Minnie Riperton

Before there was Mariah Carey, before there was Christina Aguilera, before there was Celine Dion, there was Minnie Riperton. The world might've accepted Minnie Riperton as a full-fledged diva vocalist, most likely singing opera, but Minnie simply had too much soul to be contained in such a narrow slot. She was a woman ahead of her time in so many, many ways.

Minnie Julia Riperton was born with an incredible vocal range of 5 octaves. She was capable of singing clearly in the "whistle" octave, which is what music theorists call the 7th octave. In case you aren't familiar with this, think of the last eight keys on the right hand side of a piano, the ones that make a plinking sound. Very few humans can voice those notes; Riperton was rarer in that she could voice and enunciate clearly (and apparently effortlessly) in the whistle register.

Opera purists and traditional vocal trainers consider the whistle register to be useless. In Minnie's early operatic and classical voice training, however, her voice coach encouraged her to make use of the full range of her instrument, defying tradition. She did so, and because her talent was always so obvious and overwhelming, friends and family simply assumed she would become a classical vocalist.

In the early 1960s the allure and popularity of Motown-style soul music resonated a lot clearer with a young black girl in Chicago, so the opera singing was left behind. In 1964 Riperton joined a local all-girl group called The Gems. Recording under names such as The Starlets, The Girls Three, and The Gems, this trio scored minor hits on the Chess label, and fell into session work for a number of Chess artists. The girls became known as Studio Three within Chess. Riperton also recorded as "Andrea Davis" and as part of a Chess creation called Rotary Connection, which was largely a collection of Chess session players.

Despite the fact that Riperton's voice was heard on hundreds of recordings on the Chess and its subsidiary labels, her music career during the 1960s could hardly be considered successful. In fact, she spent more time as a receptionist/secretary at Chess' Chicago headquarters. Considering the potential Riperton had in the world of opera and classical vocals, the fact that she gladly worked as a receptionist demonstrates her passion for the world of soul music. It was also during the late 1960s that she married songwriter Richard Rudolph, a white Jew. You might find this sort of mixed marriage commonplace today; believe it when we tell you that it was quite extraordinary at the time -- but again Minnie was always ahead of the times.

The legend that swirls around Riperton from this point in her career is as follows. She was supposedly at her duties as an office girl, walking around with files, absent-mindedly singing new words she adopted for a Ramsey Lewis song called "Les Fleur." Lewis, of course, was the top commercial artist on the Cadet label, which was how Chess marketed jazz recordings. Ramsey not only ruled the jazz scene in the late 1960s, he naturally carried a lot of weight at the label. By now you've probably guessed that he heard Minnie singing "Les Fleur" while she was shuttling files around the office, and pushed the Chess family to launch her as a solo.

Well he did, and they did, and in 1970 Minnie found herself headlining an album as a solo act. Leading off with "Les Fleurs," the album is called Come to My Garden. Lewis introduced her to the world, which was quite a feather for the singer. The album was an immediate critical success, but more or less stiffed commercially, and it didn't actually chart at first. The lead song, "Les Fleurs," is a powerful pop statement. Although virtually unheard at the time, Riperton's version is better known today than Ramsey Lewis' recording. It has been re-recorded a number of times, and has quietly become a pop classic. We've provided a link to a video of the song above, and urge you to give it a listen.

While none of the other tracks on Come to My Garden have the power of "Les Fleur," each is a terrific showcase for Riperton's incredible vocal talent. Many of the tracks have since been "rediscovered" and covered by today's black artists.

With so much emphasis on soul and r & b, why then do we discuss Minnie Riperton on PopularSong.org? She considered herself a soul singer, but the fact is that during her brief career she transcended soul music, and lit up the world of pop like a comet streaking across a night sky. Riperton had soul, but she was also jazz and pop -- and the classical training shone through it all. Her hit "Lovin' You" on its own is enough to firmly establish Minnie Riperton in the Great American Songbook. So let's get on with the story...

Unfortunately the world wasn't ready for Minnie Riperton in 1970. Although the power pop of Mariah and Celine and Christina would eventually rule the charts, Minnie's sound was at least 20 years ahead of its time. And so when America of 1970 had no idea what to do with a lady who had a huge voice and afro to match, Minnie simply shrugged and became a homemaker. And so she finally found a place to be herself, to enjoy her soul. Minnie was married, had a couple children (one of whom is comedienne Maya Rudolph) and was probably having the best years of her life. She only made occasional forays into the studio to voice demos for Rudolph, a successful songwriter. Otherwise, Minnie Riperton was retired.

Here's where yet another legend kicks in.

Supposedly in 1973 a college intern at Epic Records heard a demo Minnie made, hunted her down...and was alarmed to find her retired and raising children. Eventually this led to a recording deal with Epic, with quite a bit of involvement and arrangements by Stevie Wonder. At that time Wonder was king of the r & b/soul charts, and anything with his stamp was more or less guaranteed to be listened to -- much the same as jazzman Ramsey Lewis was a few years earlier.

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featured performance

Les Fleur Minnie's lead is simply amazing, as are the performances by the jazz greats that were assembled to provide the backing track. This recording has slowly but surely gained status approaching that of "Lovin' You," which is of course her signature song. Please note you have to click the little arrow thing twice to play the track.

Minnie Riperton, continued from column at left

Once again Minnie recorded a significant album, with songs that were simply superior to much of the chart hits of the day. The album was Perfect Angel, and featured a single release of the title track, as well as singles "Reasons" and "Take a Little Trip." None of these were considered hits, yet the album posted modest sales. It also had significant critical acclaim, and a compelling cover photo of Minnie in a sexy denim coverall pose with an ice cream cone melting in her hand.

Just prior to making a follow-up album, Epic released "Lovin' You" as a single, supposedly at Rudolph's urging. whatever prompted it doesn't matter, the important thing is that it gave the public an opportunity to hear Minnie at her 5 octave finest. The song was easy to like, and had a simple sound that couldn't be confined to just pop or soul or easy listening. In fact it scored well on each of those charts, rocketing to the top of the pop and easy listening (adult contemporary) charts in April 1975. The album, which was by now almost a year old, soared up the charts.

Suddenly America was in love with Minnie Riperton, and music lovers scurried to find her previous work, which by now was limited to her 1970 solo release. These sales put Come to My Garden on the charts, although with only minor success in the bottom fourth of the Billboard Top 200 Albums. It is from these mid-1970s sales that most Riperton fans are familiar with earlier work such as "Les Fleur," even though a majority claim to have been fans from "long before." Well, it doesn't matter. Minnie was on The Tonight Show, the Mike Douglas Show, and just about anywhere and everywhere. Other than "Lovin' You," most people didn't know her songs, but they knew she had just about the most amazing voice they'd ever heard.

Unfortunately Minnie was stricken with breast cancer at the very peak of her career. She continued to make appearances and record, and perhaps most importantly, she was candid with the public about her cancer. This was at a time when many viewed breast cancer as something of a source of shame -- something that shouldn't be talked about. Riperton, however, spoke openly, and as a nation we watched her battle and eventually die. Her courage brought America out of the dark ages when it came to breast cancer, and for that she deserves far more credit than she receives.

Subsequent albums sold well, although none captured the magic of "Lovin' You." It didn't matter; Riperton herself was magic, with her clear voice and her bold fight against cancer. When she passed away in 1979 it was obvious that her voice was silenced way too soon.

And so with it now 30 years marking her passing, we're proud to remember Minnie Riperton as our first "artist of the month" in 2009.

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To revisit last month's feature artist, Frank Sinatra, please click here.