The Secret Garden of Minnie Riperton

June 6, 2014 • Music

The world didn’t know what to do with Minnie Riperton until it was too late. For nearly every step of the unique path she had to carve for herself, she was met with trouble or was simply ignored. She flouted convention, abandoning school and formal opera training to create some of the most unusual, innovative vocals as frontwoman for the Rotary Connection, becoming one of rock’s foremothers when just a teenager. Poor marketing and bizarre musical style resulted in a quick end for the band, but Minnie recorded her solo debut with the band’s composer-producer Charles Stepney. A deeply accomplished and inspired album, its lack of commercial appeal led it to resoundingly flop, leading her into resign into retirement. She eventually signed a new record deal and boldly demanded creative control in choice of producer. She finally attained recognition with her one-hit wonder classic “Lovin’ You” that she had to lobby to even be released in the first place, since her promoters didn’t want it to confuse the strictly R&B image they were trying to market Minnie in. Through her determination, invention, and versatility, she challenged these limitations placed on black women in music, becoming one of the first self-produced female musicians in the business. Yet in another cruel twist, just as she had attained some form of success and creative control, she was struck by breast cancer at only 28. Instead of withdrawing inside herself, she became one of the most vocal crusaders of breast cancer awareness, reassuring those that underwent mastectomies that there is no shame or loss in the procedure and that they could go on living normal, happy lives. She was awarded by the president for her work and became the American Cancer Society’s first black chairman. Her death at 31 was widely felt by her friends, admirers, and for those who are aware of her, she is a resounding symbol of resilience, adventurousness, generosity and hope to the very end.

Exemplifying the overlooked artistry and passion of Minnie’s work, Come To My Garden is one of the most criminally underrated pieces of music in history, when Minnie began dismantling rigid music classifications and people’s expectations of black female singers with her solo debut. Its advanced, complex genre-bending and refusal to pander to commercial was lost on listeners at the time, and like much of Riperton and Stepney’s work, has only just begun to start earning its due.

I’ll take your hand and lead you from these bad times;
I’ll take your breath, and give you mine…
(Come into my garden, walk with me…)
I’ll take your hand, and lead you where the truth lies…
– “Come to My Garden”

In three days in 1969, two of music’s biggest unsung heroes, Minnie Riperton and Charles Stepney, recorded what was lost on listeners of the time but now regarded by cult fans and critics as a masterpiece and a touchstone of the 1960s Chicago scene. Riperton wanted something akin to Burt Bacharach / Dionne Warwick classics of the 60s, but Stepney / Riperton’s version is more intimately shaded and detailed, with a dark undercurrent, urgency, whispers, and siren’s calls, dangerous sudden dips and unpredictable structures transcending the high-gloss polished grandeur of the Bachararch classics.

A masterful, genuinely seamless blend of opera, r&b, bossa nova, gospel, and jazz, it is rife with surprises. It has taken me several listens to begin to pick apart the amount of inspired detail and flourishes lavished on the production.

Something that fueled the atmosphere and the themes of the music was the fact that after a Rotary Connection gig, Minnie had met her soulmate, Richard Rudolph. Both maintained it was love at first sight.

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The failure of both Rotary Connection and her solo debut led both Minnie, her husband and children into a quiet life of retirement in a small city near a duck pond. A demo had led someone to their doorstep, a record deal was negotiated after Minnie demanded choice of producer and thus more control over her sound and marketing. Minnie made her producer request – Stevie Wonder. The company laughed at the improbability of being able to get the music icon in the prime of his career. What they didn’t know is that Minnie had already met Stevie, who turned out to be a huge fan of hers. Soon enough, Minnie’s Wonder-produced Perfect Angel went Gold – out of this collaboration grew Minnie’s first musical success and more importantly, one of her deepest friendships that would sustain her during the turmoil ahead.

The song Minnie would be defined by “Lovin’ You” was written by her while living together in Gainesville. ‘I used to sit by the duck pond and work on that song. One day I was sitting in the dining room and Minnie was in the kitchen cooking[…] and I was just playing it and she started singing what became the melody and we just had it,” Richard explained in TV-One’s Unsung tribute to Minnie. It was the most famous example of how, in the case of Minnie’s work, “it just came right out of our lives.”

