“Your wealth can be stolen, but the precious riches buried deep in your soul cannot.” – Minnie Riperton (1947-1979)
With a five-octave vocal range and a unique ability to reach the highest register of the human voice with the ease of bird taking to flight, Minnie Riperton will rightfully be remembered as one of the greatest soul singers of all time, but her legacy is also graced by the use of her voice in the secondary sense.
As the youngest of eight children in a musical family Riperton from an early age was bombarded with the racket of different music and tastes in every room, seeding a passion for the arts in her from an early age. When her parents recognised her youthful combination of talent and passion they took her to Chicago’s Lincoln Centre where she received operatic vocal training and learnt the classical skills that would later colour her soul output with an air of grand concert hall bravura.
Growing up in Chicago during the great popular music boom of the sixties meant that these operatic influences would soon make their way to the background. Riperton began performing in various groups from Hyde Park’s Acapella Choir to singing backing vocals on the Fontella Bass hit ‘Rescue Me’. However, the scene was so prolifically successful in this era it was hard to make a name for yourself and many of the brilliant songs produced weren’t recognised in England until the northern soul explosion. As punk poet John Cooper Clarke says, “there’s no such thing as a bad northern soul song,” which highlights what Riperton was up against. There were simply too many good songs in the offing to get noticed for anything less than brilliance.
Fortunately for Riperton, she had the sort of voice that could haunt an empty house, but even still her headway in the music industry was slow. By 1966, she found her first solid vehicle, fronting the funk group the Rotary Connection. While the band enjoyed some success, in retrospect it was clear that Riperton’s pipes yearned for the solo stage where her vocals could soar.
GRT Records recognised this and gave Riperton her first shot at solo work. She rewarded them with the masterful Come to My Garden, but sadly it failed commercially. The record featured what is undoubtedly her best song, ‘Les Fleurs’, a track that bristles with the sonic Mohammad Ali self-assurance of floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee. Inexplicably even this all-giving triumph flopped. A career in the background of the music industry, however, meant Riperton was a backbone and enough faith in her own ability to stomach the blow.
Three fallow years followed, where her angelic voice was fated to mature on the sidelines. She was now a mother of two living in Gainesville, Florida and her life was far removed from the cutthroat music scene that had allowed her to drift away unnoticed. With the sort of voice that could part clouds and stir honey into tea from the next state over, she wasn’t to be silenced for long. A college intern at Epic Records had been spellbound by her debut and she was flown over to Los Angeles to record what would end up being her best-selling album, Perfect Angel.
With huge singles like ‘Lovin’ You’ her stardom was secured. Sadly, at some point in the mid-seventies, she was diagnosed with cancer. On August 24th, 1976, when she was still only 28, she went on The Tonight Show and revealed that she had undergone a mastectomy due to breast cancer. During a time when unfortunately stars of the era had to portray outward infallibility, such bravery and defiance was a profound step towards progress and the promotion of cancer awareness.
Riperton would continue in this vein for the rest of her life, using her celestial stardom to work tirelessly in promoting breast cancer awareness and offering her support to fellow sufferers. Despite being given only six months to live at the time of her diagnosis she battled on, touring, recording, promoting humanitarian causes, and raising her children while propagating the same beautiful and sanguine music that served as a boon to so many. She lived on three years until passing away in 1979 and she continues to do so in her music. Her epitaph is befittingly marked with the opening line to her most famous tune: “Lovin’ you is easy ‘cause you’re beautiful,” as ever celebrating the fact that she defiant sought out best in life, you simply can’t sing like that without doing so.