Minnie Riperton, 1976 (AP Photo)
Long before Mariah Carey became famous for her five-octave vocal range, there was another, a singer who could do five octaves and then some. Mariah Carey was barely out of diapers when Minnie Riperton was being celebrated for her rare five-and-a-half-octave range and her amazing ability to enunciate even in her very highest register.
The hugely talented singer grew up on the South Side of Chicago, the youngest of eight in a musical family. Though she trained as an opera singer, the young Riperton was more interested in soul and blues than operettas and showtunes, and by 15 she was singing with all-girl group The Gems. Eventually the girls, known by then as Studio Three, would have some success as session musicians, singing back-up for Fontella Bass on “Rescue Me.”
Early on Riperton was associated with the funk-soul group Rotary Connection and Chess Records (giving her the opportunity to provide backing vocals for Chess greats like Etta James, Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley). The promising young singer recorded a couple of solo singles under the pseudonym Andrea Davis and continued to make a name for herself – with whatever name she chose to use – in the northern soul scene.
Though Riperton's talent and vocal range were huge, her career would be short. Her only major hit "Lovin' You" captured the attention of the world in 1975, making it to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S. and in 24 other countries. The song showcased Riperton's stunning range and the incredible clarity of her voice.
Sadly, Minnie Riperton wouldn't see the Top 40 again. Shortly after the success of "Lovin' You," she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Though she continued to record and tour, the disease overtook her and she died in 1979 at just 31 years of age. Riperton was gone much too soon, but she left us with some great songs that are bound to bring back memories of the 1970s. And her musical legacy lives on in her talented daughter, actress Maya Rudolph (who during her several years on Saturday Night Live frequently had the chance to showcase her own singing skills). Here Rudolph, who was not even seven years old when Riperton died, talks lovingly about her mom – and about passing on her mother’s spirit to her own daughter.
Written by Linnea Crowther and Jessica Campbell