Tuesday, May 26, 2009
One-Hit Wonder Week: "Lovin' You," by Minnie Riperton
The youngest of eight children, Minnie Riperton was recognized early on as a vocal prodigy, and she received serious operatic training while growing up in her hometown of Chicago. But the pop world called as well, and at age 15, Minnie joined a singing group called the Gems. While they didn't have any hit records, the Gems became well-known in Chicago, and before long they were a sought-after troupe of studio singers. Minnie reportedly cut high school to go do recording sessions for ten bucks a pop. After high school, she went to work as a receptionist at Chess Records, and she supposedly backed up people like Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Etta James at Chess sessions, but I don't know for sure that that's true.
Riperton eventually met a songwriter/producer named Billy Davis (not the one who married Marilyn McCoo), who had written "Rescue Me" for Fontella Bass. (The Gems did the backing vocals on that one.) Calling herself Andrea Davis, Minnie cut a single, "Lonely Girl," which was a local hit, then became the singer for a kind of psychedelic prog group called Rotary Connection, which had been put together by Marshall Chess, Leonard Chess' son. Still just 19 when she joined up, Riperton stayed with Rotary Connection for three years and five albums.
One songwriter that Rotary Connection worked with was a young man named Richard Rudolph, and when Minnie went to record her first solo album, Come to My Garden, in 1971, she brought along Rudolph to write most of the lyrics. They also got married. Future Earth, Wind and Fire-meister Maurice White played drums on the album, but it didn't go anywhere.
With her solo career not exactly gaining traction, Riperton kept on working as a backup singer, which led her to Stevie Wonder. She joined Wonderlove, Stevie's troupe of background singers, in 1973, and sang on his album Fulfillingness' First Finale. In turn, Stevie coproduced (with Richard Rudolph, under the nom de guerre Scorbu Productions) Minnie's second solo album, Perfect Angel, and wrote the title track and another song, "Take a Little Trip." (The other seven songs were all written by Riperton and Rudolph.) Stevie played piano, too, under the name El Toro Negro.
Epic released three singles from the album, including "Take a Little Trip," but none of them charted. The label was about to give up when Rudolph persuaded them to try one more single, "Lovin' You," which had initially been sung as a lullaby to Minnie's daughter, Maya. Maya, a year and a half old at the time, was there in the studio when her mother cut the track, and is name-checked on the outro.
"Lovin' You" was released in January 1975, and crashed the Top Forty on February 15. It reached the top of the chart on April 5, staying at Number One for a single week.
Minnie's follow-up album, Adventures in Paradise, spawned a Top Five R&B hit in "Inside My Love," but contained no pop hits. It was apparently around this time that Riperton discovered she had cancer. In 1976, she went on The Tonight Show and told guest host Flip Wilson - who had no prior knowledge of the situation - that she was suffering from breast cancer and had undergone a mastectomy. My guess is that he flipped.
Riperton continued to make records while also becoming a spokeswoman for cancer awareness. President Carter gave her the American Cancer Society's Courage Award; she was named that organization's national education chair. Though the spreading cancer had immobilized her right arm, she continued to sing on TV; there's a clip of her with Mike Douglas in which she hardly moves, but seems in good spirits. Her final album, Minnie, came out early in 1979 and went to Number 29 on the pop album charts. In what would be her final TV appearance, she appeared on The Merv Griffin Show on July 6th of that year. Six days later, in her husband's arms and with a song Stevie Wonder had written for her playing in the background, Minnie Riperton died at the age of 31. Maya Rudolph turned seven a couple of weeks later.
Those ridiculously high notes Minnie hits are known as the whistle register, and while a fair number of singers can hit them, Minnie was one of the few who could sing in those tones. She had a five-and-a-half-octave range. “I’ve met only three people who had a truly wonderful voice and spirit to match," Stevie Wonder said many years after Riperton's death. "My first wife Syreeta, Minnie Riperton and Mariah.” Here's the second of those two on The Midnight Special: