The “Black Beauties” series comes to a close as February and Black History Month end. But as always, beyond these written words the celebrating and uplifting should continue within our culture, acknowledging where we’ve been and that we are headed to a better path. Throughout this three-part series, we’ve learned that in our history, American history, there have been pioneers and risk-taking black women who fought hard to reach their goals. We’ve learned that one (Butterfly McQueen) was at the peak of her career and steadily tried get to embody stardom, and another (Madam C.J. Walker) became a self-made millionaire despite many hardships. And now we uncover the soul and sincerity of Minnie Riperton, a young woman who had a sweet yet breathtaking voice.
There are many people who are unaware of who Minnie Riperton was. Depending on your generation or if you know music enough, you may know a few tidbits about the singer. Most recall her 1975 hit single “Lovin’ You,” in which her high soprano whistle-like voice nailed notes that no one during her time could reach. Much like the baby’s breath flowers she was known to wear in her afro shaped hair, her harmonies were light and almost effortless. Born with the given name Minnie Julia Riperton on November 8, 1947, as she grew up she was no stranger to the arts; she loved ballet and modern dance. Soon enough, her vocal abilities could not be denied and she was encouraged by her parents to delve into music. With ease her voice could handle any genre from rock to soul music. Minnie Riperton had the talents to go very far.
Like any blossoming singer Minnie tested the musical waters to figure out what matched her style and what didn’t. While a teenager, she became part of an all girl group called The Gems, in which she sang lead. In the mid 60s she joined forces with a few groups like the Rotary Connection on the south side of Chicago, where she hailed from. Things were tough for the young performer; she was such a powerhouse and standout performer, she struggled to find her niche. She took to singing backup for successful artists like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Etta James. As a trained vocalist Minnie Riperton was ready and aching to hit the spotlight, though once she became a soloist the industry had other plans, at first.
She recorded and released a few singles locally under a pseudonym “Andrea Davis,” but the sounds didn’t quite catch on beyond her Chicago surroundings. It would be a few years before she returned to music, for she decided to take a break and focus on her new family with husband and songwriter Richard Rudolph. She had decided that being a mother her children, to Marc and Maya [Rupdolph] (well known today from Saturday Night Live and Bridesmaids), would be her main focus. But she couldn’t shy away from what her heart also desired, singing. And it wouldn’t be her former pseudonym that could carry her back to the biz, for her true name, Minnie Riperton, was ready to shine.
It wouldn’t be too long before Minnie and her family packed up in Florida and moved west to Los Angeles, California where she soon signed a record deal with Epic Records. She recorded her album Perfect Angel, the now iconic album cover art where Minnie sports a denim jumper, groovy afro, while holding a cone with ice-cream inside that’s melting down her hand. Making hearts melt as well with her angelic voice, Minnie Riperton was finally in a position to make beautiful music and share it. “Lovin’ You,” which was actually the fourth single released from the album, caught on with listeners around the world very quickly. The “loving you is easy cause you’re beautiful” lyrics scored tremendously on the R&B charts in the U.S. and in 24 countries. People simply fell in love with the symphony and sound that was her voice.
What strikes me most about Minnie Riperton isn’t that her music career and life were prematurely cut short, but that her resilience and can-do style was likable and so unique. Her music has and continues to touch many even if you are just discovering her music. Whether her song “Memory Lane” sold you, “Take a Little Trip,” “Inside My Love,” or maybe “Reasons” got you in the groove, her music has impacted you in some way. With the seventies full of disco, platform shoes, Soul Train lines and high-waist jeans, Minnie was like a breath of fresh air for the club and cultural scene.
Even when terminally ill after her diagnosis of breast cancer in January 1976, Minnie Riperton kept fighting. She is noted to be one of the first celebrities to publicly announce that she had breast cancer and from there she became a spokesperson for the American Cancer Society. Her bravery led her to receive a courage award presented by President Jimmy Carter in 1978 at the White House. It was courageous of her to reveal something so personal, but as she had been doing with her music she shared apart of herself, potentially impacting someone with her voice. On July 12, 1979, Minnie Riperton died at age 31, though her harmonious sound lives on.
To Minnie Riperton: Your powerful voice does live each day in the springtime and beyond, because your beauty inside and out still speaks volumes. Not matter how well you may have been known musically, your talents can not be questioned because the opera-like high notes you reached are unmatched. For your loving and flowery voice, a historical treasure, you are saluted and thanked.
For a rare performance of Minnie Riperton, click here.
Elishia Peterson is a blossoming freelance journalist based in Philadelphia. Her work has been featured on publications including Looklab, Crème Magazine, Cred, and Examiner covering budget fashion stories. She recently earned her Masters degree in Writing Studies which has pushed her to strive to be creative in her craft.