Rotary Connection was a relatively obscure band from the 1960s. Their music was fearless. They were true recording artists and their unique arrangements took the listeners on a musical trip of sorts.
The beginning of Rotary Connection was as a project of Marshall Chess’ new start-up label-Cadet Concept Records- in 1966.
The son of Chess Records‘ founder, Leonard Chess, Marshall wanted to produce psychedelic music, different from the blues and rock that made Chess Records a Chicago mainstay between 1950-1975. He started the Cadet Concept label and looked for the “hottest, most avant-garde rock guys in Chicago”. He recruited Charles Stepney (classically-trained vibraphonist-arranger-producer), and three members from local band, The Proper Strangers (Bobby Simms, Mitch Aliotta, and Ken Venegas). Also, Chess songwriter Sidney Barnes, studio musicians guitarist Phil Upchurch and drummer Morris Jennings joined. Vocalists Judy Hauff and (then-Chess receptionist) Minnie Riperton rounded-out the group.
Their First Album
Their first album,Rotary Connection, was released in 1967. It featured a sitar and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It was a huge undertaking at the time and went virtually unnoticed. Art nonetheless.
In 1968, Rotary Connection’s Stepney, Jennings, and Upchurch were recruited by Chess to be part of a psychedelic backing for albums for Chess bluesmen Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf- Electric Mud in 1968 and The Howlin’ Wolf Album in 1969.
It was a bold experiment mixing the then-popular psychedelic music with blues. It pleased few in the end, but it was a noble effort by Marshall Chess to unite the two forms,
Experimentation was the thing with the Rotary Connection. They produced five more albums (including a Christmas album), never afraid to try it all. Their covers of others’ songs were whole different animals. Unfortunately, radio wouldn’t play this “uncategorizable” band. It was the square peg in round hole thing…
Minnie Riperton’s mind-blowing voice lived in the so-called “whistle register“. It covered over five octaves. She used it as another instrument, soaring way above everything else. (I thought her voice was a Theremin when I first heard it!) She eventually recorded the hit “Loving You” as a solo artist in 1975. Here are a few highlights of her whistle-register singing. Sadly, she developed breast cancer and passed away in 1979. Her amazing voice will always be here for us to enjoy. (Side-note: Minnie’s daughter is multi-talented Maya Rudolph).
I have an appreciation for true recording artists. Rotary Connection was a prime example. They brought their music experiments to life. There are still folks like us that still remember! R.I.P.
© 2018 J. Mark Witters Skyypilot.com