by Inda Lauryn
Gloria Tropp is not a name often heard in conjunction with the Beats, not the same as those such as Alan Ginsberg, Jack Keroauc, and William Burroughs. Almost a footnote in the book Kerouac and Friends: A Beat Generation Album, only mentioned in a caption of a photo of a seated Tropp with her husband Stephen Tropp standing behind her as he operates a tape recorder to capture his wife’s performance, Tropp sits on the fringes of a then fringe movement. The only lead to her identity comes from the biographies at the end of the book:
“Gloria Tropp was born in Mount Vernon, New York. In the early 1950s she moved to the East Village and made the downtown scene at the Waldorf Cafeteria, San Remo, and the Open Door jazz club where she sang ballads and bebop. With her husband, Stephen Tropp, she performed jazz and poetry in coffee houses. Since his death, she had performed with the ensemble Talking Free Be-bop. She is also featured on the nationally televised ‘Women in Limbo’ art forum” (McDarrah and McDarrah, 2002, p. 281).
This makes the woman clad in what looks like a white sheet twisted on her head, flowing down the length of her seated body, even more of a mystery. It also speaks to the effort it takes to retrieve Black women who made marks within countercultural or other anti-establishment movements. However, they had roles within the movements that resulted from post-WWII disillusion with American society that ran concurrently with civil rights and other movements led by marginalized people.
And standing between the realism, naturalism, and modernism in the art of the 1940s after the Harlem Renaissance and the oncoming Black Arts Movement of the 1970s, Gloria Tropp can be said to be a foremother of women such as Claudia Lennear, Marsha Hunt, Merry Clayton, Cynthia Robinson, Rose Stone, and Minnie Riperton who made space for themselves in the 1960s counterculture, which challenged racial, gender and sexual conventions in mainstream America.
The Beat Movement and 1960s Counterculture
The Beat Generation found mainstream influence in United States pop culture during the 1950s. Herbert Huncke has been credited with coining the term “beat” as an appropriation of the Black slang word meaning weary or beaten down. While it still held its meaning by 1948, Jack Kerouac appropriated it to include musical connotations of being on beat as well as meaning uplifting and beatific. While the Beats are today primarily known as writers and poets, they included artist communities in cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, with the latter’s Greenwich Village the most well-known and heralded of these communities. Other communities were also found in Oregon and Washington.
Men such as Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg became synonymous with the Beats, but women of any race associated with the movement were either erased or ignored for their contributions. For instance, Joan Vollmer became known primarily as the wife of Burroughs, apparently accidentally killed in his drunken attempt to play William Tell, even though she and her roommate Edie Parker (later married to Kerouac) provided a gathering place for the Beats during the movement’s origins in the 1940s. Even though many of the Beats were openly gay or bisexual, this movement still did not seem to provide a gender, racial, and sexual utopia as an alternative to the establishment and instead centered white cisgender males.
Neither did its hippie descendants of the 1960s. Hippies may be the de facto children of the beatniks (the stereotypical mainstream imagining of the Beats usually relegating them to uncouth, unwashed, and un-American teens) with anti-establishment ideals and an attempt to live outside the confines of societal norms carried from Victorian conventions. “Free love” was the word of the day, and the hippies engaged with politics in a number of causes including anti-war protests.
However, like their Beat predecessors, hippies were comprised of a largely white constituency that appropriated from marginalized cultures, particularly Indigenous American cultures. They also appropriated Eastern religions and philosophies including Hinduism and Buddhism. Furthermore, they appropriated Black slang and vernacular among other Black cultural signifiers.
Also like the Beats, the most prominent figures of the counterculture movement were white males, but music rather than literature was the primary, or at least most successful, vehicle for artistic expression. Music artists mostly from the San Francisco scene would eventually become the voice of the movement. Figures such as Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company, Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane, Joan Baez, and Joni Mitchell all became synonymous with the disillusionment and carefree lifestyle of the hippie.
