Minnie Riperton onstage with Rotary Connection
Rotary Connection were a psychedelic soul group put together by Marshall Chess (son of Chess Records founder Leonard Chess, later president of Rolling Stones Records) in 1966. Chess wanted to get away from the straight up rhythm and blues Chess Records was known for and tap into the new psychedelic sound, so he enlisted the aid of Chess staff arranger Charles Stepney (a musical genius who would later work extensively with Earth, Wind & Fire) for help. Stepney and Chess hired members of a white rock band called the Proper Strangers (Bobby Simms, Mitch Aliotta, and Ken Venegas) and added a few more members including, notably, the 20-year-old receptionist at Chess Records, a gorgeous five octave soprano named Minnie Riperton. Soul legend Sidney Barnes was also a Rotary Connection member as was vocalist Judy Hauff.
Here’s a single, “Turn Me On,” from Rotary Connection’s self-titled 1967 debut album. This chamber-pop masterpiece was recorded with members of Chicago Symphony Orchestra and features a sitar, but the real revelation is Riperton’s voice, which is used here as a background “instrument” almost like the way the Beach Boys used the theremin in “Good Vibrations.”
Was that not completely sublime??? Once you dive into their music, you can’t help but wonder why Rotary Connection aren’t considered to be one of the all-time great late 60s groups. Their albums are admittedly a little bit spotty, but at their best they could hold their own against, say, The 5th Dimension, and that’s really saying something, if you ask me! Their exotic blend of psych-soul chamber pop was truly original, the musicianship top-notch and the vocals out of this world.
What are they smoking?
Rotary Connection went on to record six albums, including a longplayer of Christmas songs, but never really broke out nationally. The blame for this might be said to fall squarely on their management’s shoulders—it couldn’t have been the music—who did stuff like book the group for a better-paying gig in Toronto and turning down a slot for them at Woodstock. Their songs have been sampled by Jay-Z, Fugees, A Tribe Called Quest and countless others. Their records are very easy to find in used record stores. If you seen one, BUY IT. (There’s also a solid 2 CD set titled Black Gold: The Very Best of Rotary Connection that is highly recommended.)
Minnie Riperton (mother of actress/singer Maya Rudolph) went on to a brief, but brilliant solo career. She died tragically at the age of 31 from breast cancer. She is best remembered for her all-time classic “Lovin’ You,” a number one record in 1975.
“I Am The Black Gold of The Sun” from 1971, a more jazz-fusion sound here, but certainly no less interesting:
Considering how obscure they were, I was surprised to find a couple of clips of Rotary Connection on YouTube. Here’s their fascinating take on the Stones’ “Lady Jane,” mimed poorly on a local Chicago TV show in 1969:
Sidney Barnes miming along with Minnie to their cover version of The Band’s “The Weight,” from that same program:
Bonus video: Minnie Riperton performs “Lovin’ You” on ‘The Midnight Special’ in 1975.