Have you ever attended a show with multiple artists set up to perform? One after the next an act appears, performs, receives applause and quickly moves from the stage for the next performer. Inevitably, one or more artist will stand out among the group and enjoy more accolades from the audience. How would you feel if you were to perform right after one of those unforgettable musical moments? You would probably experience feelings ranging from nervousness, anxiety and much apprehension before making your way to the stage. How do you follow a legendary artist who is deceased? Actually, many are following James Brown, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston all the time. You cannot replace legendary entertainers but you might be able to follow them successfully. How? Many work extremely hard to sing and dance much like their favorite entertainers long gone from us. Recently, I thought about one such artist who has been gone from us for thirty-five years, yet has left behind a standard many female vocalists are still striving to attain. I am speaking about the late, great Minnie Riperton.
Minnie Riperton was born November 8, 1947, in Chicago, Illinois and if she were alive today would have turned sixty-seven years old later this week. However, this very gifted recording artist eventually lost her battle with cancer and passed away on July 12, 1979. We do frequently hear her music today, but her legacy lives on as other female vocalists strive to perform her songs. A couple of generations of singers and fans have appeared since Minnie Riperton’s successful run in the 1970’s, which has diminished her name recognition a bit. Nonetheless, most people can readily identify her hit songs “Loving you“, “Inside My Love” and “Memory Lane“.
Aside from her various hits, she is perhaps best remembered today for her ability to sing in the whistle register. Riperton’s vocal range spanned five octaves, and her ability to enunciate in the high registers set her apart from most other whistle-register singers. Today music fans worldwide can identify singers such as Mariah Carey and the younger Ariana Grande, but Riperton is the one whom the young singers are following. Minnie Riperton remains in a class by herself, even though she has been dead for thirty-five years. As I write this post, I had to think back to my high school and college days playing the trumpet. Like most young trumpet players, I became excited to play high notes over developing other necessary techniques. Not long afterward, I learned that high notes were fine only within the parameters of the overall performance. This seems to be the case with Minnie Riperton, as her ability to hit notes in the whistle register proved exciting, but many fans tend to overlook her overall vocal skills.
Even though Minnie Riperton grew up on the south side of Chicago as I did, I really was too young to appreciate her music until the last few years of her life. She actually performed at my high school in 1978, just one year before she succumbed to breast cancer. Like so many of the performers of generations past, Riperton provided dynamic live performances. Even in the last months before her death, Riperton appeared on the Mike Douglas Show and Merv Griffin Show. These were exceptional considering Minnie Riperton was suffering painful effects of her illness. Yet just like the old saying, “the show must go on”. Today we know more details about the debilitating effects of cancer on a person during the final stages and the extreme pain most undergo. Therefore, I am more impressed with the level of work displayed throughout her last performances and recordings. Extreme lymphedema immobilized her right arm in early 1979. In her final singing appearances on television (most notably on the Mike Douglas Show), her right arm would remain in a fixed position during her performances.
When Minnie Riperton died, it seemed like sadness covered the entire R&B community and fan base like a rain cloud. Many might remember that special episode of Soul Train dedicated to her life and music. It proved the love and respect Minnie Riperton gained from so many in the music industry.
Like so many artists that died at a young age, I sometimes wonder what they would do if alive today. As I stated earlier later this week Riperton would have celebrated her sixty-seventh birthday. If alive today she might still be performing. Can you imagine going to a concert and marveling that Minnie Riperton still has “it”? I imagine there would be many more singers listing her as inspiration. Still, we would witness that amazing natural talent that is so hard to match. No doubt, Minnie Riperton is still a tough act to follow.