New to Me: Rotary Connection

A look back at Chess Records’ house psychedelic band, led by a pre-stardom Minnie Riperton and featuring Phil Upchurch, Mitch Aliotta, and John Jeremiah, among many others.

My wife is a big fan of Maya Rudolph, so conversation recently turned to her mother, the great Chicago-born-and-raised soul singer Minnie Riperton, who trained with the Lyric and worked as a secretary at Chess Records. Soul music is a big blind spot in my musical education, so I was only passingly familiar with her singular gifts in the whistle register.

But the biggest blind spot in my musical education is the baroque excess of psychedelic rock, which I tend to unfairly associate with the fatal abuse of controlled substances and studio gimmickry. (The sole exception: Sly Stone’s seminal bummer There’s a Riot Goin’ On, which chilled psych’s florid preciousness with the fear that represented the era for a lot of the people who lived it.) So I’d definitely never heard of Rotary Connection, one of the more odd acts to come out of Chess Records, and Riperton’s pre-stardom act.

It was something of a local supergroup, featuring Phil Upchurch (who’s worked with everyone from Curtis Mayfield to Stan Getz to Jimmy Smith to Michael Jackson), Mitch Aliotta and John Jeremiah (of Aliotta-Haynes-Jeremiah), Riperton (formerly of the Gems), members of garage-rockers The Proper Strangers (including Aliotta), Charles Stepney (a producer on The Howlin’ Wolf Album and Electric Mud, among others), percussion teacher and exotica cult figure Bobby Christian, neglected soul vocalist Sidney Barnes, and others, not to mention the CSO on strings. They’re not exactly obscure; Stepney received a Grammy nomination for his production, and a cover of “I Am the Black Gold Of the Sun” made it onto the popular supergroup recording Nuyorican Soul.

But they’re not exactly a household name, either. The only Rotary Connection tracks I can find for purchase online are 13 of the 16 songs on Minnie Riperton: Her Chess Years and a handful on Amazon, mostly Christmas songs. Of them, my favorites are “A-Muse,” an impossibly delicate cut that’s just Riperton and an acoustic guitar inflected with a British folk invasion sound; and “Stormy Monday Blues,” a bluesy rave-up duet between Riperton and Sidney Barnes. Other than that, there’s an import best-of and a 1999 re-release of their second album.

As is so often the case with dusties, the best place to find Rotary Connection is YouTube. Their music was all over the place—"Stormy Monday Blues” is basically a straight blues number; “Lady Jane” sounds like soul Fairport Convention; “We’re Going Wrong” is a huge, almost amelodic wall-of-sound space dirge; “Respect” applies the lessons of Curtis Mayfield to Otis Redding’s standard. Psychedelic soul and rock were always a bit of a grab bag anyway, so whether you find it mindblowing or irritating will be a matter of taste.

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