Herstory 22: Minnie Riperton's "Lovin' You" Gives A Voice To The Whistle Register
A Note On Ice Cream
Some moments are fleeting..like ice cream. Some moments refuse and persist like a stubborn child. Minnie Riperton held that moment throughout her brief career. Aside from balancing a blend of funk, R&B, and Chicago soul, Riperton’s musical signature held the use of what’s called the whistle register.
Something about R&B and Soul in the 1970s brought us a rare era of songwriters and singers. The talent that surrounded the heavy-hitters of the time carried immense talent but few receive the status that they deserve.
What Is The Whistle Register?
So we’ll start with a quick lesson on the whistle register: It is the highest register that a human voice can reach. While it’s rooted physiology is fundamentally different from other registers, there isn’t actually much known about how it works in the body (since it is such a rare occurrence). It’s traditionally found its practical use in Classical music and operas. In the Western world, there are only a handful of pop and R&B singers that can safely navigate the register (i.e. Mariah Carey and Ariana Grande)
With A Little Help From A Mockingbird
The youngest of eight children, Minnie, was born to Thelma and Daniel Riperton in 1947. Trained as an operatic singer at a young age (developing a five-octave vocal range), but living in the emerging soul scene (i.e. Fontella Bass and The Staple Singers) of Chicago, Minnie was specially situated in an environment that bridged the two worlds together.
After being part of a doo-wop group, The Gems, and a psychedelic soul band, The Rotary Connection, reached limited success, Minnie’s focus on other aspects of her life took on a greater role. She married producer Richard Rudolph, gave birth a child (with another in tow), and was living a semi-retired life when a representative from Epic Records (who had completed his year-long search for her since both groups had dissolved) made contact. Shortly afterward, the family was moving from Gainsville, Florida to Los Angeles, California to revisit Minnie’s career.
By the time we arrive at the doorstep of Minnie’s breakout album, Riperton had settled back comfortably in her career supporting a number of notable artists in the early 1970s. In the summer of 1974, Minnie released Perfect Angel. While this wasn’t an album that was a drastically different nor experimental piece in Minnie’s overall catalog, it encased some of the best qualities of Minnie Riperton including the staple track “Lovin’ You”.
Riperton’s label, didn’t want to take a chance on framing “Lovin’ You” a lead out of fear it wasn’t gift wrapped in traditional musing of a hit single. The song’s liner notes list a guitar (played by her husband Richard Rudolph) an electric keyboard (played by Stevie Wonder under the pseudonym “El Toro Negro”), a mockingbird (no really..it’s credited) and Minnie’s voice for the track. That sort of minimalism in the 1970s wasn’t a safe bet (and still isn’t) for topping the charts. The album hadn’t gained a lot of traction in its early days and wasn’t until the label agreed for “Lovin’ You” to be released as her fourth single, that the success of the rest of the album followed suit.
The Other Side Of The Garden
While her subsequent albums wouldn’t reach the same commercial peaks as Perfect Angel, Riperton’s musical quality would never waver. You would wait in anticipation to hear how the whistle register would be used with each shift in the vinyl grooves.
Work on an upcoming album was halted due to the news that Riperton discovered that she was suffering from breast cancer. In 1976, she became one of the first recording artists to publically announce her diagnosis but chose not to disclose its terminal nature. In the midst of her sickness, Minnie became a considerable advocate for the American Cancer Society, giving lecture all over the United States while continuing to tour. Her health steadily declined to the point that she succumbed to her illnesses on July 12th, 1979 at the age of 31.
When It Comes Down to It
Minnie Riperton still stands as one of the most underrated vocalists in music’s history. The short list of singers that are trained to exercise the whistle register often cites Riperton as their main influence. While we don’t know how high her career would have reached, we do see how far that influence carries forward today. We bring more and more technology into the mix (see: Herstory 17), but there are times where that intimate and organic use of the human body still leave us in awe and waiting for its next appearance.
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For our Herstory Lessons blog series—we're retelling the stories of womxn in music that have been misheard, mislabeled, or erased completely from our history books.
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