Minnie Riperton is best known for her rare, five-octave vocal register that reached into what professional musicians call "the whistle range." With the release of her 1974 "Perfect Angel" album, many assumed hers was a storybook discovery of which Hollywood films are made.
Truth is, Riperton labored for a number of years as a backup singer, including stints as one of Ray Charles' Raelettes and for Stevie Wonder's Wonderlove.
Minnie Julia Riperton, the youngest of eight children, was born in 1947 in Chicago. Her parents, Daniel and Thelma, exposed their daughter to the arts at an early age, but quickly discovered her vocal talents and immersed her in musical training.
Riperton studied operatic vocal training at the Lincoln Center, learning to practice breath control, holding vowels for extended times and perfecting enunciation. In addition to her octave range, Riperton also had the ability to mimic instruments and birds. Her teacher pushed Riperton to study at Chicago's Junior Lyric Opera, but the siren call of soul, rock and R&B was much stronger.
When she was 15, Riperton made her professional debut singing for The Gems, a girl group signed with Chess Records, perhaps best known for the song "That's What They Put Erasers on Pencils For." The group eventually became session singers for other artists and released a number of records under various names, including the Starlets and Girls Three.
At Chess, Riperton met and was mentored by producer Billy Davis, who wrote and produced hits for a number of artists, including Etta James, The Dells, Billy Stewart, Jackie Wilson and Fontella Bass, either alone or in collaboration with other writers. Davis wrote a couple of songs that were local hits in Riperton's native Chicago: "Lonely Girl" and "You Gave Me Soul."
Soon after making her mark on the local airwaves under the name Andrea Davis - a name change made as a salute to her mentor - Riperton became the lead singer for Rotary Connection, a funk-rock-soul group that was the brainchild of Marshall Chess, the son of Chess founder Leonard Chess. The band consisted of Riperton, Chess, Judy Hauff, Sidney Barnes and Charles Stepney. The group made its self-titled debut album in 1967, and released four more albums over the next three years before Riperton embarked on a solo career.
In an interview with Edwin Black for the Nov. 26, 1970 edition of Downbeat magazine, Stepney recalled the band's formation, which started when "Marshall Chess wanted to get into some psychedelic or acid-rock material," he said. "Chess owned a small European label, Pye, and he thought we could fill the time between bands with something."
"I arranged related percussion and some new-stream vocal into those spaces," remembers Stepney. "Chess was so impressed with the thing, we took the studio kids that did the work and gave them a name - I think it was Chess' idea - Rotary Connection. We did a whole album of the stuff, a little Moog, a little electronic alteration, and the style caught on instantly."
Stepney was especially enthusiastic about Riperton's voice.
"This chick has a soprano range of about four octaves, a whole lot of soul, she's good-looking and she's got the experience of Rotary behind her."
Stepney went on to produce Riperton's 1970 solo debut album, "Come to My Garden," featuring 10 of his compositions and one other arrangement.
During her Rotary years, Riperton met her future husband and songwriting partner, Richard Rudolph. The couple had two children, Marc and Maya, the latter of whom is a beloved regular on NBC's "Saturday Night Live."
Music critic John Murph wrote that "Come to My Garden" ultimately became a celebrated touchstone and - in hindsight - a critical success, even though it was a commercial flop. The title song, Murph wrote, was "a signature touchstone for one of today's most celebrated electronica acts. The disc picked up on the heady psychedelic soul Riperton had concocted with Rotary Connection - and, more significantly, producer Charles Stepney, who went on to produce some of Earth, Wind & Fire's finest mid-'70s classics.
"Distinguished by haunting string and brass orchestrations and a soulful bottom end, 'Come to My Garden' was roundly dismissed at the time of its release," Murph wrote, "But, thanks in large part to the British duo 4Hero, it has become a cult classic."
Jazz pianist Joe Sample, who worked with Riperton, told USA Today in a 2001 interview that Riperton was highly creative, maintaining that "there are very few people given talents like that."
Another jazz great, Ramsey Lewis, told the newspaper "the tone of her voice was as beautiful in the low register as it was in the high register."
In 1973, Riperton was working with Wonderlove when Epic Records execs heard one of her demo tapes. Riperton signed with Epic, which produced "Perfect Angel." The title cut and a song called "Take A Little Trip" were penned and arranged by Stevie Wonder. Deniece Williams was a background singer on several cuts and was the operatic soprano in the background of "Every Time He Comes Around." But it was "Lovin' You," written by Riperton and Rudolph, that rocked the charts. It is still a staple among old school jams on R&B stations.
The song proved to be a mixed blessing. It propelled Riperton to stardom, but it also made her something of a musical anomaly. Listeners began to expect every song to expose that whistle register pitch, but Riperton went on to show an incredible range stylistically. Her other songs, however, never reached the acclaim of "Lovin' You."
An interesting bit of trivia: "Lovin' You" was the lullaby-like melody created to keep baby Maya occupied and content so that her parents could have some downtime.
Riperton's subsequent records were modest hits at best, even after a move to Capitol Records in 1978. VH-1 called Riperton a one-hit wonder and many young adults today know Riperton's music only by its sampling in rap songs -- among them A Tribe Called Quest's use of "Baby This Love I Have" for the "Check the Rhime" in 1991 and "Inside My Love" for "Lyrics to Go" two years later; Tupac Shakur sample of Riperton's "Inside My Love" in the title song of his 1995 album "Me Against The World" and, a year later, Slum Village's sample of Riperton's vocals and keyboard sounds in the "Look of Love (Remix)" on its "Fan-Tas-tic (Vol. 1)" album.
"Petals," an double-CD anthology of Riperton's work released in 2001, also introduced Riperton's work to a new audience and reminded longtime fans of the singer's breadth and depth.
"I wanted people to have a broader understanding that there was more to Minnie than just 'Lovin' You,'" A. Scott Galloway, who produced and compiled the anthology, told USA Today. "She was a very broad and spiritual person and was committed to sharing positive thoughts through her music."
In 1976, in an interview on "The Tonight Show," Riperton disclosed that she had undergone a mastectomy for breast cancer. The cancer, however, had spread to her lymphatic system. Still, Riperton continued touring and became a national spokesman for the American Cancer Society in 1978. She died July 12, 1979.
On the back cover of the "Perfect Angel" album, there is the following brief tribute to Riperton signed only by "A Very Special Fan:"
"When Minnie sings, I feel my insides rush and quiver. She touches a place in me where no one else can go. It's hard to believe how incredibly high and beautiful Minnie can sing. But I know her, and I believe. Sometimes I just lay back and try to imagine how sweet her soul must be. Thank you for your music, Minnie ... A gift of love for all the world to see."