Minnie Riperton's Reasons

Emily Lordi

“Because I’m a Black woman, everyone thinks I should sing the Blues. But I have nothing to be blue about. I’m a happy person.” Thus did Minnie Riperton, the singer-songwriter best known for her stratospheric soprano range and her 1974 hit song “Lovin’ You,” defend her decision to sing “happy music.” On a continuum of black women’s positive affects, Riperton belongs somewhere between Zora Neale Hurston’s refusal to be pegged “tragically colored” and later black feminists’ embrace of black joy. Her most proximate ally is Nikki Giovanni, whose speaker in “Nikki-Rosa” defies white biographers’ tragic expectations by insisting of her childhood, “all the while I was quite happy.” But Riperton’s happiness was present-tense, not retrospective. “I am very happy,” she told a reporter in 1975, the year before she was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer: “I have a beautiful husband and two adorable children. I know I am lucky.”* Riperton’s story is sad, but her star persona is not; and that tension makes her a strange subject and a useful one for a journal devoted to music and melancholy.

Minnie: with her zippy name, Age of Aquarius spirit, bohemian aesthetic, sass, beloved white husband and kids. Watch her on the Mike Douglas Show, baby’s breath in her hair, telling how she was attacked but not hurt by the lion on the cover of her album Adventures in Paradise; she laughs and shrugs while Douglas and the other guests ask her countless questions just so she’ll keep talking. Listen to the refrain of the album’s title track—Step this way for another adventure in paradise—in which Riperton moves from a growling tone up through a series of higher notes into her whistle register as if making more and more room for adventure, and for belief in the wonderful. She was a superlatively gifted singer, capable of conveying a range of emotions. But what really set her apart was her expression—by turns unselfconscious and strategic—of ease, faith, and contentment. For that reason, Riperton has something to teach us about the utility of black joy in the 1970s, but also about the complexity of black optimism now. At a time when “the power of positive thinking” looks like victim-blaming pseudoscience, when Afropessimism is a governing scholarly paradigm, and when the sacred text, or at least the sacred slogan, of anti-racist efforts is James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963), Riperton’s music and persona ask us to grapple with the belief that things will come out alright.  

She was born in 1947 in the Bronzeville district of Chicago, the youngest of eight children and the daughter of a homemaker and a Pullman Porter. She studied opera for years—and, while she knew that opportunities for black classical singers were limited, she did not, like Nina Simone, narrate her detour from concert music as a racial trauma. This might have been a matter of temperament, or a deliberate omission. Or perhaps it was that Riperton always had another place to land: she had grown up near Chess Records, the crucible of Chicago soul. While in high school, she was recruited for the Gems, a girl group that made their own records and sang backup for other Chess acts. And in the late 1960s, she joined Rotary Connection, a chamber-soul group led by Riperton’s transcendent vocals and Charles Stepney’s ornate arrangements that opened a new spiritual-ethereal pathway for soul music—one most famously pursued by Riperton’s Chess label mate Maurice White, with his group Earth, Wind & Fire. 

In 1970, shortly after Chess dropped the uncategorizable Rotary Connection from their roster, Riperton recorded her first solo album, Come to My Garden. With dramatic arrangements by Stepney and a cover shot of a gloriously Afro’ed Riperton seated amid flowers, the album presented what Farah Jasmine Griffin calls an image of “black bohemian femininity.” In the title track, Riperton moves into and out of dense orchestral interludes, ascending to her falsetto on the chorus and singing the verses in quiet, low tones. Although she aims to seduce the listener away, the lyrics keep an eye on that which she wants to escape. Come to my garden, no more dreams filled with cries, Riperton sings—and, one verse later, I’ll take your hand and lead you from these bad times.

She knew about bad times. In interviews with UK journalists, especially (with whom she might have felt freer to speak her mind than she did with her fan base at home), she revealed dimensions of her experience that complicated her own insistence on happiness and her image as soul’s princess of pleasure. She told British writer Penny Valentine that much of the work she recorded in the 1960s “wasn’t what you’d call black music so therefore nobody knew what to do with it. I mean, in the record industry if you were black you were black and you couldn’t be anything else. At that time you were Negroes, you weren’t even human beings. That’s the way it was then, that’s the way it is now.” She told Chris Charlesworth of Melody Maker that industry executives who wanted to sign her on the basis of her music changed their minds once she showed up: “They freaked out because I was black. They didn’t know what to do, because [my] name didn’t sound black. It’s not like Jones, is it?”

In the early 1970s, partly in response to such indignities, Riperton and her husband Richard Rudolph, her cowriter and accompanist, “retired,” as she jokingly put it, to Gainesville, Florida (they were still in their twenties). The couple had a second child, a girl (actor and comedian Maya Rudolph). After a few years of songwriting and domestic life, Riperton signed with Epic Records, and the family moved to Los Angeles, where Riperton’s friend and admirer Stevie Wonder produced her album Perfect Angel. That album’s third single release, “Lovin’ You,” hit No. 1 on both pop and r&b charts and at last brought Riperton and her five-and-a-half-octave range to national attention.

