Stevie Wonder said of the late Minnie Riperton (the singer died on July 12, 1979) that it had been an honor to work with her and that “she was a very talented woman who did not get the due recognition in her lifetime for her magnificent voice.” Her talent shines through on the compilation album Minnie Riperton: Her Chess Years, which features 16 songs recorded over the period 1963-71, covering her work with girl band The Gems through to Chicago-based psychedelic soul group Rotary Connection.
The Chicago-born Riperton was a trained opera singer who possessed a rare five-octave range, and few singers of her generation could match her vocal skills. After signing to Chess Records as a teenager, she served an apprenticeship as a backing vocalist before eventually achieving solo success, with one album produced by Wonder.
Singing with The Gems gave Riperton an opportunity to showcase her talents, and she had minor hits with “All Of It” and – under the name Andrea Davis – “Lonely Girl,” the opening two tracks on this compilation. Both feature her glittering falsetto high notes.
In 1968, she became the lead vocalist with Rotary Connection, who achieved some fame after being used by Marshall Chess as the backing band for electric albums by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Riperton recorded six albums with Rotary Connection, including one that blended psychedelia, soul, and Christmas. That work is represented on Her Chess Years by the tracks “Christmas Love,” a song penned by Chess songwriter Cash McCall (aka Morris Dollison), and the traditional hymn “Silent Night,” given a psychedelic makeover.
Chess songwriter Sidney Barnes, a founder member of Rotary Connection and the man who wrote the track “Magical World,” believes that some of her finest singing came in the late 60s when she was the lead singer for the experimental band, who recorded under the Chess subsidiary label Cadet Records. They recorded the Eric Clapton co-written Cream song “Tales Of Brave Ulysses” and also covered “We’re Going Wrong,” a hit for Cream that was written by Jack Bruce. Barnes said, “Minnie hits some notes on “We’re Going Wrong” which I’m sure no human has never hit before or since.”
Among the other successes are a slow and funky cover version of Otis Redding’s “Respect” and a version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Burning Of The Midnight Lamp.” There is also the sweet acoustic ballad “A-Muse,” written by Rotary Connection’s Jon Stocklin.
Her Chess Years gives a flavor of the complexity and depth of Minnie Riperton’s work. Many great artists have been taken far too young, but the death of Minnie Riperton – whose daughter is actress and comedian Maya Rudolph – from breast cancer at the cruelly early age of 31 cut short a career that had burned brightly in the 60s and 70s, and would undoubtedly have led to many more decades of great music.