As Black Music Month concludes, we take a look at Perfect Angel, the masterful sophomore album from Minnie Riperton. We sat with album architect Richard Rudolph who provided details on how the record was conceived and what it was like working with Stevie Wonder at the height of his powers.
By the mid-1970s, Minnie Riperton was on the verge of setting herself apart from her contemporaries. After spending years providing background and lead vocals for the legendary Chicago collective Rotary Connection — experiencing modest success — she decided to branch out as a solo artist.
While performing with Rotary Connection, Riperton, who famously had a five‐and‐a‐half octave vocal range, met her future songwriting partner and husband, Richard Rudolph. Together, alongside talented producer and arranger Charles Stepney they crafted her debut album, Come to My Garden, in 1970. The album was not a commercial success. Shortly thereafter, she departed ways with her record company, GRT Records, and decided to leave the music business altogether.
Still only in her early 20s, she moved to Florida and became a wife, mother, and homemaker.
A few years later, while in exile, she was approached by a college representative for Epic Records. In 1973, she signed a recording contract with Epic Records and relocated to California, working as a member of Wonderlove, Stevie Wonder’s backing group. She provided background vocals on Stevie’s masterful Fulfillingness’ First Finale album. Once it was time to record her sophomore album, she sought the talents of Stevie — who was the biggest music star on the planet and in the middle of his “classic period” — to co-produce the album. (Stevie worked on the album under the pseudonym El Toro Negro.)
On August 9, 1974, Perfect Angel was released. It became the highest-selling album of her career. The album spawned four singles, including the number one smash: “Lovin’ You,” a song that Riperton sang to her baby daughter Maya Rudolph at the time.
Crucial to the album and the song’s success was Richard Rudolph, who was a songwriter, producer, and muse for Riperton. At the time, Richard had little experience in music, working only on a Rotary Connection album and the first two Minnie albums. He would go on to have a decades-long career in music, working with everyone from Chaka Khan to New Edition to Tupac.
Minnie would go on to release three more albums — collaborating closely with her husband on all of them — but she would never repeat the success of Perfect Angel. In 1976, just two years after releasing Perfect Angel, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She would die from the disease on July 12, 1979, at the age of 31. Even when she was sick, she rarely stopped working; Minnie was released just months before her death. And her final album, Love Lives Forever, was released posthumously in 1980.
For Perfect Angel’s 45th anniversary, we spoke with the album’s architect Richard Rudolph, who provided crucial details and stories on how this timeless record was conceived and recorded.
When did you first meet Minnie Riperton?
Well, I first met her at the Electric Theater at the Kinetic Playground in Chicago. She was singing live with the Rotary Connection. It was the first time I heard her sing. It was a transformational moment. I was managing that room at the time. I had no idea why, and I had no experience in that, either. I just fell into it. We just saw each other and that was it. That’s what they call love at first sight.
Following the making of her Come to My Garden album, what was going on in her life that made her go into semi-retirement for a couple years before the making of Perfect Angel?
Well, she didn’t think of herself as retired. We left Chicago, and she just thought that she had to get out of Chicago. At the time, she was pregnant with our second child, Maya. We were traveling around and looking for a place to land, really. Just trying to figure out what to do with our lives. We were living in Chicago before that, and, as you may know, I was very involved in the Come to My Garden album. In fact, I wrote “Come to My Garden,” and I co-wrote several other songs with the brilliant [producer] Charles Stepney. It was a real thrill. I worked with him on the early Rotary Connection stuff when they were on Chess Records. We ended up in Gainesville, Florida. I can’t remember how many months pregnant Minnie was at that time. We were traveling around the country in a Ford Econoline van that was insulated and paneled and had big pillows in it. It was getting cold up north, so we went down to Florida. We were in Miami, then we drove up to Gainesville to see some friends of mine from high school who were going to the University of Florida.