But just as Ted Joans and Leroi Jones had been a part of the Beat movement, Black male musicians including Jimi Hendrix, Arthur Love, and Sly Stone of Sly and the Family Stone were prominent figures in the counterculture movement or became elevated in historical memory. Like most of their white counterparts, many of them congregated in San Francisco, the most well-known community of the hippie movement. Ricky Vincent explains,
“The black population of San Francisco was both a typical African American community and very unique. Black San Franciscans were facing the same problems of housing and job discrimination, crushing racism and lack of hope. At the same time, black San Franciscans made their own counter culture filled with music, style, and opportunities in the entertainment industry.”
While women such as Sugar Pie DeSanto and Etta James made names for themselves in R&B and jazz scenes, Linda Tillery and her rock band The Loading Zone did not become known nationally or internationally at the time like many of her contemporaries. In fact, she appears more as a rarity as a Black woman fronting a rock band when women such as Lennear and Clayton were prominent background singers who would not receive their due until decades later. Yet Black women existed in these spaces and made various contributions to their legacies whether or not they were recognized.
Gloria Tropp’s Free Form Jazz
For a few years, Gloria Tropp remained practically invisible in search engines and rarely mentioned in conjunction with the Beat movement. But one hit turned up a piece of gold: PennSound’s Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing. As part of the Poetry Project, PennSound has made an archive of Public Access Poetry available to the public. The Tropps appeared on an episode dated May 26, 1977, long after the heyday of the Beat movement.
The public access performance seemed rather typical of Gloria’s performance style, at least from what can be surmised about her style from available work. A performance found on Free Life Communications Reverbnation page found Tropp providing a background vocal for her husband’s spoken word performance, her voice soaring in an otherworldly wail reminiscent of the highs of Minnie Riperton’s whistle register in Rotary Connection’s cover of Cream’s “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” psychedelic meets free jazz meets Yoko Ono avant garde. In fact, this recording would be the same poetry the couple performed for Public Access Poetry, but the date of the recorded performance is unclear.
The public access performance appeared to be the only film, video, or television footage available of Gloria Tropp, a small figure in a blond wig, screeching whistle register notes as she and her husband performed. A digital copy of her very short work, “Poem to Ernie Henry,” originally released in 1967 as part of the New Jazz Poets collection, would be the first sound recording found in most searches. Ubuweb housed a digital rendering of Big Ego, an album released in 1978 with a collection of various poetry performances from the 1960s and 1970s, including the Tropps’ poem “Snow White.” The source of a poetry performance included in the Free Life Loft Jazz: Snapshot of a Movement (Volume 1) collection as well as an album prominently featuring Tropp’s voice, composer Robert Mike Mahaffay’s recordings from the 1970s Op Odyssey: A Score for Dance/Multimedia, round out audio recordings one can find featuring her from the 1960s through the 1970s.
In addition to photographs from a rare zine, Home Planet News, in which she and Stephen appear on the cover and that features their poetry, the only other images of Gloria Tropp found in extensive searching are more recent performance photos from 2006 at a birthday celebration for Steve Dalachinsky. There are practically no over visual artifacts publicly available.
Extensive online searches do not turn up much more about her work or her life. An official blog created by Gloria and Stephen’s children has not been updated since 2006. According to their son Tree, who maintained the blog, “Stephen and Gloria were true bohemians, and desired a lifestyle free of artistic censorship and commercial criticism. They steered away from commercial exploits of their art and chose to perform in the many underground jazz clubs and cafes in and around the New York City area. In the seventies, several of their fans and friends were teaching or in faculty positions in colleges around the country, and they were invited to perform at several college events.” However, even her son’s abandoned web page offered no other information, no photographs, and no other artifacts such as programs, newspaper clippings, or other physical evidence of his parents’ legacy.
But apparently, those who had the pleasure of meeting Tropp personally or seeing her perform remembered her well. As one of the original 1950s New York Beats, Gloria Tropp performed alongside those who would become synonymous with the avant garde free jazz movement. In fact, Florence Wetzel wrote in her book Elvis in the Morning: Poems and Tales, “Jack Kerouac once asked her husband [Stephen] if he could steal her” (p. 161). Wetzel also described being overwhelmed by Tropp’s “queenly presence” while gushing over her fantastic talent.
