By Ben Cox, WLDS Radio
During the course of my research on B.B. King’s performance at Annie Merner Chapel over the last two years, I happened upon other well-known groups and acts that graced the stage in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The active Student Activities Committee brought the acts to Jacksonville to give students “something to do” during the week and weekends. Many of MacMurray’s students were East Coast transplants based upon the college’s links to donors and families out there because of its days as Illinois Women’s College.
B.B. King certainly was one of the biggest names to have come to Jacksonville, but he wasn’t the only one.
Many people will likely remember Minnie Riperton for her four-octave soprano melting over the light pop sound of her 1975 hit “Lovin’ You,” or they may know her as comedic actress Maya Rudolph’s mom.
What you may not know is that in the underground record collecting world where nerds like me hang out, she is largely considered one of the queens of psychedelic soul. This connection is what brought Riperton and a very ahead-of-its-time band to Annie Merner’s stage in the fall of 1969.
Riperton grew up on the South Side of Chicago and was beginning the early training of being a classical music singer up until the age of 16. She was brought to Chess Records in 1963 as a teenager and locked up with a local girl group The Gems. Leonard Chess was trying to tap into some of the success that the Marvelettes and Diana Ross & the Supremes were seeing in Detroit at Motown. The Gems also was the labels’ “chick chorus” who backed such performers as Etta James, Little Milton, and Jackie Ross on sides for the label. Riperton doubled as a receptionist for the label.
Marshall Chess, son of Leonard Chess, saw some of the handwriting on the wall as the 1960s began to wind down. The selling power of the blues acts of Chess’ early years was starting to wane. He wanted to make the Chess label sound more relevant to young people and wanted to tap into new markets. Leonard gave his son a subsidiary to the Chess label to put some of his ideas to work. Marshall wanted to try and tap into the psychadelic movement in rock & roll. Subsequently, the Cadet label saw some early minor success with the Top 20 hit “Pictures of Matchstick Men” by British band Status Quo acting as a U.S. Distributor for U.K. Label Pye Records. A St. Louis band known as The Truth a.k.a. The Acid Sette were signed and recorded for this label under the guidance of Abner Spector, Chess’ A&R man.
Marshall Chess called on pianist and jazz vibraphone player Charles Stepney to create a group for the vanity label. Chess also called on local white rock band The Proper Strangers to help with the vision. Vocalists Sidney Barnes and Judy Hauff were added along with well-known Chess studio guitarist Phil Upchurch and drummer Morris Jennings. Stepney had heard Riperton’s octave range on the early Gems sides and added her as a “background instrument” to a group that was eventually dubbed Rotary Connection.
The band released its self-titled debut that had a mixture of Stepney-penned works coupled with psychadelic covers of The Rolling Stones’ songs “Lady Jane” and “Ruby Tuesday,” Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man,” and John Sebastian’s “Didn’t Want to Have to Do It.” Riperton got one lead vocal on “Memory Band,” a song penned by Stepney along with his friend and Riperton’s future husband Richard Rudolph. The album reached #37 in the Billboard 200 charts and set the band in motion to tour. Marshall Chess, delighted by the success, would use the group in a different variant to record the psychedelic records Electric Mud led by Muddy Waters and The Howlin’ Wolf Album in 1969 on Cadet. Both were critical and commercial failures in their attempt to bring the old blues masters to the hippies. Both albums remain polarizing contributions to both blues legends’ catalogs.
Rotary Connection followed up their debut with the sophomore effort Aladdin in 1968. The second effort featured no covers and had Riperton and co-lead singer Sidney Barnes directly out in front. The album has become a cult classic, and earned the band comparisons to The 5th Dimension and Blood, Sweat & Tears for their intricate arrangements and songwriting.
The topical and holiday-themed release Peace was released later in the year. With strong messages of love and understanding and a hippy Santa Claus on the cover, it drew stark contrast to a nation in the grips of the Vietnam War. The album art erroneously was too much in common with an anti-war cartoon that appeared in the December 1968 edition of Billboard magazine which featured an image of a bruised and bloodied Santa on a Vietnam battlefield.