It was a real warm and friendly place. One day she said, “I don’t think I can go on anymore.” We were driving through town, and we saw a little house that had a duck pond with a screen, front porch, hammock, and a little citrus grove out back. We had three bedrooms and all that space. If I’m not mistaken, it cost $150 a month to rent. The flipside of that was there was no way to make any money there. I had all these different jobs. I was a weekend DJ on the one FM station in town. I had a flower business. I would drive to Tallahassee and pick up flowers in my van and bring them up to college students on the corners to sell them on the weekends. I also had an ad in the paper that said, “All around handyman. We will do or fix anything. Free estimates.” Any job so we could keep writing. Gainesville is where we wrote most of the songs for the Perfect Angel album.
How did Minnie get signed to a new record deal with Epic Records?
When we were in Florida, a guy who was the college rep for Epic Records heard that we were living there. One weekend, he came to the radio station when I was working and introduced himself. He said he heard that Minnie was in town. She wasn’t singing or working then because she just had the baby. We had two little kids. We were just writing and living a very mellow, alternative life. He came to us, and we played him some of these songs, and then next thing we know, a great man from the record business, Don Ellis, who was the head of A&R at Epic Records at that time, called and asked if he could come meet with us.
He flew down, and he came to our place. We went out to dinner and then we went back to the house. He sat around the floor on these pillows that we had brought in from the van, and we played him a song and he signed her to a record deal. Soon after, we came out to California to make the record.
Earlier you referred to your previous work with Charles Stepney. What was your relationship with him, and how did he help you as a producer prior to making Perfect Angel?
He was a genius. You know, the whole Earth, Wind & Fire thing came out of the Rotary Connection, which was Charles’ baby. Maurice White was the studio drummer for Chess Records. He played on all the rest of the Rotary Connection stuff because he was Ramsey Lewis’s drummer, too, and Charles did that. When Earth Wind and Fire really took off is when they switched over to Columbia Records from Warner Brothers Records, and they brought in Philip [Bailey] to sing the high parts and they brought in Charles to do the arrangements. Charles was a monster talent. He was over there at Chess Records, and he was doing the most incredible things. So many of the people there were self-taught musicians, and Charles was highly educated in school. He knew so much musically. I was really a novice, and I wrote “Come to my Garden” on a guitar. In those days, we were very excited because we had cassette players, and we could push two buttons and record quickly. [laughs]
You could overdub anything. It was just a guitar and vocal. And unfortunately, it was my vocals, which were brutal and my guitar playing was not that great, either. I just learned to play the guitar, so I could write songs. I was not a schooled musician. So, Charles and I were diametrically opposed in that way, but we became so close. Minnie, unbeknownst to me, took this cassette that had this little song on it. She played it for Charles, and Charles came to me and asked, “You wrote the song?”
I was embarrassed that he heard it. He asked, “Did you write the lyrics, too?” I answered, “Yes.” He asked, “Can you write lyrics for other people’s music?” I said, “I can write lyrics to anything.” Never having done it, of course, but just thinking that I could do it. He said, “I’ll give you some stuff, and we’ll see what you can do.” Charles would make some of the most beautiful demos. It’s not what people think of as demos today. He would go down to his basement and with a four-track recording, he would play piano, vibes, and melodica, and those things. We didn’t have drum machines or any of that stuff. He would play these beautiful, haunting, and touching melodies, and he’d give them to me. I would write the lyrics to them. We became really good friends. He became my mentor because he was a much older man. He was like 36. I was just a kid. I didn’t know anything. I really looked up to him a lot. He was amazing. That’s how it all started, and then we wrote a bunch of stuff for that album. We wrote a lot of stuff for The Rotary Connection, too.
How did you begin working with Stevie Wonder on this album?
One day, we were at Epic Records, and they asked Minnie, “Who do you want to produce your records?” She said, “Well, Stevie Wonder.” They were replied, “Yeah, right.” This was after he made Talking Book and Innervisions. It was like you couldn’t get near the guy. Of course, he was a big fan of Minnie’s. He loved her, and he had met her once. We came out here to California, and we were staying in a little house up in Laurel Canyon right off Wonderland Avenue. Her manager was there, and he was talking to this guy named Alfie Switzer. He said, “I’m here with Minnie and we’re looking to work with Stevie Wonder.” He said, “I know Stevie. I used to walk him on stage. I used to be his agent or something.” I said, “What?” Before you knew it, we got a call from this guy who was at the Record Plant and Stevie was on the phone talking to me. Stevie said, “Come down here right away.”