Not surprisingly, Tropp found herself as part of some legendary jazz outfits throughout her career, which expanded more than 50 years and continued after Stephen’s passing in 1988. Her credits included tenures with The Gift Eagle Orchestra and Cosmic Legends. Such alliances put her in connection with luminaries such as John Coltrane and Sun Ra. Even during the 1990s, she found herself still performing in fusion jazz, most notably with David Fiuczynski and John Medeski on the Lunar Crush track “Gloria Ascending” from 1994.
It’s clear that a simple Internet search will never provide the whole story about Tropp’s work, much less her life. Such an undertaking requires a type of Alice Walker dedication when she went in search of her mother’s garden in an attempt to find Zora Neale Hurston’s resting place.
Perhaps Tropp’s own desire to work free of “artistic censorship and commercial criticism” had much to do with why her association with the Beat poets and free jazz remains almost a mystery to anyone without the benefit of digging deeper into the history of the movement. What could be found suggested that Tropp did indeed succeed in her goal of creating art with no barriers from either artistic expectations or commercial inhibitions. The Free Life Loft Jazz series begins with this explanation:
Beginning in the middle 1960s, there was a movement in New York City, taking place for the most part in downtown lofts, which were converted industrial spaces where musicians, photographers and artists could pursue their work unimpeded. In the jazz area, musicians from all over the U.S. and Europe converged to experiment and perform for their peers, attempting to find something new while refining their art. Some of these artists took a grass root approach by uniting and organizing cooperatives to further their aims. On this recording, musicians involved in one such group, FREE LIFE COMMUNICATIONS, speak about this movement in their own words accompanied by excerpts of live performances from that period.
This collective not only attests to the commitment of a free artistic life but also speaks to the connection to the countercultural movement that ultimately became the face of youth culture in the mainstream imagination. History erased many of the contributions of Black women within these movements, but a few were retrieved in recent years.
Whether or not they realize, most classic rock fans know the voice of Merry Clayton. Her voice emerged from the background and stood out against at least two songs heralded as classics for rock fans of any subgenres: The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” However, many people probably did not realize this until the release of the 2013 documentary 20 Feet from Stardom.
Yet Clayton provided backing vocals for a number of artists throughout the 1960s and 1970s from the age of 14. In fact, she spent some time early in her career performing as one of the Raelettes, Ray Charles’ trio of female background singers. Interestingly, it appears that Clayton might have only been involved with one of the most iconic tracks in rock history through happenstance.
Legend has it that The Rolling Stones recruited Clayton as a last-minute decision to include a woman’s voice for the track. In the 2003 book According to the Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger himself explains, “The use of the female voice was the producer’s idea. It would be one of those moments along the lines of ‘I hear a girl on this track – get one on the phone.’” However, “Gimme Shelter” would not only become one of the Rolling Stones’ most beloved songs, but it would also become synonymous with the countercultural movement as a reflection of the spirit of the times.
“Well, it’s a very rough, very violent era. The Vietnam War. Violence on the screens, pillage and burning. And Vietnam was not war as we knew it in the conventional sense. The thing about Vietnam was that it wasn’t like World War II, and it wasn’t like Korea, and it wasn’t like the Gulf War. It was a real nasty war, and people didn’t like it. People objected, and people didn’t want to fight it. The people that were there weren’t doing well. There were these things used that were always used before, but no one knew about them – like napalm…. That’s a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It’s apocalypse; the whole record’s like that.”
It should be noted that during the 1960s, The Rolling Stones had more of an alignment with the counterculture as they were seen as more rebellious spirits within rock and the “bad boy” counterparts to their rivals The Beatles. Along with “Street Fighting Man” and possibly the entire Let It Bleed album, “Gimme Shelter” became an anthem of the times and ironically a symbol of the end of the counterculture era after a possibly racially motivated murder at their 1970 free concert in Altamont. Merry’s powerful vocals became synonymous with the line “Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away.” Unfortunately, her contributions to one of the time’s signature songs might have cost her personally: Clayton sang with such emotional force that her voice cracked. (“I was just grateful that the crack was in tune,” she told [Terry] Gross.) In the isolated vocal track above, you can hear the others in the studio shouting in amazement. Despite giving what would become the most famous performance of her career, it turned out to be a tragic night for Clayton. Shortly after leaving the studio, she suffered a miscarriage. It has generally been assumed that the stress from the emotional intensity of her performance and the lateness of the hour caused the miscarriage. For many years Clayton found the song too painful to hear, let alone sing.
