Best remembered for her multi-octave range, Minnie Riperton enjoyed an all-too-brief career in the 1970s. Her influence lingers in several R&B and pop singers ranging from Mariah Carey to Corinne Bailey Rae to Ariana Grande, but no one can match her phrasing and interpretative ability. While "Loving You" remains her most famous track, Riperton recorded several notable songs before breast cancer claimed her life in 1979. One of her final singles, "Memory Lane," encapsulates her ethereal voice and ability to wring emotion out of every word in the lyrics.
Born in Chicago in 1947, Riperton showed early talent in music, drama and dance, and as a teenager signed a contract with Chess Records, singing with the girl group the Gems and singing backup for Chess artists such as Fontella Bass, the Dells, and Etta James. When the Gems collapsed, she stayed on with the label as a receptionist while recording a handful of solo singles. Riperton's first break occurred in 1968 when she became the lead vocalist of the Rotary Connection, a multiracial band that played a blend of psychedelic rock and funk. While she gained exposure from her stint with the group, Riperton still desired a solo career. Thus she teamed with future husband, composer Richard Rudolph, and producer Charles Stepney to create her 1970 debut album Come to My Garden. While critically praised, the LP failed to chart; after the Rotary Connection disbanded in 1971, she and Rudolph relocated to Los Angeles to restart her career. There she met an artist who would become her friend and mentor: Stevie Wonder.
Wonder first hired Riperton as a backing singer; she contributed vocals on Fulfillingness' First Finale (listen to the tracks "Creepin'" and "Bird of Beauty" for her angelic voice), and toured as part of Wonder's backing group Wonderlove. In 1974 Wonder co-produced her 1974 breakthrough album Perfect Angel, which spawned the Wonder-penned song that would launch her career: "Loving You." The jazz-tinged track allowed Riperton to fully display her range, amazing listeners with her skill in hitting seemingly unreachable notes. Yet she never engaged in mere "vocal acrobatics"; instead, she carefully thought out each word in order to communicate the elation of being in love. Toward the end of the track she chants "Maya, Maya," an ode to her daughter, comedienne and actress Maya Rudolph. Riperton's followup albums Adventures in Paradise (1975) and Stay in Love (1977) failed to replicate the success of Perfect Angel, but they included tracks that would become beloved classics such as "Inside My Love" and "Young, Willing and Able."
In between the release of the two albums she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which continued to spread. Despite her declining health (which eventually led to paralysis in her right arm), Riperton continued recording and performing up until her 1979 death. Her final album she completed, Minnie, showcases her creative vitality, which she maintained despite significant obstacles. Its lead single, "Memory Lane," demonstrates her interpretive skills and range just as well as "Loving You," and deserves as much attention as her most famous song.
Cowritten with husband Richard Rudolph, "Memory Lane" tells the story of a woman sorting through old photographs, eventually stumbling upon a picture of herself with an old flame. "I see the happiness, I see the pain," Riperton sings, drawing out the word "pain" to emphasize the relationship's complexity. While she claims to be reluctant to recall the past, she clearly possesses happy memories: "The way you held me, no one could tell me / That love would die," she wails, hitting her uppermost range on "die." While her voice sounds as if she is close to tears, at other points she sings with a smile: "I see us standing there, such a happy, happy pair / Love beyond compare, look-a-there, look-a-there," she playfully croons. Over a simple arrangement of strings, horns, and keyboards, Riperton evokes feelings of nostalgia and sadness; as the track ends, she repeats "save me, save me" from becoming lost in memories.
After her passing, "Memory Lane" took on even deeper meaning, her cries of "I don't wanna go" also evoking sadness concerning her eventual death. No matter the connotation, "Memory Lane" provides a master class in the art of interpretive singing. While Riperton's multi-octave range continues to impress, it's her sincerity and genuine emotion that still entrances listeners.