The melody had been created to soothe their baby daughter, Maya Rudolph, and they recorded it and played it on a loop as a lullaby to soothe her. Many live versions incorporate her chanting “Maya, Maya, Maya”.

Despite its fame and many fans, part of the fanfare is of the mocking variety, even dismissing the famous stratospheric high-note as a superfluous derail from the song’s narrative. Yawn. It’s interesting how concern over preserving a “narrative” suddenly becomes a concern only with songs such as Minnie’s, while the music of this time period in such areas as rock ‘n roll, prog rock, etc. were rife with masturbatory guitar solos and other common musical glory moments given to men. A woman effortlessly exclaiming over her love for her real-life husband in a melody written for their daughter, the song was literally born out of passion. “Our lives were based around our children, each other and our music,” Richard shares. Daughter Maya Rudolph has since confirmed: “… My mom was music. Music poured out of my mother, and I’m sure I heard it before I even got here when I was in her belly. Music sounds and feels very normal to me. My dad wrote all the songs with my mom. … They were on the road a lot. My brother and I would go with them, I think when we were very little, because my mom did not want to be away from us.”

After the breaking free from struggles of being mislabeled and limited, she became known as the “lady with the high voice and flowers in her hair.” When not adorned with her signature flower crowns and draped dresses, her adventurous side was shown on her album covers such as Adventures in Paradise depicting her sitting next to a lion (when reshooting the cover for a commercial, the lion lunged at her, and she would recount the momentary scare with a chuckle). Her most famous image came about on the Perfect Angel cover.
“The coveralls and the ice cream dripping down her fingers showed her playful side. “Everybody loved those pictures,” Richard enthuses. “She was just being real. Then we started to think, ‘Do we dare?’ And Minnie said ‘Why not!’” Onto the cover it went.”

The genuine nature of her image went so deeply that she struggled with its concept, explaining how she didn’t know how to create an image. “My music is me so I’m not being someone else. I was one of the first few songwriter-singer-producers of the 70s to get her message across.” She attributed her strong sense of self to luck and the support of her family unit.

“Minnie’s work was never a purely commercial endeavor,” Richard explained. “Right or wrong, she wanted things her way.”

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One of her best songs, Inside My Love, got banned from the radio for a suggestive chorus despite its overrarching theme of deeper, lasting intimacy and her oft-praised ability of near-spiritual delivery of what plainly read on paper as sexual lyrics. One reviewer pointed out the hypocrisy of the radio stations:
“One risque line from a song about two soul mates coming together was a bit much for radio stations accustomed to playing the likes of “You Sexy Thing” and “Skin Tight.” A black woman singing beautifully about intimacy with her partner was (and still is) labeled as dirty.”

ACTIVISM:
But oh, the sweet delight to sing with all my might;
To spark the inner light of wonder burning bright;
You’re not alone… you’re not alone!
– “Reasons”, Minnie Riperton

Minnie’s long overdue brief moment of recognition had finally come in “Lovin’ You”, but it wasn’t long before the worst twist had just struck – at age 28, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Immediately undergoing a mastectomy, she announced on nationwide television what she had just dealt with, to the shock of the unprepared TV host. Despite being a private person and having just been through a very personal and frightening ordeal, she felt a duty to be an example to others that you didn’t have to be ashamed of breast cancer or mastectomoty or its accompanying fear of a loss of femininity or quality of sex life. She became one of the first celebrities to go public with their breast cancer diagnosis, awarded the Courage Award at the White House by President Carter, and made a chairman of the American Cancer Society.

“I was the youngest, and only black person ever to do it. […] I’m not hung up on my body. I know I’m a whole woman and having a breast removed couldn’t possibly make me half a woman. In fact it makes me more of a super woman and just gives me more stamina.”

“I had to be vocal and let these people know that they were not alone, that this is not something you have to hide from. It doesn’t change your sex life.” She also remarked upon how “men need educating too”.

