In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Plenty of hit ballads sound a bit like lullabies. “Lovin’ You,” the only big hit for the art-soul singer Minnie Riperton, actually is a lullaby — or, at least, that’s how it started out. When she and her husband Richard Rudolph wrote “Lovin’ You,” Minnie Riperton was basically retired from the music business. They’d moved from Chicago to Gainesville, Florida, where they were raising a couple of young kids. When their daughter — the future SNL/Bridesmaids star Maya Rudolph — was a baby, Riperton would get her to sleep by singing her a version of “Lovin’ You.” Riperton never intended to record it.
Riperton came from Chicago’s South Side, and she studied voice and dance at Lincoln Center, out in the suburbs. She was training in opera and showtunes, but she loved pop music. And before long, she was a teenager leading a girl group that was signed to Chess Records. That group went through a bunch of different names: the Gems, Girls Three, the Starlets. They never recorded any hits, but Riperton, who also worked as a receptionist at Chess, sang backup on a bunch of the label’s records. In that capacity, she worked with people like Etta James, the Dells, and, on the 1965 soul classic “Rescue Me,” Fontella Bass.
In 1967, Riperton became the singer for Rotary Connection, a psychedelic soul-rock band put together by Marshall Chess, son of Chess Records founder Leonard. Rotary Connection never made any hits either, though they did serve as the backing band on Muddy Waters’ classic psych-blues experiment Electric Mud. (Riperton didn’t sing on that one.) But Rotary Connection made some gloriously bugged-out utopian music, and while she was working with them, Riperton met the songwriter Richard Rudolph, whom she married in 1972. In 1970, Riperton released her solo debut Come To My Garden; its astonishing opening track, the tingling and weirdly triumphant “Les Fleurs,” is the song that plays over the end credits of the 2019 movie Us.
But Come To My Garden didn’t sell, and Riperton moved to Florida and went into homemaker mode for a couple of years. An intern at Epic tracked her down, and she agreed to make music again, partly drawn in by the prospect of working with Stevie Wonder. Riperton sang backing vocals on Wonder’s 1974 album Fulfullingess’ First Finale, and Wonder co-produced Riperton’s 1974 LP Perfect Angel with Rudolph. (Wonder was under contract to Motown, so he had to work under the pseudonym El Toro Negro.) The hopefully-true story of “Lovin’ You” is that Riperton already had eight songs for Perfect Angel but Wonder thought it needed one more. Wonder asked Riperton and Rudoph, the story goes, for their “most embarrassing song.” And they came up with “Lovin’ You,” this little lullaby that helped them get their kid to sleep.
“Lovin’ You,” in its final version, plays more as a straight-up love song than as a dedication to a child. Riperton, after all, sings, “Makin’ love with you is all I wanna do,” which is not the sort of thing you tell your kid. It’s a shame, really, that they felt like they had to disguise it as something other than a song for a baby. It’s this unbelievably soft and tender tune that also works as total kitsch — something that probably wouldn’t have happened if it had worn its intentions on it sleeve. But then, this was the ’70s, and people wanted sex-music. So maybe a few lyrics about a baby might’ve spoiled the mood; maybe people wouldn’t have been able to use “Lovin’ You” for their own purposes. In any case, Riperton softly chants the name “Maya” a few times at the end of the song, breaking it up into multiple syllables. She sounds happy.
“Lovin’ You” is by far the sparest song on Perfect Angel, an album that’s very much in the vein of the free-wandering studio-soul that Wonder was making at the time. There are only a few elements at work on “Lovin’ You”: Rudolph’s murmuring acoustic guitar, Wonder’s softly glowing keyboard, a few bird noises that were taken from a sound-effects record. (The song’s single version fades out before the “Maya” stuff and adds some synth strings, but that one still sounds soft and unadorned.) Mostly, the arrangement works to showcase Riperton’s voice, which gets plenty of room to operate. A lot of the time, she’s just scatting, letting herself drift off into almost impossibly high upper-register dolphin-squeak sounds.
Nine months after “Lovin’ You” hit #1, Riperton learned that she had breast cancer, and she went through a mastectomy. But the cancer remained, and she went public with her battle, becoming a spokesperson for the American Cancer Society. She also kept touring and recording, even when she knew it was terminal. She died in 1979, when she was just 31.
The story of “Lovin’ You” — of the song’s original conception, of Riperton’s young death, of the public person that her daughter would become — is a total soul-wrecker. When you know all that, you can hear “Lovin’ You” as a sort of unwitting memento, as something left for the kid who would have to grow up without her mother. But it’s also possible to hear the song as one more piece of mellow mid-’70s goo — pretty and skillfully performed, but also sleepy and trite. I go back and forth between those two ways of hearing “Lovin’ You.” Ideally, with a great song, you shouldn’t need to know the whole story to be moved. And Riperton left behind plenty of songs — like “Les Fleurs” — that can absolutely fuck you up even if you hear them cold, without knowing anything. “Lovin’ You” is not one of those songs. But it’s still nice.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Orb’s 20-minute 1989 ambient house odyssey “A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre of the Ultraworld (Loving You),” which is built around samples of “Lovin’ You”:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Eddie Murphy and Dave Chappelle performing “Lovin’ You” in the 1996 movie The Nutty Professor:
(Eddie Murphy’s highest-charting single is “Party All The Time,” which peaked at #2 in 1985. It’s a 6.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the 2000 Visa commercial where the Pittsburgh Steelers’ PA guy plays “Lovin’ You” in the stadium because the record store won’t let him write a check to buy the “Who Let The Dogs Out” CD single:
(In the logic of this ad, I guess it’s OK to buy Perfect Angel on CD with a check, or maybe the stadium DJ had a Riperton record in his car. In any case, the Baha Men’s “Who Let The Dogs Out” peaked at #40 in 2000, which is a relief, because it means I don’t have to give it a rating.)