Yet “Gimme Shelter” would go on to become the title track of Clayton’s debut solo album released in 1970. She continued recording solo work throughout the decade. She also provided backing vocals in perhaps the most controversial move in her career. In 1974, Clayton sang the background vocals to American Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” a song in answer to Neil Young’s “Southern Man” and “Alabama,” songs that dealt with racism and slavery.
While “Sweet Home Alabama” took shots at criticism of the American South’s past, it also made reference to Alabama governor George Wallace, an open supporter of segregation, but songwriter Ronnie Van Zant explained that the general public didn’t pick up that the line was followed by “Boo! Boo! Boo!” Furthermore, the group intentionally sought out a Black female vocalist with Clayton’s own husband convincing her to take the job. The lyrics might be subject to an individual’s interpretation but not too much of a stretch to note that Clayton’s most famous backing vocals were nearly opposites in their political climates. “Gimme Shelter” expressed disillusionment and anxiety against institutional power while “Sweet Home Alabama” was read as praising it or at least waving it off.
Clayton never really got the commercial success her career merited, and most of her music was classified as R&B and southern soul. However, the documentary 20 Feet from Stardom brought her to the forefront again, and she had some momentum with the attention she received. But tragically, she lost both legs in a car accident in June of 2014. When she was chosen as the recipient of the Clark & Gwen Terry Award for Courage for the Jazz Foundation of America’s “A Great Night in Harlem” gala, she accepted during a taped segment from her home, and Keith Richards performed live on her behalf.
Clayton’s role as a backing singer (unintentionally) speaks to ways in which Black women are not only sought out as support but also validation. Black women’s bodies, and in this case voices, are valued in so much of what they offer to others and as a deflection of criticism. With her name misspelled in the liner notes of Let It Bleed, Clayton had to wait decades to receive her due for giving the counterculture its most urgent anthem.
Lady Grinning Soul Claudia Lennear
Merry Clayton was not the only Black female performer to share a connection with the Rolling Stones and the free love spirit of the hippie movement. However, Claudia Lennear’s musical connections seemed more firmly planted in the rock and folk acts, including Ike and Tina Turner, that thrived in the counterculture movement. Lennear worked with acts including Joe Cocker, Humble Pie, Rita Coolidge, and Delaney and Bonnie. She also worked as a backing vocalist for Eric Clapton, George Harrison, and Bob Dylan for the first all-star charity concert, The Concert for Bangladesh. Although Lennear provided vocals for dozens of artists throughout her career, she only released one album as a solo artist.
In his profile, David Allen concisely explains her plight when he writes, “Yet you had to be in the business to know her name. She was a backup singer, adding harmonies and vocal punctuation from a spot on stage well behind the featured performer.” With her impressive pedigree, many would agree that Lennear should have been a household name during the 1960s and 70s along with her contemporaries.
Those outside the industry who do not know much about the backing vocalists in their favorite music might be tempted to reduce Lennear to rock footnotes. Most rock connoisseurs know her as the inspiration to David Bowie’s “Lady Grinning Soul” and possibly The Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” a valid assertion as she and Jagger dated for some time. Furthermore, her associations with Jagger and the acts such as Delaney and Bonnie and Rita Coolidge appeared to have an influence on the one and only album she ever released, 1973’s Phew.
Lennear’s album is unusual in that the A and B sides used different sets of musicians. While Ry Cooder and members of the Dixie Flyers played the A side, Allen Toussaint played piano, arranged horn sections, and supervised the B side while bringing together a tight group of musicians. Not surprisingly, the A side sounds like it could have been a Rolling Stones record with its country rock flavor. Toussaint’s B side has a decidedly funkier sound with its horn-driven rhythms. In fact, Phew could have just as easily been a Janis Joplin album had she lived a few years later or a Tina Turner album had she began her solo career a few years earlier.