The guy drove her down to the studio, and she sang on Stevie’s song “Creepin.’” She started singing background with him the day she met him. It was amazing. Then, I went down there about six hours later to get her, and she introduced me to him and we became instant friends. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but Minnie just said, “Stevie, you should produce my record.” He was signed to Motown and said, “I don’t know if I can do that stuff, but I really want to do it.” He said to me, “I’ll do it, but you got to do it with me.” That’s why it’s produced by Scorbu because he is the bull and I’m the scorpion. That was it. We formed a little thing there, and we created a nickname for him: El Toro Negro. It is what I used to call him in Spanish because it means the black bull. He couldn’t be credited for all that stuff. He was afraid he couldn’t do it, so we did it like that. We would go down to the Record Plant every night, and at some point, time would flow, and Stevie would come in at some hour and everything would start. Everybody from the Wonderlove band was down there, and we were recording. It was such a beautiful flow, such an amazing experience. If you didn’t know anything about the music business, this is how you would dream of records being made.
This was before Pro Tools and computers. We were mostly working on a 24-track, and then somehow, we were able to get the safety codes and have a second machine following the first and bounce stuff down to make it. We tried to keep that album real organic and simple. Instrumentally, it was very complex in a lot of ways because of Stevie’s and Minnie’s genius. We had more of a minimalistic approach to it.
Coming off recording Come to My Garden to Perfect Angel, what was your approach as a songwriter and producer working with both Minnie and Stevie?
Well, the idea was to try to keep it organic and let people get close to Minnie. Of course, what I would try to do was stay out of Stevie’s way. That guy was a force of nature. He and Minnie were so close and loved each other so much. It was such a beautiful thing to see them together and to see them writing and working together and singing together. It was just unbelievable. Every time was great. We never had a bad moment. Like I referenced before, we tried to record “Lovin’ You” three or four different ways. One day, Stevie said, “Let’s listen to the original demo,” which we had recorded in Gainesville with me on guitar and Minnie singing. He said, “Let’s do it that way.” I said, “OK.” Michael Sembello had just joined Wonderlove. He’d just had surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome in his wrist, so he couldn’t play acoustic guitar.
Stevie said, “Just put the guitar down the way you played it. The way you wrote it.” I went into the studio with a click track and with these two fools sitting in the studio trying to make me laugh over the headphones, while I was trying to record the track. Stevie and Minnie were in there saying the most terrible things into my headphones while I’m trying to play, and they thought it was hysterical. We finally got it down, and then blessedly and blissfully, Stevie came in and played the two gorgeous Fender Rhodes parts over the guitar. So, it’s just me and him on the track. We listened to it, and we thought it was so beautiful. Minnie said, “Something’s still missing.” We didn’t think we should add bass or drums or anything. It was a beautiful, separate reality. We went back and listened to the demo again from our place in Gainesville. The window had been open and there was a bird singing outside. Stevie said, “Get the bird.” We went out to the UCLA Botanical Garden with his Nagra tape recorder, and Minnie would sit there and try to sing these really high bird calls and get birds to sing.
The interesting thing about that song was that the record label didn’t think they could release it as a single. They didn’t want to release it. We had been out on a tour, and in those days, we did a lot of openings. We were somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. It may have been Seattle, opening for Johnny Nash and during a blizzard. Somehow, we got to the gig and maybe 200 people came. They fought their way through the snowstorm to see this concert. We were on stage first. Minnie said to everybody, “Come sit down. Come down to the front.” It was crazy how cold it was outside, and I don’t know how anybody got there. We were playing the set, and when we started to play “Lovin’ You,” we saw this amazing thing happen to these people. People started moving closer to each other and putting their arms around each other. It was like a transformational role, and Minnie looked back at me and I looked at her and asked, “Do you see this? This is crazy.” We came back and said to the label, “You’ve got to put this out.” They responded, “You can’t do it. She’s a black singer and she’s got no bass and no drums.” All the experts told us, but we just kept arguing and trying. Somehow, I got back into the studio. I went back into the recorder. When we were on stage, the great Odell Brown was playing keyboards with us. He was playing this beautiful Arp String ensemble part, and we thought it would be nice to put it on the record. I went back in and overdubbed that part with Odell. I think, Gary Olazabal was our engineer for that, another talent from Chicago. Then, we put it out and you know what happened. It was like magic. That’s all I can say.
