21/11/2010

Alone in Brewster Bay


An early column looked at the Bee Gees’ song, Massachusetts, about a place the group had never been to and chose because they liked the sound of the name: a song more to do with feelings than geography. The same could be said of the subject of this column, also set in Massachusetts but where the actual setting was a mere backdrop for a song about something else, in this case the sadness of separation. A place becomes the trigger for the songwriter to explore emotions which the listener may or may not carry themselves to the physical location.

The song here, Alone in Brewster Bay, by the Chicago-based singer Minnie Riperton, is titled after a small settlement south of Boston overlooking Cape Cod Bay. Minnie Riperton is probably best known for her 1975 hit, Loving You, and for her extraordinary 5 ½ octave vocal range that went into whistle register, first showcased on a record, Lonely Girl, released under the name Andrea Davis at the age of 18.


Stevie Wonder once described her voice as that of an angel, with the capacity to produce a sound both ethereal and haunting for the listener. Her musical work, however, was much wider than Loving You might suggest. As part of the Chicago-based Gems in the mid-sixties (Trivia note: their biggest success was a record with the intriguing title, That’s What they Put Erasers on Pencils For), she supplied backing vocals to records such as Fontella Bass’s Rescue Me; and as joint lead vocalist with the psychedelic rock group Rotary Connection covered an eclectic range of styles from rock to soul to jazz and all points in between. Listen to their 1968 release Christmas Love and you are transported via a little historical snapshot (‘Nixon and Humphrey need a little love’), to a world of headbands, anti-war demonstrations and keeping the freak flag flying.

Alone in Brewster Bay came from her 1975 album, Adventures in Paradise, written during a holiday in the Cape Cod area sometime in the early 1970’s.With the evocative sounds of seabirds in the background and a gentle guitar backing, the song is a romantic lament that shifts between mournfulness and hope. The mood and lyrics, with the imagery of birds and bleak sky set against an awareness of time passing, is reminiscent of Sandy Denny’s Who Knows Where the Time Goes. You then realise that both women died at the age of 31 within a year of each other, both leaving a few pure gems of work and a sense of a potential unfulfilled. You also wonder whether the early deaths have inevitably tinged their work with a retrospective sense of sadness that perhaps wasn’t intended. Certainly, it is difficult to listen to Minnie Riperton’s final song shortly before her death, Back Down Memory Lane, ( ‘I don’t want to go back down memory lane, save me, save me, back down memory lane’) without an overwhelming feeling of poignancy.

Perhaps because of this, it would be easy to carry a melancholic feeling from the song to the place that inspired it. On a visit to my daughter in Boston a couple of years ago, we went to a number of the towns and villages in the area where Minnie Riperton vacationed nearly forty years ago. In many ways, the harbours, little antique and gift shops, white boarded houses, the ice creams and beaches and sounds of seabirds, must be closer to the English south coast than Chicago. I was reminded of that stretch of coast round Poole and Sandbanks and Brownsea Island, though without the sandals and socks and occasional glimpse of a front garden gnome. (I later satisfyingly discovered that Brewster, MA, is twinned with Budleigh Salterton in Devon).

It wasn’t, of course, melancholy at all. I was seeing the places with my own eyes and had my own experience to take away. In such ways can memories of a place differ.

Link to song

53 comments:

  1. Love this column Geoff - and isn't it interesting how both artists (the Bee Gees and Minnie Riperton) use similar parts of Massachusetts to convey something unrelated to the actual places, more feelings than geography, as you explain. It makes you wonder if Massachusetts is kind of a blank slate, easier than other places to project onto! Totally fascinating - thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I love Minnie - THANK YOU THANK YOU Geoff for posting about her. My favorite song by her is “Stick Together.” What a wonderful woman she was. Such a great loss.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I love Stevie Wonder's tribute to her - Perfect Angel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PLe4Jiz_I2o

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks for that link-I hadn't seen it before.
    I think you are right, Desiree-to an outsider, at least, Massachusetts seems hard to get a handle on.