With her counterculture and industry connections, it does seem a wonder that Lennear did not go on to have a bigger household name or a legacy comparable to her contemporaries during the time. As Tom Semioli quotes in his reflections on his search for Lennear, “1973. It was a golden age of our lifetime…forty years ago was the pinnacle of creativity in the rock world…and if it lasts for infinity that would be a blessing…and an opportunity for everyone to share it long after we’re gone…”
Perhaps it was her reputation as muse that ironically got in the way of her true legacy. Where she should have been regarded with the same reverence as Joplin and Turner, many would have music fans believe she was more in line with Suze Rotolo or perhaps Pam de Barres. This comparison comes with the understanding that most do not know or care that Rotolo was an artist with a strong political influence on her famous ex-boyfriend’s breakthrough album. While de Barres made her name as perhaps the most famous rock groupie of all time, she was also a musician, actor, and writer in her own right.
Phew was Lennear’s only solo album, but she did not bow out of the scene right then. She continued working for a while. However, she explained that she eventually stepped away from the music industry with the emergence of rap. Yet, she still remained a much-heralded backing vocalist in the industry. The release of 20 Feet from Stardom showed that many in the industry and those who grew up listening to the music in which she appeared found her to have an outstanding voice. The documentary re-charged her interest in music, and Lennear began working in music again after years teaching Spanish and French.
Even though it was released during the early 70s, Phew drew from the free spirit mentality that drove the late 60s and stayed with groups like the Rolling Stones who managed to keep vibrant careers throughout the decade and beyond. But like Clayton, Lennear could not move beyond her function as a background singer. Even her possible role as muse is not as celebrated as it is for her white female contemporaries who are often heralded as feminist heroes. Perhaps this says more about spaces not associated with Black women than it does to Lennear’s own legacy.
Marsha Hunt might have one of the strongest connections to the counterculture, but her career thrived outside of America. Hunt left home at the age of 19 and became part of the late 1960s swinging London scene. She began her singing career in 1966 when she moved to Britain and eventually married Mike Ratledge of Soft Machine to stay in the country. The two remained married although Hunt claimed they never held hands nor kissed, which created an interesting arrangement during a time when sexual freedom and exploration were encouraged. But Hunt soon found her claim to fame with one of the most iconic cultural landmarks of the time.
In 1968, Hunt’s appearance in the London production of the stage play Hair! catapulted her into the national spotlight. As Dionne, she only had two lines. Ironically, her work ethic made her a symbol of the times. As the only cast member who would get up early enough for publicity photo shoots, the image of a nude Hunt sitting nonchalantly with her towering afro became the image associated with the play, making Hunt an icon of the 60s counterculture. She made astute observations about being an American Black woman in Europe:
Another irony is that black music created by black men evoked their sexuality, so white Americans wouldn’t listen to that music. What’s curious about the Hendrix phenomenon is, if Chas had not brought him to the UK, nobody would have heard of Jimi Hendrix, a Negro from the US, well, Canada actually, something he kept secret. I know this because I’m a Negro from the US – and I got a job in Britain precisely because I was a Negro from the US. Both of us were prisoners of oppression until we got to Britain…. We were singing We Shall Overcome, but we were also hearing I Can’t get No Satisfaction.
In another interview, she said, “People forget how violent the Sixties were in the States. It was all about sex and race. The great fear was black men f****** white women. That grew out of slavery – black men were feared, because white men were f****** black women all the time.”
Hunt’s words become especially poignant considering her relationship with one of white British rock’s biggest stars. Mick Jagger sired Hunt’s only child Karis, and Hunt herself has claimed that the infamous track “Brown Sugar” (and other songs) is about her, something she reiterated in her book Undefeated. Although she found herself in a paternity battle with him when Karis was two, she later said she was glad Jagger had no part in raising their daughter. Hunt also admitted that sex played a large part in how she defined herself during that time period but never did drugs after age of 19 because she was afraid of getting caught and deported.