The music came organically from the life we were living. We lived what we wrote. We wrote the songs differently in those days. We didn’t just toss them off. We’d work on them and think about them. One of my favorite songs from that album is “Reasons.” I had the pattern of the song and everything. Originally, we called it “The Question Is What are We Anyway.” We went down, and we made a demo of it. Jaco Pastorius was playing bass on it in Miami when he was a teenager. After listening to it, we didn’t think it was a full idea yet. We kept working on it, and we came up with “Reasons” when we were out here in Laurel Canyon. I really loved the essence of that song and what it says and what it means. We were trying to write stuff that was meaningful and that came out of our lives.
What was the demo process like when you guys were demoing the songs? How many of the songs went through a demoing process?
Not many. We had come out originally and demoed about three or four of them. [Songwriter] Jerry Peters played piano. We had piano, guitar, bass, and conga. We had to get money to make demos in those days because you had to go into a studio to do it. There were no home recording setups with live musicians or anything. You could record, you could sit in front of a mic and play an instrument and sing, and you might be able to bounce the track over, but you couldn’t really make a demo with musicians, unless you could go into a demo studio or a real studio. We’d go in in the middle of the night. We came out here and went to Bolic Sound. It was Ike Turner’s studio. You’d pay really low rates. It was just a different thing. We only had a few of those tunes and the other ones we just played for Stevie. I’d play guitar and Minnie would sing them. We’d go into the studio and try doing it. It was a very different process. He would have ideas, he would play drums, or I would play drums. We’d just start off all different kinds of ways. We’d start on the piano, and we’d have a bunch of people standing around. We’d make a percussion group like on “The Edge of The Dream,” which was really an homage to Dr. Martin Luther King. We stood up in the studio, and somebody had a finger symbol, or somebody had a little woodblock. Everybody had a different beat to play. We put together a whole little rhythm machine and played live. Stevie would be playing the piano. It was crazy, but it was beautiful to see it.
What was your regular studio routine during the making of the album?
Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but with [Stevie], there is no regular studio routine [laughs]. I’m telling you it was like a movie. It was beautiful and non-routine. He is one of the most special human beings and souls on the planet. Like I said, everybody would go down to the Record Plant around seven or eight o’clock. When we’d go down there, Wonderlove could be down there. [Guitarist] Marlo Henderson, [singer] Michael Sembello, [bassist] Reggie McBride, [percussionist] Ollie Brown, and the guys would just be down there. We’d be there, and we’d be making music and playing ideas for each other. People would be practicing, waiting for Stevie to show and Stevie would get there. He had a special clock, it was set to wonder time [laughs]. He showed up when it was right, and everybody would say, “Yes.” Sometimes it was two o’clock in the morning, sometimes it was midnight, sometimes I don’t know what time it was, but it was the right time. You never really knew what was going to happen. He’d come in, and he always had ideas. Sometimes he’d have an idea for a new song, and he’d want to put that down right away. Sometimes we’d be working on one of the many songs. It wasn’t like any other albums I’ve ever made. We were just doing that around the clock. It was a different clock from a different universe.
We’d always get out of there as the sun was coming up and go have breakfast. It was a very special time and a very special experience. There was a lot of love in it.
Talk about the collaboration within the studio in terms of Wonderlove and Stevie. It seems like it was a very loving atmosphere conducive to a lot of creativity.
