Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Maximal to Minimal: Minnie Riperton: "Lovin You"

Now I feel we have reached a song that divides people to this day – is it good? Is it unbearably twee and girly and yuck? Certainly the latter was my reaction to it once I had grown up a bit, had my own radio and so on. For all I know this is how some still respond to it, because of Riperton’s high voice, because of the birds tweeting away, because they think music (particularly by women) must somehow involve suffering, and there is no suffering here. There is no struggle here, no abandonment, no imminent collapse or mourning. It is all love, optimism and joy.

I listen to this now and carefully note that this is a heroic tugboat of a song. Happiness with a strong voice (a coloratura voice with four octaves) gliding along emphatically as well as gracefully. She looks forward to the future, knowing in her heart it will always be springtime, there will always be birds chirping and sunshine and and....

Let me back up a bit in Minnie’s story. She met Richard Rudolph as a young woman in the group Rotary Connection, a band on the Chess label which had Charles Stepney producing and (rests gracefully on sadly non-existent chaise longue) among their albums there was one of covers from 1969 called Songs which kludged rock and soul together in a way that still sounds startling. Then two years later came Hello Love and the abundanza of “I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun.” Stepney really should have been nominated for Producer of the Year because WHAT WITH THE WHAT NOW and IT CAN BE DONE BUT ONLY I CAN DO IT reasons. But Producer of the Year didn’t exist then (Thom Bell was the first to win one in 1975).

In between these albums her first solo album, Come Into My Garden, was released in 1970 (produced by Stepney). Rotary Connection had had some bad luck (declining Woodstock, for instance, as it was too far away – instead they opened for The Stooges closer to home) and Stepney was determined to get Riperton’s voice heard. He tried, with the amazing “Les Fleur” but the label she was on (a subsidiary of Chess) was floundering and eventually everyone left for Los Angeles to make a fresh start of things, save for Riperton, who basically needed a rest and wanted to settle down, moving to Florida with Rudolph in 1972. However, Riperton was coaxed into getting back into music a year later (lured inevitably to Los Angeles).

Riperton started to work with Stevie Wonder as a backing singer, and then he produced her album Perfect Angel, where “Lovin’ You” appears. After the ornate and sometimes flat-out overwhelming Stepney productions, Wonder made things simple – just a few birds to add to the perpetual springtime of the song, with Riperton’s voice front and center, as opposed to being part of a chorus. It’s an easy song that Rudolph and Riperton wrote, a kind of lullaby to their baby Maya (you can hear Riperton sing her name at the end).

Is there something guileless about this song? I’m not sure there is, though it certainly can seem that way to hipsters who disdain open sentiment. The remarkable thing is what happened after this was a hit – she made more albums, continued to perform and at the same time had to live with the diagnosis of breast cancer, which doctors told her at first was going to end her life in six months. She had a double mastectomy and kept right on going, becoming a spokeswoman for breast cancer awareness and even recorded her last album while in great pain – presumably at her own insistence.

She died at the age of 31 in 1979, an indomitable force and an inspiration to many musicians (Mariah Carey, Kate Bush and of course Stevie Wonder) and the women who were also dealing with cancer at the time – not a taboo subject these days, but one hardly mentioned in the mid-70s. This song is a song of love, a heroic and happy song of the mother and wife, ultimately a song about being alive itself as a joy.

Next: There’s looking backwards and then there’s taking stock.


*Could someone at Ace Records do a Charles Stepney compilation please? It’s way overdue and there are all sorts of music he did while at Chess. Thanks!


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