In the meantime, Hunt was on her way to becoming a renaissance woman of the 70s. She began recording music in 1969 although her debut album, Woman Child, would not be released until 1971. With Marc Bolan of T. Rex writing at least three tracks and contributing vocals to one, the album contains a mix of psychedelic rock, country, blues, and gospel, making it very much in tune with the eclectic tastes of youth cultures on the European and North American continents. Hunt continued making music throughout the 70s as well as resumed her acting career with films such as Dracula 1972 A.D. and later The Howling II: Your Sister Is a Witch. She also became a renowned writer in both fiction and memoirs.
In fact, around 2009, Hunt announced plans to write a book about Jimi Hendrix entitled Sex with Jimi Hendrix. Despite the suggestive title, the book was supposed to be more about racial and sexual relations during the time and hers and Hendrix’s experiences as Black expatriates looking to make it in England rather than America. As of now, it appears that work has never come to fruition but might have become the basis of a play she presented entitled Brown Sugar on Jimi Hendrix. However, Hunt had shared some insight as to what the work would entail, subjects that would place her and her work within the English countercultures between the mod and glam rock years.
In fact, Hunt explained, “Through the research that I’ve been doing on Jimi’s life, I see a revision of 1960s history that relates to him, but relates to him through his experience, that I feel it’s my responsibility, one, as a witness, two, as a black writer, to actually tell…. Jimi was far more, and yet far less, than he is credited with.” She also found several coincidences in their lives, but where their lives diverge, particularly where gender disparities occur, has yet to be explored.
With her work in the play and her connections to men such as Jagger and Bolan, Hunt did appear to live the English version of the counterculture life. Yet history would like to reduce her one contribution to being Mick Jagger’s muse. In fact, the word “groupie” tends to come up simultaneously with Hunt’s name, particularly when her relationship with Jagger comes to play. Fortunately, Hunt’s legacy has also found some reclamation among Black women, particularly as a style icon and a symbol of the free love era with her famous promo photo.
Cynthia Robinson and Rose Stone
The names Cynthia Robinson and Rose Stone rarely come up in conversation about the impact and significance of Sly and the Family Stone. However, seeing two Black women in a band playing instruments during the late 1960s and early 70s was not a common sight on the stage. Yet, in many ways, Sly and the Family Stone was the quintessential band of the late 1960s counterculture: multiracial, co-ed, blending genres rather than fitting into them, all with a message of peace, love, and understanding.
With this in mind, the names Cynthia Robinson and Rose Stone must be reclaimed as part of that legacy. While Stone performed as the group’s keyboardist, Robinson lent her talents on the trumpet to a band whose horn section was crucial to its sound. Their voices were also just as essential with Cynthia making the demand to “get on up and dance to the music” as well as trading lead vocals on tracks such as “Everybody Is a Star” and “I Wanna Take You Higher.” Rose would later take the lead on the group’s cover of “Que Sera Sera.”
However, their function as musicians made them not only anomalies but also pioneers of the time. As Michael A. Gonzales said, “Back in 1967, when funky trumpeter Cynthia Robinson joined forces with musical visionary Sly Stone, most ‘girls’ in band units wore pretty dresses and harmonized in the background. ‘I never thought for one second I’d be able to play with a real band,’ Robinson recalls via telephone from her home in the Bay Area. ‘When I was in high school, I went through a lot of bad treatment and was called a lot of names by boys, because I wanted to play. Sly was different.’”
Perhaps their Bay Area, specifically San Francisco, base played an essential role in the band’s makeup. The band’s saxophonist Jerry Martini believes Sly Stone intentionally created a band with a mix of race and gender. Apparently, Stone himself confirmed this, and Martini claims Stone received pressure from the Black Panthers to get rid of the group’s white members.
Still, Robinson’s and Stone’s presence as musicians, not only singers, in the band proved to be pioneering indeed but not without its issues. Robinson’s experience highlighted some of the ways women were discouraged from playing instruments. She explained she was given a hard time as she grew up for playing the trumpet: “It left me with the impression that, you know, no guy in the world would let a girl play the trumpet in his group.”
As much of an impact the group had and still has to this day, one must wonder why Sly and the Family Stone are typically not touted as one of the most essential groups of the counterculture given that its demographic composition most embodied the ideals the movement supposedly espoused. Such an omission speaks to the flawed racial politics of a movement that included fighting racial injustice as part of its core ideals. Even The Jimi Hendrix Experience found more success in the UK than it did stateside, so perhaps an interracial band that also included women who were Black was too much for the movement to take all at once.