It was. You’ve described it very well. That’s what Stevie created. He was such a great, real, hysterically wonderful person. He just lit up the whole place. Every one of those guys loved him. Everybody wanted to do something with him. He’d sit at the piano and do something. Everybody was making music all the time. Even when we were sitting around waiting, it was not like we were waiting. People were just vibing. Certainly, Stevie was the leader of Wonderlove, without question. Those guys had phenomenal ideas, and he was great and had great ideas, too. He would give them a structure or a canvas to paint on so to speak and come up with the lines. The first song “Every Time He Comes Around,” Marlo [Henderson] came up with the leading line, but it was set up by what Stevie was playing. Quite honestly, Minnie, while we were running it down, sang something that gave him the idea for that lick that became the intro to the song. Minnie had incredible ideas, and Stevie loved her, and she loved him. It was just a great thing to see. They were so funny with each other, everybody was. There was nothing sacred. It was like they grew up together like brother and sister. It really was great.
Where were you all positioned in the studio during the recording process?
There was no typical thing [laughs]. The Record Plant had a jacuzzi room or a hot tub room. You never knew where anybody was most of the time, but people would show up and all kinds of things would happen. Stevie was always in the control room or in the studio playing something because he played everything. He had many ideas. He would come up with a lot of parts for people. He and Minnie would sit at the piano together all the time and work stuff out. There was no set thing. It was very fluid and pretty wild. One night we were in there, and the door opens up and John Lennon and Harry Nilsson walk in. John Lennon was leaning up against the control and then he heard her singing. Minnie must have been singing “Reasons” that night. He was just leaning up against the window, watching her sing in the studio and his mouth just opened in shock. It was great. All kinds of people came through there, of course. It always felt like our own little world.
During the making of Perfect Angel, how many vocal takes occurred during the recording process when Stevie or Minnie Riperton were singing to make sure that each note was right? How many times did you redo a song?
Well, again in those days, there was no pitch correction. I don’t know if there’s something more perfect than perfect pitch, but if there is, she had it. She just nailed this stuff. She would just sing the songs. She didn’t really need many takes ever. It was just about if she was happy, but she just nailed it all the time. Sometimes, she had to act like it was hard to do so people could understand what she was doing.
That’s just a wonderful gift.
She worked at it very hard. When she was a kid, she took vocal lessons from her teacher, [Marion] Jeffery. She had purple hair or something. She was from the South side of Chicago, and she taught her opera when she was a kid. Minnie was a bad girl. She could do it all.
You mentioned that there wasn’t too many takes because she had complete command of her craft.
Yes, that’s correct. You must remember we did not have unlimited tracking back then. So,it wasn’t like, “OK, let’s do another one and we’ll put it together later.” This was not digital. We were cutting tape in those days. It wasn’t keystroke stuff like it is now. We were using razor blades on the masters, on the two-inch tape, and on the mixes, too. Buying two-inch tape was expensive. We couldn’t waste it.
How expensive was the studio time back then? Because you said, “Stevie would just come in whenever.”
He had an overall deal with the studio. I hate to admit it, but I really don’t know what that album cost. I don’t think it cost very much because we just used the core musicians. We didn’t want to know. We thought we were getting away with a lot by being in the studio with him and Wonderlove all the time. We didn’t know what was charged to us. The record company wasn’t complaining so we didn’t complain. Honestly, we were very naive, and we were very trusting. We thought that was the way things were supposed to be. At that time, we were 26 and had two kids, but in terms of the business, we weren’t sophisticated to it.
You touched on the process of cutting two-inch tape because there’s really a science to that, but what else was involved during the mixing and mastering process for this album?
Well, there were some interesting things that we were able to do. Stevie set up some things on the album, like going from “Lovin’ You” into “Our Lives.” You’ll hear the Fender Rhodes, and there’s a pulse to it and they connect. It was amazing. He was such a genius to figure out how to do those things during the recording process. [Producer]Robert Margouleff and [producer] Malcolm Cecil also played important roles during the mixing and mastering process. We mastered the record in tandem.
What was it like working with Margouleff and Cecil?
They were very interesting guys. I still know Robert. They really helped to create that atmosphere in the studio. Of course, they had worked with Stevie quite a bit before Perfect Angel. It was like nothing I had ever seen, but it was very cool. They were able to facilitate Stevie’s ideas and the things that he was looking to accomplish in the studio. It was quite a task, too. It was great working with them. It was a great atmosphere.
What was the first song that you all wrote together?