“I never thought God abandoned me,” she told the Los Angeles Weekly after her surgery. “I just felt he’s given me this because I was the only one who could bear it.”

Cruelly, the cancer resurfaced, this time eventually immobilizing her arm. She continued making music and working for the cause of breast cancer awareness, remaining energetic and enthusiastic. In what were to be her last interviews, she professed plans on creating a Minnie Riperton line of clothing, making elegant clothes for affordable prices and she expressed interest in movies, acting, and even writing her own script.
Such was her dedication to living life to the fullest and not pitying herself that just six days before succumbing to the disease, she had appeared on a high-profile talk show to perform her song “Memory Lane”.

The person who had professed to wanting to touch people through “happiness” and had been an adventurer had been pushed so hard that her upbeat song had melancholic recesses and tucked near the end of the song, the lyrics which had depicted

[the] ending of a relationship while suddenly shifting to cries of “I don’t want to go,” “save me,” “now I’m slippin’ fast,” “thought it was over; here I go again,” and “travelin’ down, faster than the speed of sound.” It is thought that “Memory Lane” was her farewell to her family and to the world.

Six days after singing those words on live television, she died in the arms of her husband, with a tape playing of a song Stevie Wonder had written for her and had delivered in person the previous night. “Well, the final person I was waiting for has arrived and everything will be all right now,” Minnie had said.

LASTING IMPACT

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Her funeral was attended by over 500 people including many celebrities. Testimonials across the entertainment business poured into the media, from Quincy Jones to her friend, the actress Pam Grier, to the celebrity fans who contributed to her unfinished last album – including Michael Jackson who expressed awe over her voice and talent on the posthumous LP’s back cover. The shock and dismay over the loss of such a vibrant, unique, generous talent and friend had wide reverberations.

“We were very close,” her friend, the actress Pam Grier told Jet Magazine. “She had a way of easing other people’s pain and I just wish I could have found a way to ease her pain. She’d tell me’, ‘Pam, I’m going to fight this thing. This ain’t nothing.’ She had such strength.”

If Minnie’s work had mostly been ignored when she was alive, there must have been fear that it would fade even further into obscurity after her death. While this has largely proven to be the case, with her mostly remembered for her often-lampooned “one-hit wonder” Lovin’ You or for her daughter Maya Rudolph, her influence has been deeply felt and manifested itself in several ways. Starting in the 1990s her work started resurfacing via the art of sampling. Many of music’s brightest from R&B to electronica, including multiple samples from a Tribe Called Quest, J Dilla, and more. Denzel Washington told Dick Rudolph listening to Minnie’s Perfect Angel saved his life. Perhaps her most notable influence was on what many consider to be among history’s all-time greatest and best-selling singers: Mariah Carey. Carey heard Minnie’s music as a child and attempted and failed reaching Minnie’s high notes initially. She has since credited her as the biggest influence on her singing, even making the album Memoirs of An Imperfect Angel in tribute of her favorite singer.

Ebony magazine published the aptly titled story “‘Perfect Angel’ Leaves Legacy of Love.” Her children are now grown and happy in their careers, with Maya Rudolph famously paying tribute to her mother, recreating Minnie’s famous Perfect Angel cover for Saturday Night Live. She has expressed that her career has been a dream, the only downside being that “There are days,” she says, “when I wonder why my mom couldn’t be here to see this.” “The photo reminded us all that I wish she was here to enjoy this. With that photo, I kind of gave her a wink to say hi, so she kind of was there.” “I couldn’t listen to her music for years. I would only associate it with profound loss. Her music was all I had left other than her memory. It’s still not easy. I’ll always get chills whenever her voice comes on the radio. Only they’re good chills now.”

The twists and turns expressed in Come to My Garden were telling. “I’m not into feeling sad. I’m a happy person. I want to touch people with my singing, but I want to do it in a happy way,” she spoke of her goal. “Let it be known that Minnie Riperton always saw the glass half full.” Despite only a brief time to do it, she had managed to fulfill her childhood dream of becoming a famous singer, and in it and other methods spread love widely in many small infestations.

“I’ve always known who I was, what I wanted, where I was going. That doesn’t mean it was always easy but it helps.

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