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Minnie Riperton: The 'Lovin' You' Whistle Singer And Maya Rudolph's Mom

Music | April 5, 2021

R&B singer Minnie Riperton poses for a portrait in August 1975 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Minnie Riperton, the singer behind "Lovin' You," one of the most beautiful songs of the '70s was never able to capitalize on her success. She died too young when she was only 31 years old from complications due to breast cancer. She had a remarkable vocal range which allowed her to hit notes in a register that's as high as a human voice can go. But it's not just that she could sing high, Riperton had an ear for melody. That's what makes her music so special.

One of Riperton's children, Maya Rudolph, grew up to be an icon in her own right. As the star of Saturday Night Live and Bridesmaids (among many other credits) Rudolph often recalls her mother in her work. Riperton was lost too soon, and while her death certainly affected her fans, it was her children who felt the loss most heavily.

The Teenager With The Whistle Register

source: pinterest

Born in Chicago in 1947, Riperton was the youngest of eight children. Her parents were artsy types who indulged her desire to play and study dance -- but after they heard her sing, they pushed her to receive vocal training. She studied operatic performance at Chicago's Lincoln Center and learned how to control her breathing and learned to use the full vocal range.

Riperton sang in the coloratura soprano vocal range which allowed her to sing in the highest register the human voice can achieve, what's informally called the "whistle register." It's not that she could just sing in a high register, but she could enunciate in it as well, something that many singers with the ability to sing in the whistle register can't do.

Her teacher, Marion Jeffrey pushed her to study opera and the classics, but she loved soul music and R&B. She wanted to bridge the gap between her operatic training and the music she heard on the radio. Her first professional work occurred thanks to her time with Hyde Park's A Cappella Choir when she was 15 years old. She was hired by blind pianist Raynard Miner to sing with The Gems, a group that didn't have much success but they helped Riperton get into the groove in the local R&B scene. By the time she was 19, Riperton had performed on a slew of local hits like "I Can't Help Myself" and "My Baby's Real."

Riperton's Garden

source: Chess

After working with Jeffrey and his rotating group of female vocal groups, Riperton recorded a few songs by producer and jingle maestro Billy Davis under the name Andrea Davis. She then went on to perform with a funk-rock-soul group called Rotary Connection. The group released six albums between 1967 and 1971, in that time she released her first solo album, Come to My Garden. Her solo album is far less rock oriented than her work with Rotary Connection, with much of the writing done by her husband Richard Rudolph.

The album is absolutely beautiful, but it failed to burn up the charts when it was released. Riperton didn't necessarily retire from singing at this point, but she and her husband did move down to Florida to start a family outside of the bustle of Chicago. Oddly enough, Florida is where she found her greatest success. Or really, it's where fame found her.

Lovin' You

source: Epic Records

In 1973, Riperton was living in Gainesville, Florida with her husband and two children - one of them being Maya Rudolph. An intern for Epic Records was in the area and stopped in to say hello. After hearing a few demos he took the tapes to Don Ellis, VP of A&R for Epic and she was offered a deal. Riperton and her family moved to Los Angeles where she recorded her next album, Perfect Angel with Stevie Wonder.

Initial sales of the album were low, and by 1975 Epic was ready to put her back in the studio, but she convinced them to release "Lovin' You" as a fourth and final single. Riperton's instincts were on the money. The single went to number 1 on U.S. pop chart and her album peaked at number 4 on the Pop Albums chart and number 1 on the R&B Albums chart.

Fame Was Hard For Riperton's Family

source: pinterest

Even though Riperton grew up performing, she wasn't ready for the fame that came along with a hit single and a hit album. Riperton was most comfortable with her family or in the studio. She was described by her daughter, Maya Rudolph, as a hippy, someone who preferred carob over chocolate. The sudden fame that came with "Lovin' You" was something that she could have lived without, and it didn't just make her uncomfortable, it did the same to Rudloph.

Rudolph spoke to the New York Times about how she didn't understand the concept of fame at a young age. She noted that often, when people were staring at her mother she thought people were staring at her. She explained:

When I was a kid, and people would come up to me or stare at me because of my mom, I didn't like it. I really didn't like it. I used to think, 'Oh, they're staring at my hair, because it's so big and ugly.' Because I didn't realize people were just staring at my mother, like, 'Wow, that's her daughter!' I didn't know; I was a kid. And kids always personalize things.

Riperton Made Every Moment Count

source: pinterest

One year after the release of Perfect Angel Riperton released Adventures In Paradise featuring the single "Inside My Love." While her previous album had the chance the grow over a few years, Adventures In Paradise didn't have that chance because in 1976 Riperton revealed that she had undergone a mastectomy due to breast cancer. When Riperton was diagnosed she was told that the cancer had spread to her lymphatic system and she was given six months to live.

She pushed through the pain of her diagnosis to record Adventures In Paradise and in the final months of her life her right arm was immobilized by extreme lymphedema. Her final performance on The Mike Douglas Show features her keeping her arm held tightly as she sings. In her final performances she changed the "Maya, Maya, Maya" ending of "Lovin' You" to "Maya, Maya, Ringo, Maya" so both of her children would know how much she loved them. Maya, of course, is Maya Rudolph and Ringo was the nickname for her son Marc.

On July 12, 1979, Riperton passed away at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in the arms of her husband. Maya Rudolph spoke to the New York Times about her mother's death, saying that she was never able to grieve Riperton's death:

I don't remember if I ever did proper grieving. I know I did, but it came out in ways—like when I was a kid, I went to a new school and I kicked people. I was like the kicker for a year. And then people tell me stories that I don't remember, like I'd be crying at a roller-skating party, and they were like: 'What's wrong? Why are you crying?' And I wanted to skate with a boy, and they said that I was like, 'My grandma died.' Which wasn't true! But I was f--king laying it on thick. I definitely think that children process very differently. And I'm genuinely fascinated by it, so I wish I knew all the ways that I do or did, but I don't. But I know that the place that I was with it most of my life was more of a, 'Poor me, why me?' Up until very recently, it was still, like, a sting to talk about her.

Tags: Maya Rudolph | Minnie Riperton | Number-one Singles | R&B Music | Soul Music

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.