We wrote a bunch of songs that didn’t get on the record when we started writing. Maybe “Seeing You This Way.” It’s hard to remember quite honestly. “Lovin’ You,” I had for years. It took me a long time to finish it but one day it just happened. Minnie was in the kitchen singing, and I was playing the guitar in the other room and suddenly, she started singing something and I went, “What?” That stuck, and I knew that we had it. I didn’t have the bridge yet and then I did that. We came out to California before we came out to make the record and we had some interesting experiences, and then I got the idea for the bridge.
I want to go in depth about the making of some of the other songs from the album. I want to talk more about some of the other songs, starting with “Reasons”
On “Reasons,” I wrote it on guitar and Minnie put some melodies to it, so it came from that. We’d sit together all the time, and I would say stuff to try to coax melodies out of that amazing woman. But for this song, we didn’t have a demo for it. We just sat and stood in front of Stevie and played it, and we worked it out. It morphed into what it became. We worked on it for a while with him, and he played insane drums on it. It was so great. My mouth is open now, but my mouth was really open back then, to hear him go in there and do that. He really got to the core of that song. He loved what it was saying and to hear Minnie do that, honestly, it blew us all away in the studio. We transcended from wherever we were at that moment. We went to a higher plane. Marlo Henderson played lead guitar on the track and killed it.
On “Take a Little Trip,” Stevie said, “I have this song that I’d love for you to listen to and to think about singing it.” We were there, and after we listened to it, we responded, “OK, thank you very much. Let’s do that right away.” [laughs]
On “Seeing You This Way,” we based it right off the way we wrote it. Rocki [Dzidzornu], Stevie’s percussionist at the time —we put him on it in the studio. We were just rocking it. It was the band getting together and playing it.
On “The Edge of a Dream,” Stevie really felt that song. The piano he plays on there is so elegant, rich, and spiritual. The song was based around Stevie sitting at the piano and working off Minnie. As I said, he put together a little percussion group. If you listen closely, you can hear all the little parts, and we stood in there together. Everybody had a different beat and played it. This song brought us all to tears when it came together, especially when Minnie went in and sang it. It is a tribute song to Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] It makes me feel like crying right now to think about it. I feel like we’re still on that edge.
“Every Time He Comes Around,” was so cool. Marlo [Henderson] heard something that Minnie sang, and then he had the idea for the guitar part in the front. Stevie was just trying to make it as dark and haunting as he could. Then, he slowed the tape down and had Deniece [Williams] sing the part in the intro, and then sped it up. It was so ethereal. It was very hot hearing Minnie sing that song. I loved that track. There was a darkness to it and a sensuality to it that made it beautiful.
On “Our Lives,” I had the idea for the song on guitar, and it just developed from there. It really came from me and Minnie just sitting around. It was like a dream. Then, Stevie played on it and that’s why the intro is so beautiful. What he did with the Fender Rhodes and the pulse made it so interesting. It was his idea to put it together to come out after “Lovin’ You” on the album. The harmonica is crazy beautiful and so plaintive and so moving. It just really touches you. Again, we tried to use simple instrumentation through the whole album to get to the heart of the matter.
On “Perfect Angel,” our relationship is what inspired this song. After he met us and spent some time with us, he wrote the song. It was for Minnie, for sure.
Did you all write songs that didn’t make the final cut for this album?
I came across a couple. One was titled “Don’t Take My Love for Granted.” We wrote a lot of songs that we didn’t finish, or for some reason didn’t get recorded.
As you look back 45 years later on the making of the record, how does it feel to be a part of such a classic recording?
Well, there is so much joy in remembering it, and yet, it’s very emotional at the same time. It’s hard to believe that it was that long ago. It does feel like a dream, but it feels like a dream I just had yesterday. I feel very blessed and lucky to have been part of it. It was a special time and record, for sure. We were trying to put some of our energy and love out into the world. We thought that was our mission and that’s what we were trying to do. We are forever indebted and grateful to everyone who was involved in that album. It was such a remarkable experience. I love all those people who gave us their friendship, their talents, and their love for Minnie.
Chris Williams is a Virginia-based writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Red Bull Music Academy, EBONY, and Wax Poetics. Follow the latest and greatest from him on Twitter @iamchriswms.