Dec 5, 2015

RhoDeo 1548 Grooves


Today's artists 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. . ... N'joy

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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.

Marshall Chess, son of Leonard Chess, conceived Rotary Connection in 1967 for Cadet Concept -- an upstart subsidiary of his father's Chess label. Chess initially centered the instrumentalists around a trio of musicians from a rock group called the Proper Strangers: drummer Kenny Venegas, bassist Mitch Aliotta, and guitarist Bobby Simms. Sidney Barnes, Minnie Riperton, and Judy Hauf were added as the vocalists. Upon the group's formation, Barnes was already something of a vagabond; his resume as a songwriter, background vocalist, and solo artist was extensive. Riperton was a veteran of the Chess ranks; she worked as a receptionist in the label's Chicago office, had been a member of the Gems, and released material under the name Angela Davis. Chess musical supervisor Charles Stepney -- a legendary composer, arranger, and producer -- was brought in to direct the group. He would also implement the skills of studio musicians from the extended Chess family throughout the group's existence, such as drummer Morris Jennings and guitarists Phil Upchurch, Bobby Christian, and Pete Cosey.

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.

As a result of the success of The Rotary Connection, Chess felt that he could revive the career of bluesmen Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf by recording two albums of experimental, psychedelic blues with members of Rotary Connection as the backing band for the singers, producing the albums Electric Mud and The Howlin' Wolf Album. Chess hoped the new albums would sell well among fans of psychedelic rock bands influenced by Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. In place of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf's regular musicians were Gene Barge, Pete Cosey, Roland Faulkner, Morris Jennings, Louis Satterfield, Charles Stepney and Phil Upchurch. Cosey, Upchurch and Jennings joked about calling the group "The Electric Niggers". Marshall Chess liked the suggestion, but Leonard Chess refused to allow the name. Ultimately, blues purists criticized the psychedelic sound of Electric Mud and The Howlin' Wolf Album.

Meanwhile 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.

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The most inexplicable aspect of Rotary Connection's debut is that its strange and experimental qualities are often referred to as charming but dated, while Love's Forever Changes (released the same year), a record that is just a shade less bizarre and no more psychedelic, is universally viewed as timeless. There's no mistaking that this is hardly a flawless record -- this band, more an experiment than anything else, was only beginning to find its feet. For every cover that radically reshapes the original and either stuns ears or elicits screams of blasphemy ("Like a Rolling Stone"), there's one that falls completely flat in its blandness ("Soul Man"). And for every original that is rife with otherworldly melodies and luscious combinations of countless musical styles ("Memory Band"), there's something like the ghostly "what you've just heard" audio collage/megamix that closes out the album ("Rotary Connection"). The consensus seems to be that this is the only essential record this group released, and that they were such an oddball entity that this is all one can take of them. That's just plain silly, evident from any number of the sparkling moments found on the LPs that followed. Minnie Riperton had yet to take the spotlight she deserved in this group -- so in a sense, this could be seen as the least-representative Rotary Connection record, as fascinating as it is. Some strange force carried it to the Top 40 of the album chart, not that it was undeserving.

Rotary Connection - Rotary Connection  (flac 202mb)

01 Amen 4:03
02 Rapid Transit 0:38
03 Turn Me On 3:19
04 Pink Noise 0:22
05 Lady Jane 5:00
06 Like A Rolling Stone 4:51
07 Soul Man 3:01
08 Sursum Mentes 0:45
09 Didn't Want To Have To Do It 3:11
10 Black Noise 0:22
11 Memory Band 3:20
12 Ruby Tuesday 4:27
13 Rotary Connection 2:51

Rotary Connection - Rotary Connection   (ogg 83mb)

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Aladdin ushered in a bigger and bolder Rotary Connection. The proper follow-up to their debut is also more streamlined and less scatterbrained without shedding the limitless approach that made its predecessor such an intrepid undertaking. Crisp drum breaks, punching horns, and soaring strings are all a part of Rotary Connection's fusion of rock and soul, which shows a greater degree of focus and a decreased reliance on psychedelic flourishes here. This is all for the better and the worse. With less studio indulgences, some of the songs are lacking in character; however, the developments often make for a more confident and powerful sound, and Charles Stepney's string arrangements -- the group's most valuable asset after the voice of Minnie Riperton -- cut clear through these songs, alternately supporting with luster and leading with dramatic force. The most pleasing development is the more frequent presence of Riperton, whose lead turn during the verses on "I Took a Ride" is so endearingly soft, bewitching, and elegant that the slightly tacky chorus (during which several other voices kick in) does little to diminish her performance. The opening "Life Could" is one of the group's best quasi-Broadway numbers, full of seismic shifts of sound that include everything from squealing guitars to massive drum/horn combinations to trilling flutes to dynamic string tugs. Aladdin might not be as solid as its predecessor, but it's a step forward.

