The ability to sing with a four- or five-octave vocal range is not something that very many people are able to do. The choice of how to use that vocal power has varied widely, from taking the traditional paths of opera or classical, to the sonic experimentation of Captain Beefheart or the '90s pop chart dominance of Mariah Carey.
A pair of singers utilizing the "whistle register" whose greatest popular successes happened a couple decades apart helped pave the way for Carey's massive hits: Chicago native Minnie Riperton and Peruvian-born vocalist Yma Sumac. Juxtaposing soul singers and "exotica" may seem random, but there actually was a reference point where both artists met: semi-exploito psychedelic rock.
Riperton did quite a bit of recording for the Chess empire in the '60s, initially as a part of girl group The Gems under various guises, and then solo as Andrea Davis. In the later '60s, she was a member of Rotary Connection, a Marshall Chess conception for his new Cadet Concept label attempting to combine soul, "heavy" rock and classical orchestration. Riperton's heavens-scraping voice was used mostly as a special effect on their 1967 debut, but as the concept strayed from bizarre baroque-rock arrangements of cover songs to somewhat more standard guitar-based psychedelia, she gradually emerged as the main lead vocalist.
The band's five discs all have their moments, but the best places to start are their second crack at an all-covers album, Songs, and the mostly original Aladdin. Hippie Christmas album Peace is also pretty fun.
The original band splintered sometime around the release of 1970's scattershot Dinner Music, which is notable for including a couple songs that point toward the acoustic ballad mode that Riperton would follow to stardom a few years later with "Lovin' You." However, Riperton's excellent 1970 solo debut Come to My Garden still featured the work of RC arranger Charles Stepney and included songs by her former bandmates. After that album didn't set the world on fire, a final "New Rotary Connection" album appeared in 1971, with a different band assembled around Riperton.
Coincidentally, right about that same time Yma Sumac was re-emerging from a lengthy recording hiatus and working on a rock album, released as Miracles in 1972. In many ways, psychedelia seems a more natural place for Sumac's muse to travel than Riperton's. Her initial American recording effort from 1950 with then-husband Moises Vivanco, Voice of the Ixtabay, would be otherworldly-sounding just for her often wordless vocal stylings -- to say nothing of the combination of Andean folk music with a Hollywood orchestra.
Ixtabay was an immediate and massive sales success, thanks in part to word of mouth following a debut concert at the Hollywood Bowl, which was reviewed in national publications including Time and Billboard. The mysterious backstory concocted about Sumac related on the album jacket didn't hurt any, either. Strictly speaking, it's hard to find much South American folk music on Ixtabay, but that was kind of the point. The method's effectiveness was proven when Sumac's later, more authentic folk music recordings didn't fan the flames of the public's buying habits anywhere near as high.
The orchestra on Ixtabay was conducted by Les Baxter, who would absorb the influence of Sumac and Vivanco, and through the rest of the '50s help synthesize the exotica genre, a sort of lounge-y take on African and South American musical styles. Baxter surfaces again, credited as producer, on the Miracles LP, the liner notes of which also retroactively credited him with producing Ixtabay! Those credits are part of the reason why the original album is tough to find today.
As recounted in the 2008 book Yma Sumac: The Art Behind the Legend by Nicholas Limansky, the album was actually produced by the trio of Robert Covais, Jim Branciforti and Bob Kreppel, a trio of businessmen/acquaintances of Sumac who decided to help her get back into the recording studio. At a loss for what exactly to record, Sumac suggested they contact Baxter, who agreed to provide some new music for the project -- and also planted the seed to go in a rock direction. Baxter eventually provided a tape for Sumac to work from, which ended up being mostly re-workings of titles from his 1967 album African Blue.
To make a long story short, from that point relations deteriorated. But the "KBC" trio did manage to record what became Miracles and make a deal with London Records to release the album. The album notes (none of which included writing credit for Sumac's improvisations over Baxter's music) were reportedly changed after the producers turned the material over to London, resulting in lawsuits and the album eventually being pulled from the market.
Without all the issues that helped stall the album's momentum, would Miracles have precipitated a return to superstardom for Sumac? Probably not. But it's yet another unique experiment in a singular recording career. The music is pretty much standard issue early '70s wah-wah psych and groovers, giving Sumac lots of room to work her strange magic. And the improved technology of the '70s allowed Sumac the chance to record multiple vocals and create opposing parts to her leads. She's in good voice throughout, and listening to the album now still sounds like nobody else on the planet. Eat your heart out, Mariah Carey.
The Rotary Connection albums have been mostly unavailable on vinyl since their initial issue; Peace was briefly reissued in the '80s, and there's a version of the New Rotary Connection album available currently. However, Sumac's Miracles will be returning to the LP format in mid-July, according to SunVirgin.com webmaster Don Pierson. The LP will be similar to a currently available Australian CD, including a couple bonus tracks. Watch the website for details!