Subconsciously, throughout this whole month there was an album and specifically an artist I was reminiscing about all through it. Something, about September reminds me about her. For me, September has always been one of my favorite months. I never can pinpoint why exactly. It could be that the environment reminds me of certain things that need to be stressed in one’s life. It could be how time is very temporal. It could be how nature signals the coming of two things: when its flowers give way to its leaves, and their change in color…and how this signals the oncoming of winter to start the whole process again.
For some reason, unconsciously, I avoid trying to do many things indoors during this month. It feels natural to go outside, and take in something, maybe nature, maybe good company, maybe a temperate air instead. For me, it seems important to value a golden time that will shift soon to a tougher season. I guess, its for all these reasons that Minnie’s music and her life, in a way, have been on my mind.
Minnie’s life was a life dramatically cut short by breast cancer. At the age of 31, after a failed masectomy, Minnie’s inspiring musical career and life was over. Obscured in life by one monumental hit, Minnie somehow remained obscured from time. The time before her death yield some of the most forward thinking R&B music that was ever made, and left us forever thinking about what could have been. Born in 1947 in Chicago’s South Side, in the Hyde Park neighborhood, from a young age she displayed an immense talent belying her years. Graced by an incredible vocal range, spanning five octaves, as a teenager she was already backing up many artists under the Chess record label, home of Ramsey Lewis, Chuck Berry, and Muddy Waters to name a few. All of those artists were well known jazz, R&B, or blues artists, but something about Minnie was different. Her own musical tastes ran the gamut far further than that.
While she was studying vocal technique in prep school, educating herself in the phrasing of opera and Broadway, she was also developing a deep interest in R&B, rock, and jazz. Its that ability to sing in any style that was surprisingly different for her peers. Unfortunately, that range also made it hard for her to get viewed as anything but a backup singer. Her early years working at Chess involved mostly being on call as vocal backup or taking calls as a secretary. However, by 1967 Leonard Chess, the head of Chess Records, wanted to branch out away from rock and blues his label was known for. In 1967, he created a new label, Cadet Records, specifically to experiment with psych and art rock, and recruited two important members to form a group that would be dubbed the Rotary Connection.
This group led by vibraphonist Charles Stepney, and featuring the lead vocals of one Minnie Riperton, took a headlining role in adding psychedelic soul arrangements to the work of Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf. Their own music featured dreamy re-imaginings and reinterpretations of famous rock songs like “The Weight” or “Lady Jane”. What stood out from their music wasn’t really the group itself but the production and singing. On one hand you had Charles’ thoroughly inventive compositions and on the other you had Minnie’s commanding shape-shifting voice.
After the dissolution of Rotary Connection in 1969, Charles convinced Minnie to set out on her own convincing her to let him produce and arrange her first album. This album, 1970’s Come into My Garden, was her first masterpiece. Sounding like if you took Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks band and hooked them up with Make it Easy On Yourself-era Burt Bacharach to create a soul epic a la Curtis Mayfield’s Curtis…but then make it sound beyond that. Fusing art pop, soul, jazz, post-bossanova, and folk like something that never existed before, Minnie and her future husband Richard Rudolph crafted lyrics and melodies which Charles would expand into these massive arrangements that created a kind of “chamber soul” that worked perfectly with Minnie’s voice.
Songs like “Les Fleurs“, “Come to My Garden“, and “Expecting” shock those who expect the routine soft-pop of what we think Minnie should sound like. Take a song like “Rainy Day in Centerville” which cycles through lush orchestrated pop with shifts through darkness and light that create so many utterly unique rhythmic ideas, ideas plenty of bands would kill for, that one wonders why stuff like this doesn’t get created anymore. This whole album, with its concept on celebrating nature, just does so, so brilliantly. With the help of Ramsey Lewis’ group and Maurice White of Earth, Wind, and Fire on drums, you’ve got some killer players who bring their A-game to capture the full range of Minnie’s influences.
Its no wonder that this debut album which was so thoroughly ignored then is slowly being recognized as the masterpiece it rightfully was. This album also allowed Charles to move on and create some of the best works by Terry Callier, Ramsey Lewis, Earth, Wind and Fire, and influence countless others who felt like they could overcome being slapped with the soul label. However, this commercial failure made Minnie go into semi-retirement. Rather than work on her musical career, Minnie was living as a housewife married to Richard, and was raising her first child Maya Rudolph in Florida. Somehow, the Epic record label convinced her to come out retirement and Stevie Wonder to take a stab at producing her comeback record.
Stevie agreed to, using a pseudonym “El Toro Negro”, so that all the spotlight would shine on Minnie an artist he was a huge fan of. Truth be told, although the album shared all the great musicians, like Malcolm and Robert from Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, and he himself playing a ton of instruments was a step in a new direction for Minnie, mostly dialing back a bit of the superfluous orchestration of her debut, but missing a bit of Minnie’s own uniqueness.
Of course, the massive hit was the one that almost wasn’t, “Loving You”. Originally, meant to be filler, something to pad the album, and based on a lullaby they sang to Maya, Minnie and Richard contributed perhaps the best track of the album. Over a tape loop of birds chirping, Richard plays a very tender minor-key folk melody that Minnie uses to just floor you with her voice. Tons like Mariah Carey, Whitney etc. would attempt to match her range, but none ever mastered the tenderness and taste Minnie has. Its the song that etched her name forever in pop but the album itself only reach Gold status making it a minor hit.
