One wonders how unsuspecting music buyers in 1969 reacted when they bought Rotary Connection’s fourth album, titled simply Songs. It looks like a perfectly ordinary product, the cover featuring a white boy and a black girl holding balloons that picture the band’s members. Mildly psychedelic, but nothing to scare your parents. The track listing consists entirely of covers, so one might mistake the album for a record label’s quick attempt to capitalize on counterculture hits with songs from The Band, Jimi Hendrix and three tracks from Cream’s Disraeli Gears. The album title Songs doesn’t inspire much confidence, either. That is, unless you know Rotary Connection.

With a name that sounds like a civic group, the group’s wild arrangements, from the mind of producer Charles Stepney, completely re-imagined the day’s rock hits of the day for an album that blows your sober mind with overflowing drama and musical invention. This psychedelic soul sound comes from an unlikely cast of characters that included R&B singer Minnie Riperton, long before “Loving You” was an easy listening hit; and guitarist Pete Cosey, several years before he blew up Miles Davis’ Agharta with some of the most wildest electricity ever committed to wax. Cosey does not yet his those heights here, though his fuzztone brings a new heaviness to FM staples you thought you knew. Ripperton, on the other hand, lets loose in ways that “Loving You” only hints at, her high register timbre taking off on flights of fancy that more than one writer has accurately characterized as a human theremin.

Marshall Chess, son of Chess Records founder Leonard Chess, developed Rotary Connection for his then-fledgling label Cadet Concept, which was meant to go beyond the rock and blues that made the parent label famous. Producer-arranger Charles Stepney was the visionary behind the group’s orchestrations, which may best be described as baroque psychedelic, though that doesn’t quite prepare listeners for the huge sound that emerges from one of their records. Stepney recruited Chess session players like Cosey, bassist Phil Upchurch and drummer Morris Jennings for a musical vision that was solidly based in soul and pop craft, but turns breathtakingly experimental.

Rotary Connection’s 1967 debut, a mix of covers and originals, centered around a dramatically recast version of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” and two further albums continued in their manner of expansive psychedelic pop. Songs may be the most unpredictable record by a band that was never predictable. The album opens with the Otis Redding chestnut “Respect,” but the band’s version is nearly unrecognizable (which can be said of most of their covers). It’s taken at a dirge-like pace, Cosey’s guitar restrained yet off-kilter as if he’s delicately trying to pick apart the melody in search of a way to break out. The vocals smolder, scanning Redding’s lyrics so radically it may well be a completely different song. With a soaring string section and thudding rhythm, it sounds like chaos on paper, but on record it’s exhilaratingly soulful and strange. “The Weight” is taken at a mid-tempo faster than The Band’s original, but again the melody seems to have been crumpled up into a ball, “Take a load off Annie” transformed from a relaxed invitation to a gospel command, sung by a chorus that grows to a massive echo by its soaring end.

The success of this eclectic but controlled sound owes much to Chess house engineer Ron Malo, who staged Stepney’s inimitable arrangements—which could be both lush and rocking, pop and avant-garde at the same time—in a sonic space that lets every element of this strange stew soar, from R&B rhythm to soulful choruses to Cosey’s frenetic guitar to Riperton’s high-pitched shredding. Stepney’s arrangements could be considered defiantly contrarian, but it makes some baroque sense to take the harpsichord and electric guitar line that opens Jimi Hendrix’s “Burning of the Midnight Lamp” and turn it into a vocal chorus, spiked not by Hendrix’s guitar but by Riperton’s otherworldly upper register.

Songs ends with a relatively sedate version of The Rolling Stones’ “Salt of the Earth,” cast with a soulful organ that sets a relaxing tone; but Stepney and his talented charges still have surprises in store. Rotary Connection albums are fairly common and affordable, and until I picked one up at a record show early this year I had never heard them before. Where have I been all these years? If you’ve never heard Rotary Connection before, I kind of envy you. But don’t go the easy route and listen to them on your smartphone, where the group’s first four albums are available to stream. Track down one of their albums, crank up the vinyl and prepare for the unexpected.

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