Rotary Connection's psychedelic chamber soul continues to sound ambitious and progressive decades after the group's departure. Instantly recognizable from the dramatic string arrangements of Charles Stepney and the five-octave voice of Minnie Riperton, the group released six albums between 1967 and 1971 that combined rock, soul, and psychedelia to theatrical and occasionally transcendental heights. The racially mixed group never really broke out of the Midwest, a region in which they frequently played out. Their failure to become more than a regional cult act can be partly attributed to their management's decision to spurn a slot at Woodstock in order to play a more lucrative festival in Toronto. Despite some patchy albums and poor management decisions, Rotary Connection's status as an influential cult group has steadily risen since the '70s.
Under Stepney's guidance, Rotary Connection recorded and released their self-titled debut album in late 1967. The group's spacious sound was leavened by Stepney's often gorgeous and lilting string arrangements. The album featured both originals (co-written by Stepney and a number of other songwriters, including Barnes and future Riperton spouse Richard Rudolph) and radical covers of the Rolling Stones' "Ruby Tuesday" and Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone." This became the blueprint for what would follow from the group and, as a stunning (if flawed) debut, the album falls into that old rock trap of being viewed as the only essential one the group made. That's an unfortunate fact, because the group's key factor — the voice of Minnie Riperton — wasn't truly given a chance to shine until the second album.
The albums Aladdin, Peace (a Christmas-themed LP), Songs, Dinner Music, and Hey Love were issued between 1968 and 1971. Though the albums include a fair amount of filler, each has some amazingly inspired moments. "Respect," for instance, was a radical reworking of Otis Redding's original; transformed into a duet between Riperton and Barnes, the song's infamous "r-e-s-p-e-c-t" call-out was left out, and the tempo was slowed down to a sultry crawl. Hey Love, bizarrely credited to the New Rotary Connection, would become the group's last record. By that time, Riperton already had a solo masterpiece under her belt — 1970s Come to My Garden. After the group split, Riperton continued her solo career and became one of the most beloved soul vocalists of the '70s. Breast cancer took her life in 1979, when she was just 31-years-old. Stepney passed away three years prior, at the age of 43. ~ Andy Kellman