For a time in October 1966 an 18-year-old singer called Andrea Davis was making waves in the Chicago music industry.
Chess Records had just released a single called ‘Lonely Girl’ – which had a B-side called ‘You Gave Me Soul’ – and the publicity department of Galaxy Artist Management Inc, based on East 21st Street in Chicago, were mailing out striking photographs of a young black singer called Andrea Davis to DJs and music journalists.
The record was a minor hit in Illinois, yet Davis disappeared without ever putting her name to another record. Galaxy went back to marketing other clients such as Little Milton and The Dells.
The singer stayed in the music business, though. She re-emerged under her own rightful name, Minnie Riperton, and went on to have a successful (though sadly short-lived) career, first as the lead singer of band Rotary Connection and then as a solo artist. Superstar singer Stevie Wonder, who produced one of her albums, said that she never received due credit for a voice that was described as “the eighth wonder of the world”.
So how did a teenage Riperton come to record under a different name? Of course, it’s not uncommon for musicians to use aliases. John Lee Hooker used fake names such as Delta John and Birmingham Sam to make money and get around contractual problems. George Harrison hid his identity when he played on a Cream album, billing himself as L’Angelo Misterioso. The list of musical pseudonyms is extensive – Garth Brooks as Chris Gaines; Paul Simon as Jerry Landis; John Lennon as Dr Winston O’Boogie – so much so that a whole book called The Encyclopaedia Of Pop Music Aliases 1950-2000 has been published.
Chicago-born Riperton had been singing for Chess Records since the age of 15, as a backing singer for established artists such as Etta James, Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley, and as a member of a girl group called The Gems. In the band, which was comprised of Jessica Collins, Dorothy Hucklebee and Theresa Washum, Riperton recorded seven singles, including ‘I Can’t Help Myself’ and ‘Let Your Hair Down’. They also served as backing singers for other musicians under the musical pen names of The Girls Three and Jess, Dot And Me. As The Starlets they recorded the Northern soul favourite ‘My Baby’s Real’.
The Gems faded but Riperton’s obvious talent and sunny personality had made her a favourite at Chess Records, where she had also worked as the front-door receptionist and part-time secretary in her after-school hours. She was taken under the wing of Billy Davis, a major figure in the music industry, who was the A&R director for Chess from 1961 to 1968 and the architect of the label’s success with soul bands in the 60s.
Davis was impressed by Riperton’s remarkable singing range, which had thus far been a backdrop to hits such as The Dells’ ‘There Is’ and Fontella Bass’ ‘Rescue Me’. She even featured on the Pigmeat Markham comedy single ‘Here Comes The Judge’. Davis was even more impressed when she stood in for an ill Etta James for a gig on the Chitlin’ Circuit.
Together with Sugar Pie DeSanto, he wrote the teen ballad ‘Lonely Girl’ to showcase Riperton’s range, pairing it with the more upbeat ‘You Gave Me Soul’ and co-producing the record with Chess stalwart Leonard Caston Jr, who had played piano on ‘Rescue Me’.
At this point Davis “began to guide her career” said Marshall Chess, son of Leonard and Phil. When it came to the name on the record cover, Davis decided that it should be an alias and thought that Andrea Davis was a more “showbiz name”. The record was played regularly on Chicago radio station WVON, which was owned by Leonard and Phil Chess, and the single enjoyed some local success.
In the immediate aftermath, Riperton carried on singing backing vocals for bands – including as part of Ray Charles’ Raelettes – and acting as Chess receptionist.
It has often been reported that she was happy with the alias, and had liked the way it honoured “her mentor” Davis, but the truth is a little less pure or simple. Riperton was young when the record was made and later told friends that it had been issued under the Andrea Davis pseudonym against her wishes. According to Rupert Pruter’s book Chicago Soul: Music In American Life (University Of Illinois Press) it was a name she soon “detested” and regarded as foisted on her by the record company.
A profile in Tech, MIT’s oldest newspaper, went further and said she “discarded the name Andrea Davis because of her dislike of phoniness”. That certainly ties in with the image of her offered by her husband Richard Rudolph, who said, “Minnie’s work was never a purely commercial endeavour. Right or wrong, she wanted things her way.”
In 1966, The Gems were dissolved and a new opportunity cropped up for the singer when Marshall Chess, the son of Leonard, sounded her out for a new project. He had started his own record label, Cadet Concept, and wanted to foster his own band. He said, “I had the key to the recording studio – and it was empty most nights! I had an idea for a band called Rotary Connection, a multi-racial-slash-psychedelic/soul/jazz group.”
Marshall asked Riperton to be the lead singer and she agreed – but insisted that it must be under her own name. He added: “She was a singer and the front-door receptionist at Chess and we’d become good friends. When I put together the idea for Rotary Connection, she was the first person I went to. You know, she had this high note that I totally loved; she had a great set of lungs; she could sing… so I put her together with this young band of players.”
The band, who had made psychedelic and experimental albums with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, were delighted to have Riperton on board and they went on to make six albums together. Some of their songs can be found on the compilation album Minnie Riperton: Her Chess Years.
Riperton went on to have success as a solo artist. She made an album with Stevie Wonder as producer and wrote and recorded the sublime pop song ‘Lovin’ You’, which was written as a melody to soothe her baby daughter, Maya Rudolph. Tragically, she died of breast cancer at the age of 31. In 2014, in a poignant gesture, Maya and partner Paul Thomas Anderson named their daughter Minnie.
As for Davis, he went on to work in advertising, under his own name, making a fortune after co-writing and producing the Coca-Cola advert music ‘I’d Like To Teach the World to Sing’.
Looking for more? Discover the Top 10 Chess soul records of all time.