Perfect Angel features pared-down arrangements that foreground Riperton’s voice. (That paring down is funny and erotic in Perfect Angel’s cover image: Riperton smiles at the camera, naked under her overalls and eating a melting ice cream cone.) The opening track, “Reasons,” serves as a treatise on singing, and, as such, offers a theory of Riperton’s practice as a whole. The song’s first lyrics suggest a movement from outside to inside—The reasons for my life are in a million faces/Like aching promises I feel them in my bones—that the next lines reverse: Slipping through my fingers to dance along the road/The reasons for my life are more than I can hold. Moving from her chest voice to her falsetto and back again while keeping pace with Marlo Henderson’s electric guitar, Riperton insists on taking up a great deal of sonic space and exceeding her own boundaries just as the reasons do, slipping through my fingers to dance upon the road. Both lyrically and sonically, she conjures an expansive interior life that overflows the boundaries of the individual psyche and body to radiate outward. The “inner light” that singing sparks might be hers, or it might be the listener’s:

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!

Riperton leaps to her whistle register on the last “alone.” She takes time to explore the stratosphere, darting up and down and mimicking Henderson’s guitar riffs with her voice. This song showcases both her nimble technique and her gift for expressing joy in performance. Yet just as “Come to My Garden” evokes both the possibility of escape and the world that needs escaping, “Reasons” shows that her self-validation is not only joyful but necessary in a world that denies her worth. As she sings, The reasons for my life are more than I was told.

 

A year later, at age twenty-seven, she received her terminal diagnosis, and the vision of life she offered the public became more straightforwardly positive: “Every time I sit down to eat, when I get up in the morning, when I see my children . . . I always thank God . . . for permitting me to be alive.” If Riperton’s brief life can be narrated as a series of emergences—out of the role of backup singer and into the spotlight as a solo artist; out of “retirement” in Florida and into the studio in Los Angeles—no move was as dramatic as her emergence from cancer treatment. In 1976, she had a partial mastectomy and was given a prognosis of six months to live; yet, when she made the news public, she discussed the surgery as if it had cured her. Months before her death, she touted the healing powers of green magma, discussed an upcoming European tour, and hinted at a new fashion line. Not that there was any rush—she told Ebony’s Bob Lucas, “I know that I’m going to be around for a long time.” 

She fretted privately to her sister that she did not want to leave her children. But in public, she continued to perform the optimism that had shaped her career. As she had sung, before her diagnosis, in “Adventures in Paradise,” I believe any dream that I want to. “There was no way she could live as fully and freely if everyone knew her real condition,” according to Rudolph; she didn’t want people to buy her records out of pity. Her positive attitude was not only self-serving; it was meant to empower others. In 1978, Riperton was appointed the education chairwoman for the American Cancer Society. She was the youngest woman and the first African American to hold the position—no small feat in the years before Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals (1980) helped to break the silence around breast cancer. “I had to be vocal and let these people know they were not alone, that this is not something you have to hide from,” Riperton said. In her work as an advocate, she translated the spectacular reassurance of “Reasons” to other women: You’re not alone!

When I first wrote about her response to her diagnosis, I lamented Riperton’s positive thinking. I thought it revealed the limited options available for black women in the public eye, “where one could choose between, but not combine, the roles of strong, sassy diva; professional mourner; or perfect angel.” I thought Riperton’s optimism betrayed naivete or denial, and that the same was true of Stevie Wonder, who wrote a song for her, titled “Minnie, Get Well Soon,” which she listened to on her deathbed: Like a bird singing earthly songs of love / We need your love around / Minnie, get better.

I think of it differently now. Having experienced my own acute anxiety about leaving my two young children, I appreciate Riperton’s positive comments; I see them as signs of fortitude and faith. In this moment of global pandemic, when US cities are burning, I draw comfort from the few people who believe things will be OK—not because they are oblivious but because they have an actual gift, which is freedom from anxiety in an age defined by it. “I think it’ll be fine,” one woman drawled to me as we picked up our kids from a school that was closing, due to the pandemic, for an unknown period of time: “People just need to have a little faith!” Minnie Riperton’s music is for people who need to hear that. And it’s for those who hear, in her utterly extravagant, extraordinary falsetto, the sound of a soul unbound by the body. Rudolph noted of his wife, “She always said she had been here a lot before,” in previously incarnated form. And she might be here still. The reasons for her life are more than she can hold not only because they defy comprehension, but because they exceed her lifetime. She would not live to behold all the ways her spirit would circulate and generate hope. But I think she can see them.

*Riperton, qtd. in Vicki Wilson, “Minnie Riperton, On and Off Stage,” Philadelphia Tribune, May 20, 1975, 14.

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