However, Epic didn’t quite know how to market her. If you listen to other tracks from the album like the country-soul of “It’s So Nice (To See Old Friends)”, or the Laura Nyro-like SOHO-pop of “Seeing You this Way“, and songs that sound like warm ups for Stevie’s own Fulfillingness First Finale like “Take a Little Trip to Your Mind” you can understand the roving muse that Minnie had but wasn’t quite attaining. The album was a great warmup for Minnie but it wasn’t quite the masterpiece everyone was expecting after her hiatus. Its no wonder, that when she could focus on others work for a bit, like in Stevie’s “Creepin‘” you could hear hints of the greatness that would come in her next album Adventures in Paradise, an album that should have defined her as an iconoclast.
In 1975, after the initial success of “Loving You” was wearing off, Epic urged Minnie to record a follow up asap. In a way, by happenstance, that actually turned out to help Minnie musically. This time around, Stevie couldn’t produce since he was busy on his own record. Now Minnie and Richard had to find producers and musicians who could let them have more reins on their sound. The people who stepped up to the plate were a remarkable list of musician’s musicians. On the boards you would have people like Joe Sample from the jazz-soul group the Crusaders and Leon Ware fresh off helping create Marvin Gaye’s amazing I Want You, on strings and harp you would have Dorothy Ashby(!), and on guitars Richard and pre-Joni Mitchell Hejira-era Larry Carlton.
Much like the cover, showing Minnie sublimely seating next to a lion, the sound on this release is womanly with a capital W. It’s a sound that Minnie hadn’t exhibited before. No longer as innocent, no longer as restrained, now free to explore new moods: some sexier, some classier, but all thoroughly unique.
Kicking off with a banger of a track co-created with Leon Ware, “Baby, This Love I Have“, signals this shift in direction. Owning her needs and desires, the slinky funk dances around Minnie’s sultry vocals, which squeal in exasperation whenever some need isn’t fulfilled. Then, they continue this seductive sound with the orchestral dance groove of “Feelin’ That Your Feelin’s Right” which shows a newfound restraint that Minnie uses with her voice to match the tone of the sound. Both of those serving to remind us of the huge influence Minnie has in modern R&B in the likes of Ciara, Adina Howard, Aaliyah etc. The N’Orleans soul of “When it Comes Down to It” doesn’t quite prepare you for the shifting, haunting sound of “Minnie’s Lament” which shares more in common with In a Silent Way-era Miles Davis or Scott Walker’s 3, than Burt Bacharach, but lets you know to keep your ears prepared for unexpected detours. Side A, finishes with the reggae-tinged bossanova of “Love and It’s Glory” another beautiful song for her children which brings to mind the masterful laid-back work of Donald Byrd.
Side B, kicks off with the title track featuring a tour de force for Minnie’s whisper register, trying to match the ferocity of art funk that the Crusaders are slinging, growling and straining to the upper limits of her voice. After this track comes the centerpiece of this album, and its best track the utterly timeless “Inside My Love” a love ballad, of love in all its myriad ways, and sadly a hit that never was. Leon Ware, originally wrote this song to describe the love one has when one accepts the Lord inside them, but Minnie and Richard transformed this into something else altogether. Much like Junior Delahaye’s “All I Need is Jah” which transforms the love of a higher spirit into an all encompassing love, in all its deeper levels, Minnie uses the feeling to sing about something more than sex. Of course, the sound and the feel of the song suggest something else, but the more you listen to Minnie’s delivery and the lyrics you can see how deeply intimate this song really goes.
Going even deeper, now into the ethereal and melancholic, starts the positively way too modern for its time art-folk of “Alone in Brewster Bay“. This song, a song that I would have to believe was a huge influence on artists like Kate Bush, Suzanne Vega, or Tori Amos starts to predicts a strain of art pop that would only exist much, much later. The song begins with Richard playing a beautiful English-Folk-lilting acoustic melody. Over this same melody you hear that wonderful range of Minnie’s. Matching the English-lilting view of that bay you can hear Minnie adopting a similar Victorian vocal phrasing which Kate would use much later in songs like “Man with the Child in his Eyes” that broach on the same topic. Its trackstrack like these that make you start to realize the unique brilliance of Minnie. Then after this new pop sound, you get the country-samba funk of “Simple Things” a magnificent ode to just enjoying the simple things of life, sung in another extremely tasteful way like Minnie only could. Then taking you home, is the very urbane piano balladry of “Don’t Let Anyone Bring You Down” which woos you with Minnie’s vocal flight into the night.
In the end, as Minnie found out while shooting the cover for this album, the time left for her here on Earth was going to be a dogfight. Its around this time, she’d be diagnosed with breast cancer, severely cutting down any chance she could go out and promote the record. From then on, Minnie fought this cancer valiantly and simply focused on releasing albums rather than go on promotional or concert tours. Shifting her mind away from fame, she became a spokesperson for the American National Cancer Society, another signal of that shift in priorities.
Although some minor masterpieces like 1977’s Stay In Love and her final album recorded in 1978, Minnie, spoke of her resolve to keep her musical career going, years of treatments and failure took a toll on her. She had stopped performing by then simply because her body couldn’t respond like it used to, notably her right arm becoming immobilized by lymphedema. Finally, two months after the release of Minnie she died in Richard’s arms while listening to a song Stevie Wonder made for her. So ended, the career of a musician who captured so many styles and emotions with one thoroughly unique voice.
If, you’ve gotten this far, what does Minnie’s life mean to you and how does it relate to September? For me, its that you can’t be closed off from life and change. Those trees you see out there, the ones that are going to show their most beautiful of colors in two weeks, those trees are going to shed all their leaves soon and shift into a muted gradient. Before we shift into that muted gray of life, we must learn to appreciate that short bit of time when we we’re able to see all these other colors we don’t normally get to see. Some prefer the taste of the city life and to stay indoors, but I’d rather experience a bit of a unique view, one that reminds me of this girl with flowers in her hair. I guess for you, hopefully, in this case and month its been showing you different shades of music, that are just there, ready to be appreciated…if, only for this short amount of time…