    ReplyDelete
  5. She was a special lady. I met her when she sang backup for my husband of the time, Ellas Bates (Bo Diddley). Her voice and smile were unforgettable.
    .......Kay

    ReplyDelete
  6. I'm sure you know them Geoff, but the Rotary Connection are worth listening to - where Minnie got her start. Especially ‘I Am The Black Gold of the Sun’.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Geoff, I found a link where people can download the documentary about here - it's not high def quality but it's watchable and very good: http://www.megaupload.com/?d=RDB61MVT

    ReplyDelete
  8. This is a pretty amazing site with lots of original images and memorabilia uploaded, if anyone is interested......... http://picasaweb.google.com/perfectangelblog/MinnieRipertonPics#

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thanks for documentary link.
    That is a lovely comment, Kay. You wouldn't know by any chance if she also did the backing vocals for Billie Stewart's Strange Feeling, would you?

    ReplyDelete
  10. I was working for the Montgomery Ward department store when we thought that a cartoon in Billboard magazine was the album cover for an album by Minnie and Rotary Connection and the store canceled all the orders. The picture showed a bleeding and all bruised Santa Claus in Vietnam on a battlefield, it was an anti-war cartoon and it was in a December 1968 edition of Billboard. So somehow we mistook it for the album’s cover art and cancelled all shipments of the album. But this was the actual album cover: http://basementrug.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/rotary-connection_peace_lp.jpg. You can see the antiwar cartoon by going here http://books.google.com/books?id=oyIEAAAAMBAJ, and then 'read this magazine' and then scrolling to page 71. Or this link might take there you there directly: http://books.google.com/books?id=oyIEAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PA1&pg=PA71#v=onepage&q&f=false

    You can see how it was an easy mistake to make!! The band's name is at the top of the page!! But I still feel strange about it today.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Yes, she is the angelic high soprano background voice behind Billy. She also did "Hold On" by The Radiants. And The Knight Brothers "Temptation's 'Bout To Get Me" although this is a little hard to clearly hear as The Knight Brothers' microphones are hotter than the background singers when they join them on the chorus.

    ReplyDelete
  12. It's such a coincidence you wrote about Riperton - I just saw the film Megamind (which I don't necessarily recommend unless you have kids under 10!) and her song "Lovin You" appears over and over again in the film.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Henry I empathize with you man, I was part of the decision at a radio station to ban her song 'Inside My Love' for suggestive lyrics. About a year before she was diagnosed with cancer, I think. I still regret that to this day.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Thank you Kay! I have often wondered if it was her on Strange Feeling as the backing vocal is so incredible. I've got the Knight Bros one-I'll listen to it carefully!

    ReplyDelete
  15. I recently remade her famous cover art from Perfect Angel. In my music video for "Honey." Here are screenshots (me on the left, her on the right): http://fast.mediamatic.nl/f/hmfm/image/440/3210-500-228.jpg. Or you can see the whole video, with the Minnie moment at 1.28minutes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SFkHylBiPyQ.

    Great blog.

    ReplyDelete
  16. At the end, when the background singers do the chorus while Knight Brothers do the ad-libs, then you can hear Minnie, once again, that angelic voice at the top. Thank you for writing about Minnie and this lesser known song too, Alone in Brewster Bay.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Lewis, thank you - good to know I'm not alone in feeling guilty about something Minnie related!!!

    ReplyDelete
  18. That is a great replication of Perfect Angel, Erykah!
    This is the Billy Stewart Strange Feeling record that has been mentioned. Minnie Riperton must have been about 15 at the time
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o4aQRH5T3aI

    ReplyDelete
  19. I so love this woman and don't know who has her octave range today.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Yes she was young. I remember because I was too - only around 20 or 21.