Mistaking this cartoon for the album’s cover art, a drunken executive at Montgomery Ward canceled all shipments of the album. The controversy helped the album reach #24 on the Billboard 200, and was the best selling record of the band’s career. Riperton led “Christmas Love” and a version of “Silent Night,” which are common features on Soul-based Christmas compilations to this day.
In March 1969, the band returned to the formula that won them their first audiences, switching to a cover-heavy record called Songs. Rotary Connection’s lineup also went through a major change. Bobby Simms, the group’s original guitarist, and drummer Tommy V. Donlinger left and Jon Stocklin and Kenny Venegas replaced them. Jimmy Nyleholt was replaced on keys by John Jeremiah.
Despite the changes, Rotary Connection could still largely be seen as the “Sly & the Family Stone of the Midwest” according to Buckley Mayfield of Jive Time Records says. Integrated and intersex, they never really achieved the success of their psych-soul counterparts. Despite not receiving notoriety, they were a large part of the first day of the Texas International Pop Festival outside of Dallas on August 30, 1969 just two weeks after the first Woodstock. High-quality soundboard bootleg recordings of almost the entire festival have circulated on the internet for many years.
It’s while out in support of the Songs release that Rotary Connection visited Annie Merner Chapel in Jacksonville on Thursday, October 9, 1969. The concert was co-sponsored by the Illinois College and the MacMurray College student activity committees. Cost for a ticket was just $2.50. MacMurray College alumni Willie Stanton, who attended the concert, remembers Riperton’s ear-piercing soprano echoing off the high ceilings of the chapel that night. Similar to a theremin trilling into the stratosphere, Riperton’s voice was as much an instrument as it was used to tell the story of song.
With the new album, covers of Otis Redding’s “Respect” (yes, the Aretha Franklin tune you all are familiar with), The Band’s “The Weight,” Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” and “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, and Stevie Wonder were likely performed. I made contact with co-lead singer Sidney Barnes earlier this year who said he remembered nothing about his appearance in Jacksonville, but did confirm that he was in the band with Riperton at the time of their appearance here. I’ve not discovered any set lists or further information anywhere about the performance.
After playing in Jacksonville, the group continued touring at break-neck speed. The following night, they were the opening act for psych-rock outfit Iron Butterfly at John Carroll University in Ohio over 500 miles and 8 ½ hours away from here.
Two more albums for the group followed in 1970 and 1971 before it disbanded in 1974 when the Cadet subsidiary folded back into Chess. Charles Stepney would turn his focus to produce Ramsey Lewis albums and eventually go on to work with Earth, Wind & Fire before his abrupt death from a heart attack in 1976.
Riperton went into semi-retirement in 1973 before a college intern for Epic Records rediscovered her on some demo tapes. Riperton was a homemaker raising her two children in Gainesville, Florida before Epic came calling, and the release of Perfect Angel came.
The album was a massive commercial success, earning her appearances on The Tonight Show and the Mike Douglas Show. Riperton recorded throughout the remainder of the 1970s until a breast cancer diagnosis ultimately cut her life short in 1979. Riperton did return to Central Illinois at the Mississippi River Festival in Edwardsville on July 29, 1977 prior to her death.
Riperton’s legacy beyond “Lovin’ You” was her cancer diagnosis in 1976. She became one of the first celebrities to reveal to the public they had a cancer diagnosis. Although she did not reveal that she was terminally ill at the time, she became a spokesperson for the American Cancer Society, which earned her a Courage Award presented by then-President Jimmy Carter. Riperton was also one of the first celebrities to reveal that she had undergone a mastectomy in order to stop the spread of cancer. Her bravery and advocacy was the spearhead of early efforts to bring more awareness and research for breast cancer.
For one fall night in October 1969, Jacksonville got to hear one of the most interesting and gifted vocalists in soul music.