While groups such as Sly and the Family Stone were contributors to the San Francisco counterculture mythos, they were also very much part of Black San Francisco that was not divorced from wider societal issues. Rickey Vincent writes:
Black San Francisco in the 1960s tells its own story. While “The Summer of Love” in 1967 is a celebration of the counter-culture of the times, the undercurrents, radical social change and political activism, were everywhere in the city. The black population of San Francisco was both a typical African American community and very unique. Black San Franciscans were facing the same problems of housing and job discrimination, crushing racism and lack of hope. At the same time, black San Franciscans made their own counter culture filled with music, style, and opportunities in the entertainment industry. And when the long arm of “redevelopment” from the city began to displace blacks in the Fillmore, many moved to the Haight-Ashbury district just south of Golden Gate Park, and became part of the emerging alternative lifestyles there. In later years, the multi-racial band Sly & the Family Stone came to represent the black influence on the Summer of Love in unforgettable ways. The black arts and black artists were everywhere in the 1960s.
Robinson’s passing in 2015 brought about reflection of her legacy as a pioneering trumpeter and musician in general. However, that connection to the counterculture, along with Rose Stone’s, remains lost. While Sly Stone sometimes gets his due as the band’s founder who created a band that reflected the times and the goals of the counterculture (and also inspired the likes of Prince to create multiracial, co-ed bands), Cynthia and Sister Rose only receive recognition for their connection to Sly. Only the fact that they were clearly musicians separate them from women like Clayton and Lennear but also in an interesting way erased them as they still fell out of bounds with “acceptable” roles for Black women in music.
Sly and the Family Stone was not the only co-ed, multiracial band to occupy a space in the 1960s counterculture. The Midwest had its own version of it with the group Rotary Connection. However, as more of a studio creation rather than a musician-created entity, Rotary Connection was more blatant in its attempt to capture the feel of a counterculture band with its formula: white psychedelic rock musicians (who were also used as the backing band for Muddy Waters’ psychedelic makeover on his two late 60s album) with Black vocalists. One of those vocalists was Minnie Riperton.
Riperton had been recording since she was 15 under the pseudonym Andrea Davis and as part of the girl group The Gems in the early 1960s. In 1966, she joined Marshall Chess’ experimental psychedelic band Rotary Connection. However, even though the group was supposed to feature Black vocalists, Riperton was not the lead female vocalist for the group’s debut album. Instead, white singer Judy Hauff had that distinction while Minnie’s five-octave whistle register mostly figured as a backing instrument for much of the album.
However, Riperton did become the group’s lead female vocalist for four studio albums when she was the sole female member of the group. For their last album, Riperton once again more or less contributed backing vocals with Kitty Haywood and Shirley Wahls as the other female members of the group. Dean Rudland’s notes for Rotary Connection’s last album Hey, Love assert that the album might have been Riperton’s second solo album had her 1969 solo debut Come to My Garden been a bigger commercial success.
During its five-year run, the band recorded six albums and gained a reputation as an impressive live band. Yet, they fell into the bowels of obscurity for years in comparison to many of their contemporaries. They opened for acts such as The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin but missed the chance to immortalize themselves in perhaps the climax of the hippie movement, The Woodstock Music and Arts Festival of 1969. According to A. Scott Galloway’s reflections in Riperton’s Petals collection, the group’s management turned down the opportunity in favor of a gig in Toronto that paid more money. However, after that concert became such a phenomenon, the group did perform at the Texas Pop International Festival with their performance becoming an underground classic and bootleg treasure.
Even with its precarious beginnings and reputation, Rotary Connection, much less Riperton’s contributions, barely register when it comes to the bands and musicians who made some of the most enduring art associated with the Summer of Love and the wider counterculture movement. Riperton’s mainstream reputation rests on her one solo crossover hit from 1974, “Lovin’ You.” But relegating her legacy to this one song not only minimizes her musical legacy in terms of her R&B career during the 1970s but also ignores the contributions she made as a member of Rotary Connection.