    Interesting blog, glad to have read it.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I was reading that she is actually called Piccolo Soprano (because of her ease in singing high notes - above C6 - like a Piccolo). Apparently on her recorded music, her voice spans a little more than 4 octaves (From D3 - Close Your Eyes And Remember - to F7 - Ruby Tuesday Live). And being classically trained, she could use all of the voice registers (Low Chest Voice, Belted Chest Voice, Mixed Voice, Head Voice, and Whistle Register) and move with amazing ease between them. She also had amazing breathing techniques, her longest note is 25 seconds! (and in Whistle Register) on her Adventures In Paradise song: Inside My Love.

    ReplyDelete
  22. One of her last performances ever: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yemAeNSxjLg

    ReplyDelete
  23. Her grave is near my house, in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. Here's a photo: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_qskaSRkns8A/TCGUKkrgxuI/AAAAAAAAQHA/9KICkHeCrnw/s320/DSCN6411.JPG

    ReplyDelete
  24. Here is my version of the song - www.youtube.com/watch?v=9pAle9vWcmU.
    I like to remake and record songs. I love falsetto... I like hitting high notes ala Minnie Riperton and I have a 4 octave range (F2/F#2 - F6/F#6, and a few more notes above F#6).

    ReplyDelete
  25. God I'm glad I was one of 60 people who saw her last performance and got to speak with her after that show. Will always love her.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Thank you for writing about her. I've always felt a strange connection to her, her music has always really resonated with me in a bone-chilling kind of way.

    ReplyDelete
  27. This brings back memories of her singing on the johnny carson show...

    ReplyDelete
  28. Seems like her cover art has inspired more than one contemporary artist!! - http://hiphop.popcrunch.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/TI-Album-Cover-King-Uncovered.jpg

    This one is T.I.'s new album King Uncaged.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Minnie Riperton has been my sole inspiration ever since I was introduced to her heavenly melodies in fifth grade. She has always been a shining star and always will be.

    ReplyDelete
  30. One of the most angelic voices that my ears have ever heard. She blew me away upon first listen. it really is one the best voices in recorded history. Every track she made can send shivers down your spine when she hits the high notes.

    ReplyDelete
  31. I agree, K.B. Perfect Angel gives me eargasms. :) Her voice was ethereal and she was a class act. Definitely one of the greatest voices of all time. Also, I watched a documentary on her earlier this year and she had such an interesting life. It was really sad to know that her life was cut short at such an early age.

    ReplyDelete
  32. I remember the first time I heard Minnie Riperton's Lovin' You. I was riding home on the school bus and the bus driver had the radio turned up. When Riperton hit her memorable high note, everyone on the bus got quiet. No one had ever heard anything quite like it.

    ReplyDelete
  33. What smote me mightily about Minnie was that her seriousness never soured her. She smiled and loved life even as life was killing her. She sang serious songs one minute and fun loving anthems the next.

    ReplyDelete
  34. Minnie's music has been sampled a great deal by hip hop artists, so the cover art echoes aren't surprising.

    ReplyDelete
  35. Geoff! As one of your British I have to register the comedy of your Budleigh Salterton remark, because of how unlikely it is that there has EVER been a song about this one of the twins in the twinned city:) Never mind by one as starry as Minnie Riperton:)

    ReplyDelete
  36. I meant "one of your British readers":)

    ReplyDelete
  37. Some people claim Mariah Carey is her vocal heritage. But I really don't think Mariah Carey holds a candle to Minnie.

    ReplyDelete
  38. I knew Minne all the back to when she was a receptionist. At 2120 Michigan Avenue, at the Chess Producing Corp. She could only have been 16 then.

