Minnie Riperton/Rotary Connection
Reviewed on this page:
Rotary Connection -
Aladdin - Songs - Dinner Music - Come To My Garden - Hey Love - Perfect Angel - Stay In Love - Minnie - Love Lives Forever
Minnie Riperton was sort of the Boomer version of Yma Sumac,
best known for her ultra-high vocal range. But she and her husband
Richard Rudolph also knew how to write a great melody, and
after escaping from the gimmicky late 60s prog band Rotary Connection, Riperton
found solo success with the #1 hit "Lovin' You." After a short run of
less successful albums, Riperton died of cancer in 1979 at the age of
31. She's not discussed much today, and I think that's partly because
she wasn't really a great singer: despite her strong, clear voice and
spectacular range, she didn't come up with many compelling
interpretations. But what do I know; I'm just some idiot on the internet.
There's a terrific fan site. (DBW)
Rotary Connection (Rotary Connection: 1967)
Not your typical psychedelic pop record, this was the brainchild of Marshall Chess (son of Chess Records founder Leonard),
who wanted to take the Beatles' innovations of classical instrumentation, phenomenal production
values, and crazy experimentation to their extreme. He assembled a very talented team: arranger and composer Charles
Stephney went on to tremendous success with Earth Wind & Fire; bandmember Sidney Barnes was soon to
work with George Clinton; and backup singer Riperton would later make her name as a solo artist.
The arrangements rely heavily on choral singing, plus organ and strings, and occasional sitar, theremin and
tabla: no guitars to speak of. At its best the record integrates classical methods better than anything else going on at the time ("Amen"), and the production is ear-catching ("Soul Man").
At its worst, the group is just covering tunes by better bands, all using the same neoclassical schtick - like the Vanilla Fudge with chops. Unfortunately, the record's at its worst
about four times as often as it's at its best: there are half a dozen painful endless covers like "Ruby Tuesday" and "Like A
Rolling Stone." The disc loses further points for including brief snippets of each track at the end of
the record (title track), and for an uncredited ripoff of the Beatles' "Hello Goodbye" fade ("Black Noise").
Definitely of interest to students of 60s psychedelia, but probably to no one else. (DBW)
Aladdin (Rotary Connection: 1968)
A collection of originals, a mix of overproduced 5th Dimension-style pop
(the horrendously tacky "Teach Me How To Fly," with squealing sci-fi theremin) and self-conscious psychedelia ("Magical World" by Barnes). The title track, by hired guns Artie Kornfeld and Steve Duboff, combines both approaches, with a "far out" lyrical concept and an MOR arrangement. The opening "Life Could" is a pastiche of so many late 60s clichés - hushed portentous hippie vocals; trilling flutes; random snatches of fuzz guitar; a brass section playing the "Foxey Lady" riff - it's almost epic. Riperton's voice is mostly used for freak-out effect (the fade of "V.I.P."), though then again, almost everything here is used for freak-out effect (dig the "square" voiceovers in "Let Them Talk"). The orchestra and rhythm section is very professional ("Paper Castle"); it's a shame all that proficiency is wasted on such trite material.
Peace (Rotary Connection: 1968)
A Christmas album. (DBW)
Songs (Rotary Connection: 1969)
All covers this time, and the formula is simple: psychedelic rock is reinterpreted with string arrangements ("The
Burning Of The Midnight Lamp"), while soul and blues
(the Muddy Waters hit "I Got My Mojo Working"; Otis Redding's
"Respect") is treated with gaga disorted guitar soloing. Next, consider that the band took on many of the most overrecorded songs of the era ("The Weight") and you'll probably skip to the next review. There are some decent moments, though: a relatively uncluttered "Tales Of Brave Ulysses"; a deconstructed take on "Salt Of The Earth."
And there's an otherwise unrecorded Stevie Wonder original, the ethereal contemplative "This Town."
Dinner Music (Rotary Connection: 1969)
Written largely by new bandmember Jon Stocklin ("Pointillism/We Will Be Free"),
who apparently learned everything he needed to know about life from Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.
Barnes sneaked in his "May Our Amens Be True," though, and there's a cover of the Billy Eckstein/Earl Hines standard "Stormy Monday Blues."
Though production gimmicks still appear ("Lektricks #1"; "Lektricks #2"), the orchestrations aren't as lavish, so some gentle songs are given room to breathe ("Living Alone," with a sedate Riperton lead indicating the path she would explore on Perfect Angel).
The writing, though, is still a problem, with tacky fare like "Country Things"; the intriguing, brief orchestral interlude "Quartet" far outshines the real songs.
Come To My Garden (1971)
Like her Rotary Connection work, this was produced by Charles Stephney. But this time he eschews silly psychedelia, so the overdramatic moments are all brought to you by the orchestra ("Rainy Day In Centerville"), while the quieter numbers are carried sensitive backing and mellow orchestrations ("Completeness").