Riperton’s operatic training gave her a vocal prowess not seen in popular music at the time. While she wanted to sing in the same capacity as artists like Dionne Warwick, Riperton also found herself drawn to R&B, soul, blues, and rock and turned her five-octave vocal range into a vocal instrument whether she sang lead or background. And this instrument fit perfectly with the acid-induced psychedelic sounds of the late 60s. While women such as Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, and Janis Joplin created personal and confessional music that spoke of their experience, Riperton offered an alternative that showed women could be just as hip and trippy as their male counterparts.
This is not to relegate Riperton to the one genre. Even during her tenure with Rotary Connection, Riperton showed interest in performing music outside the rock genre with tracks such as “A-Muse” and “Living All Alone” as well as later a cover from one of her favorites, Joni Mitchell, with “Woman of Heart and Mind.” Riperton’s and Rotary Connection’s omissions from counterculture discourse is an incredible oversight considering the group existed specifically to capitalize off the movement of the time. Terry Collier explained that with session gigs (and with Rotary Connection), “‘on some passages, we used Minnie like a synthesizer because her tone was so unique. She would use the high part of her range as part of a song rather than just singing it.’ The result was an ethereal wail that would almost glide over the rest of the orchestration creating a sense of other-worldness which suited the psychedelic times (emphasis added).”
Riperton’s career did not simply defy genre but subverted it as she not only moved through them but also blurred and combined them, particularly using her operatic training to create something unique and enduring. Yet, her name does not appear among her contemporaries credited with giving a feminist edge or at least a dose of girl power among the boys who have become rock canon.
Planting Our Mothers’ Gardens
As of 2018, Gloria Tropp is still alive and possibly still performing. Cynthia Robinson passed away in 2015. Riperton passed in 1979 at the age of 31. Rose Stone also still performs with The Family Stone, and the film 20 Feet from Stardom resurrected Merry Clayton’s and Claudia Lennear’s singing careers. Clayton still plans to perform after losing both her legs due to a car accident. Marsha Hunt may also still work and perform in her adopted UK and has had a successful career as a renowned author.
Many industries including artist communities have been unkind to Black women and often ignores or downplays their legacies and contributions to cultural artifacts and time periods. Black women become footnotes or only Aretha and Tina are mentioned – as exceptions. For instance, The 2007 documentary The Seven Ages of Rock creates a glorious trajectory of British rock music from the 1960s to the early 2000s without mentioning Black women once, not even Big Mama Thornton. While it is UK-centric as a BBC production, it manages to trace the groups who emerged in the 1960s to blues figures such as Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker to whom they looked for inspiration and emulated.
There are some who discover Black women in influential cultural movements and retrieve or reclaim them. Gloria Tropp worked on experimental and free jazz works with other artists and has a name in poet circles familiar with the history of Beat poetry. Minnie Riperton and her work with Rotary Connection found a home in hip hop largely through sampling. The film 20 Feet from Stardom put faces to the voices of Merry Clayton and Claudia Lennear. Still, they are rarely discussed as the innovators and creators they were/are.
With anti-establishment movements such as the Beat and counterculture movements claiming to subvert and dismantle the establishment, racial and gender hierarchies remain firmly in place, particularly with who is remembered as critical to them as well as how they are remembered. Black women who navigated these spaces ran the risk of being seen as novelties, rejecting blackness, or, worse, disposable for their talents. Their voices were valued as support and Black-adjacent cool, but they were rarely given the opportunities others received at the time.
The irony of Tropp’s obscurity comes from her and her husband’s refusal to seek commercial endeavors, which fell more in line with the ideals of anti-establishment movements but led to the lionizing of figures like Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. They are seen as heroes, but Tropp is not seen at all. There is also irony that she and the women who followed her in the counterculture could not find success within movements that largely took from their cultural creations and legacies.
So for women like Gloria Tropp, reclaiming their legacies becomes essential not only to preserving them but also preserving the historical input Black women have given to movements written in shades of whiteness. They were very much a part of taking back their cultural artifacts in largely white spaces whether or not this was their intention. They navigated spaces with obstructions to their intersections of race and gender and had a far greater impact than for what they are credited.