Reviewed by Johan Palme on 9th December, 2021
You’d hardly expect a hip, critically lauded psychedelic rock band of the late sixties to release a Christmas album. But then, hip and critically lauded as they might have been, and whatever they presented themselves as, Rotary Connection were not really a band.
Seminal independent Chicago record label Chess Records had a long and illustrious history of taking on new musical styles, and by the mid-sixties was perhaps on the wane, but still regularly producing hits for artists like Etta James. Then, in a bold move even for them, the owner’s son Marshall Chess was given his own label (some say “vanity label”) and free rein to do what he wanted, and he decided to create his dream vision of a psychedelic band.
So there you have Rotary Connection, a rag-tag collection of auditioned white garage rockers, black studio singers from Chess HQ, and not least established arranger Charles Stepney. Somehow, this chimeric combination works wonderfully well, part soul, part psychedelic rock, part Terry Callier-inspired folk hybrid, part sharp record company product, part organic anarchy. And as Aaron Cohen describes in Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power, one reason it works is that none of the members follow pop or racial stereotypes: Charles Stepney for instance was classically trained, which he finally got to put to use, and singers Sidney Barnes and the later-highly-successful Minnie Ripperton didn’t sound like Gospel-trained soul singers, nor wanted to be.
This Christmas album, Rotary Connection’s last great record, is the band at their most gelled-together, but still veers wildly between genres and expressions. Charles Stepney’s three incredibly ambitious arrangements of “Silent Night”, constantly modulating in key and meter, contrast with traditional soul fare like “Christmas Love”, written by an external songwriter. Veteran songwriter Sidney Barnes took careful steps into social commentary for the first time, inspired by bands he had heard on the radio. The garage rockers went full-on raucous hippie jesters, writing songs about a drugged-up Santa Claus. Minnie Ripperton truly has fun in a range of vocal styles. It’s a potential mess – but somehow, like the band itself, it ends up making a warped sort of sense.