As a result, the record veers between soft-rock a la Roberta Flack and Broadway belting like early Dionne Warwick, but Riperton doesn't have the distinctive songwriting or, more importantly, the poise of those artists. So while a lot of tunes are pleasant - the bossa nova "Memory Band"; "Close Your Eyes And Remember" - nothing's really striking.
Most of the lyrics are by Riperton's husband, Richard Rudolph, and they're a more expansive, cosmic version of Rotary Connection's usual hippiness ("Les Fleurs").
The rhythm section is the Ramsey Lewis Trio (including Maurice White on drums), plus guitarist Phil Upchurch. (DBW)
Hey Love (Rotary Connection: 1971)
The first Riperton solo album didn't exactly set the charts on fire, so the followup was released under the Rotary Connection name
though Riperton sings most of the leads and Rudolph wrote most of the songs (usually with Stepney). This didn't sell either, but it's a marked improvement, as the orchestral flourishes finally sound organic ("If I Sing My Song") and many of the songs actually stand on their own (the lilting title track; "I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun," covered in the late 90s by Nuyorican Soul - a recycling of the same descending string line they'd used on "Respect"). The corniness of the other records is still present ("Love Is," with random country-Western filigree) but more tastefully handled... not as groundbreaking as the group's debut, but more listenable.
Perfect Angel (1974)
A hit album in a gentle pop-rock vein, mostly produced by Stevie
Wonder. (Besides writing the excellent title track and tuneful
but unsurprising "Take A Little Trip," Wonder contributed drums,
keyboards and harmonica throughout the LP.) Her signature song "Lovin'
You" (recently covered by Shanice
Wilson) is here, and tracks like "Reasons" are also entertaining.
Stevie takes a page from Duke Ellington's book on the hard-rocking
"Every Time He Comes Around," featuring Denise Williams' soaring,
wordless soprano in the background. Although Riperton doesn't project
much passion, the album is still head and shoulders above most of the
pop product of the day. (DBW)
Adventures In Paradise (1975)
Stay In Love (1977)
Abandoning guitar-based soft rock, Riperton and Rudolph jumped onto the
disco bandwagon with this release, produced by Freddie Perren, but they
didn't know their way around the idiom. It's two parts Donna Summer, one part Roberta
Flack, cartoonishly sexual ("Young Willing & Able") and packed with
lyrical and musical clichés ("Can You Feel What I'm Saying?"). In
this superslick context her high register sounds more than ever like a
carnival trick, devoid of emotional impact. The only enjoyable tunes are
the closing ballad (title track), which captures some of the mellow
power of "Lovin' You," and "Stick Together," an interesting mess
co-written by Stevie Wonder with far more
musical sections than a typical disco tune. The band is very
high-powered: Wilton Felder, Sonny Burke (whose great piano work adds a
half-star to the rating), Scott Edwards, Chuck Rainey, Paulinho Da Costa, and Marlo
Henderson; the surprise guest star is Pam Grier on finger snaps.
In a retreat from the last album's excesses, Riperton, Rudolph and
new co-producer Henry Lewy tried for a
soft-rock/disco hybrid. It works best on the bouncy confection "Memory
Lane" and the well-named "Dancin' & Actin' Crazy"; but on lesser numbers
like "I'm A Woman" and the tranquilized "Return To Forever" it's
downright irritating, and incredibly weak lyrics ("Love hurts when love
hurts") don't help. The low point is a disco remake of The Doors' "Light My Fire" with José
Feliciano adding silly bilingual ad libs. Stevie doesn't write any tunes this time, but he
arranged and played all the instruments on "Lover And Friend,"
another Rudolph-Riperton original which didn't deserve the favor.
Unfortunately, Sonny Burke isn't on hand, having been replaced by Randy
"The Great Randini" Waldman. (DBW)
Love Lives Forever (1980)
It doesn't get much more crass than this: a collection of 1978 outtakes
dredged up, overdubbed and released to cash in on her death.
Guests are numberless: Roberta Flack & Peabo Bryson ("Here We Go"), Michael Jackson ("I'm In Love Again"), Wonder (harmonica on "Give Me Time") and Patrice Rushen ("The Song Of Life") is only the A-List. The band is megavets Paul Jackson, Abe Laboriel, Harvey Mason, Greg Phillinganes and some guy I never heard of.
Produced (with Rudolph), arranged, orchestrated and conducted by Johnny Pate, but apart from some odd string flourishes it's far less innovative than his Impressions work; the original sessions, from which everything but Riperton's vocals were scrubbed, were produced by Leonard Caston.
The songs, you ask? Well, the songs are by Riperton and Rudolph again, and they're more of the same tame, instantly forgettable disco-pop as Minnie... the fastest it gets is low-carb Donna Summer ("Strange Affair"), and the slowest it gets is a reworking of "Lovin' You" ("I'm In Love Again"). The guests can't make much headway with this stuff: Wonder's solo is characteristic but aimless; Rushen's voice sounds so much like Riperton's, and her electric piano is mixed so low, there wasn't much point in bringing her on board.
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