daughter Maya Rudolph, one of the brightest stars of ‘Saturday Night Live.’ In fact, a very young Maya can be heard yelling backstage during Riperton’s interview with Cornelius during her first ‘Soul Train’ appearance.
As long as discerning music lovers continue to mine the annals of soul for superb, unaffected artistry, Minnie Riperton’s work will continue to capture new fans. A ‘special fan’ who wrote a thoughtful note for the back cover of Perfect Angel captured the essence of Riperton best: ‘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.’
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