    ReplyDelete
  39. I remember that people thought Minnie was white at first because she didn't have quite the same soul sound as Aretha Franklin. And she inspired people like Teena Marie, who was white and trying to sing soul amid some essentialist notions about what soul music was and who could sing it. It's one of the reasons I think this song about a whiter-than-white area of the U.S. is really interesting: Minne Riperton singing about somewhere near Cape Cod, with all its sunburned white vacationers eating icecream and shopping for antiques (so white, as Geoff, points out that it might be south coast of England!). For me it fits with her larger achievement of de-essentializing music right when Motown was suggesting that there was a 'black' sound that whites (like Teena Marie) COULD never achieve, and a 'white' sound (like Minne, sometimes) that black Americans SHOULD never achieve.

    ReplyDelete
  40. Let's wait for a song about Budleigh Salterton now, Tiffanye!

    ReplyDelete
  41. That is an interesting analysis of Minnie Riperton's music, Laura. Neither Rotary Connection nor her solo work could easily be categorised- which is perhaps the reason that neither had the commercial success they should have

    ReplyDelete
  42. Found it! In the song "(Now) I know (where I'm going) our kid" by the parody group The Shirehorses, Budleigh Salterton is cited as being on the road to Scotland.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VI9e9F-Fves

    :)

    ReplyDelete
  43. Brilliant! Torquay and Bideford get a mention too!

    ReplyDelete
  44. There are definitely sandals and socks and occasional glimpse of a front garden gnome in Massachusetts Geoff:) Here's a photo I snapped in Cape Cod - I think this store was selling sandals, socks AND gnomes:) - http://photos.igougo.com/images/p167200-Cape_Cod-Route_28.jpg

    ReplyDelete
  45. This has to be one of the best song titles ever (never heard of it before this column); That’s What they Put Erasers on Pencils For.

    I think someone should start a blog about songs with strange titles, or at least make a list of the top ten weirdest song titles ever.

    Here are a few:
    Somebody Always Paints The Wall - George Jones
    Eat Starch Mom - Jefferson Airplane
    Lady Godiva's Operation - Velvet Underground
    Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um - Curtis Mayfield
    My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama - Frank Zappa

    ReplyDelete
  46. In case anyone was also wondering about Geoff's reference to "Christmas Love" from Rotary Connection, I found it here: Pretty interesting! (Fly on, Freak Flag!). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BpP2JsGkwyc

    ReplyDelete
  47. They also did another Christmas one, Peace at Last-which seems to be about Santa smoking mistletoe..

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B3mQnXEQ4fk&playnext=1&list=PLB4D8396588E7215F&index=45

    ReplyDelete
  48. Geoff, loved the column man. but not all songs about Massachusetts make it a blank slate to do with emotion rather than place. here's my cover of arlo guthrie's "Massachusetts": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n_MdmnSOVMI
    the song is all about Massachusetts history and weather and landscape.

    ReplyDelete
  49. I feel like there a few about driving through Massachusetts too. Like James Taylor - Sweet Baby James

    Now the first of December was covered with snow
    And so was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston
    Lord, the Berkshires seem dreamlike on account of that frosting
    With ten miles behind me, and ten thousand more to go

    ReplyDelete
  50. Yes, and about the main Massachusetts road - "Mass Pike" by The Get Up Kids, although this fits more in Geoff's category of road trip songs than songs about Massachusetts maybe.......... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rgFMYiyrmbU

    ReplyDelete
  51. I'm glad I found this, or it found me.

    ReplyDelete
  52. The imagery of "Alone In Brewster Bay" makes me feel comfy, warmed by a fire and lonely. I think the whole album was a truly romantic tribute to her love for her husband. "Love and Glory" spoke about the struggle of being accepted by family when you're in an interracial marriage in the 70's. The place she reaches in AIBB is a time of missing her man as she was left alone to consider her mortality. Watching the fire die, the snowflakes fly, and the geese out hinking on the bay almost allows you to see what she was seeing while dealing with the unfairness of life. The last two songs brings us back to the fact that as long as we live we should embrace the Simple Things and Never Let Anyone Bring You Down. The Lament was in the middle but the joy came back in the end.

    ReplyDelete