Rotary Connection - Aladdin  (flac 264mb)

01 Life Could 4:10
02 Teach Me How To Fly 3:20
03 V.I.P. 3:04
04 Let Them Talk 4:25
05 I Took A Ride (Caravan) 6:06
06 Aladdin 4:25
07 Magical World 4:23
08 I Must Be There 3:34
09 I Feel Sorry 4:10
10 Paper Castle 4:17

Rotary Connection - Aladdin   (ogg 105mb)

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The daring covers returned for Songs. In fact, the record is nothing but covers, including drastic re-castings of three songs from Cream's Disraeli Gears. So the creative well was surely drying up for Rotary Connection, right? Wrong. Despite the complete absence of original material, this is a proper Rotary Connection album as much as any other. Their version of Otis Redding's "Respect," like many of their covers, is rendered nearly unrecognizable; slowed to a crawl and stripped of its punctuative chorus of "R-E-S-P-E-C-T/I know what it means to me," Charles Stepney's string arrangement is a subdued but effective smear and Minnie Riperton and Sidney Barnes trade lines, emote in tandem, and twist around each other like they've never done before or since. The song has never sounded more steamy. The slightly eerie tone of the strings that encased "Respect" pop up again for "We're Going Wrong," one of the three Cream covers. The foreboding feel is carried forth with wordless co-ed background vocals that combine with escalating strings. But what really puts a cap on it is the moment when Riperton's voice shoots into a pitch that no theremin can approximate. It's moments like this one that make wading through the group's lapses (a dull, bungled look at "I've Got My Mojo Working," for instance) so worth it. As for those who view the group as blasphemers? Let them cringe.

Rotary Connection - Songs  (flac 217mb)

01 Respect 3:05
02 The Weight 3:24
03 Sunshine Of Your Love 5:07
04 I've Got My Mojo Working 2:38
05 Burning Of The Midnight Lamp 4:40
06 Tales Of Brave Ulysses 4:28
07 This Town 3:25
08 We're Going Wrong 3:20
09 Salt Of The Earth 4:55

 Rotary Connection - Songs (ogg 80mb)

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As strong as Hey Love is -- it's one of Rotary Connection's best records -- three of its songs are so rich with full-bloom beauty that you can't help but refer to the group's lack of an adequate single-disc best-of as an extremely unfortunate thing. (Minnie Riperton's Her Chess Years, which is dominated by Rotary Connection material, doesn't qualify for its bonkers lack of a couple key songs.) Too many people point to the group's self-titled debut as its only essential release, which means that albums like this remain overlooked. And that means that too many people go on without hearing "If I Sing My Song," "I Am the Black Gold of the Sun," and "Hey Love." On "If I Sing My Song," Richard Rudolph and Charles Stepney play Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and the result belongs in the ranks of that songwriting team for its degree of hummability and the impeccably designed arrangements. "I Am the Black Gold of the Sun" is the apex, the brightest moment in the group's discography; it's an ineffable package of grace, grit, and life-affirming spirit (if your knees don't quake). Virtually anything would seem like a comedown after it, but the title track of the album sounds at points like a precursor to fellow Chicagoan Terry Callier's "Gotta Get Closer to You" and keeps the quality of the orchestra-spiked soul flowing. The rest of the album ranges from fair to good, with a slight edge to the good. That's almost irrelevant, however, given the essential nature of the three aforementioned diamond

Rotary Connection - Hey Love  (flac 250mb)

01 If I Sing My Song 2:53
02 The Sea & She 3:30
03 I Am The Blackgold Of The Sun 5:20
04 Hanging Round The Bee Tree 3:32
05 Hey, Love 4:00
06 Love Has Fallen On Me 4:10
07 Song For Everyman 5:32
08 Love Is 4:42
09 Vine Of Happiness 4:36

 Rotary Connection - Hey Love (ogg 97mb)

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Anonymous said...

Thank you Mr R, pure gold

Corey Bramlett said...

Your taste is impeccable! Thank you for sharing.