Khan, Chaka (Contemporary Musicians)
Singer, songwriter, producer
In his notes to one volume of Rhino Records' CD series Soul Hits of the 70's: Didn't It Blow Your Mind!, Paul Grein called Chaka Khan "the most influential female vocalist in R&B since Aretha Franklin." This was not the first time that Khan had been compared to the "Queen of Soul." As a teeny-bopper singing with a group of friends, she became known as "Little Aretha." But the comparison would have a double edge: many critics accused her of lacking a distinctive style. As Curtis Bagley of Essence remarked, Khan was at the time of her early stardom in the mid-seventies "a new breed of singer: one who was self-taught, not manufactured; one who ignored tradition and recorded exactly asnd whathe wanted to."
Scoring early hits with the funk-rock group Rufus, she established herself as a solo artist in the late seventies, moving through the following decade with several huge hits, a slew of Grammy awards, and a growing roster of distinguished musical collaborators. Though several reviewers found her solo career spotty and often lamented her choice of material and use of multiple producers on her records, she moved with the times. Her 1992 album The Woman I Am yielded a smash single and further demonstrated her staying power.
Chaka Khan was born Yvette Marie Stevens in 1953 in Great Lakes, Illinois. Her mother worked at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, and her father was a free-lance photographer. Khan described her family as "upper middle class" to Melody Maker's Ian Pye. She confided in a Rolling Stone interview that when she was ten years old, her grand-mother read her palm and told her, "One day, many, many people are going to know your name." Soon she was showing signs of fulfilling this prediction, singing with her vocal group the Crystalettes at talent shows.
Began Singing in Clubs at 15
At the age of 15, Khan made her professional debut, singing in a Chicago club. She would soon enter what Rolling Stone's Debby Bull called her "African Awareness Phase," singing with a group called Shades of Black and another Afrocentric ensemble known as The Pharaohs. An African priest gave her the name Chaka Adunne Adufle Yemoja Hodarhu Karifi. She found strength and a degree of rebellion in the doctrine of the politically radical Black Panter Party and helped organize her school's Black Student Union. This was no mere phase. Years later she told Melody Maker that she retained her radical views: "The Panthers were telling the truthmerica is the most fascist country; capitalism does suck."
Soon she dropped out of high school; at sixteen she ran away from home. "When I left I was very broke but very happy," she told Rolling Stone's Fred Schruers, "and I wanted to prove to my parents and my peers that I could do it." At seventeen she entered a quasi-marriageAll we went through were some Indian rites" for the ceremony, she told Rolling Stone in 1974ith Assan Khan, bassist for the Babysitters, for whom she was singing at the time. During this time she worked in an office for $2.60 an hour and sang in the clubs at night with various bands. She was also smoking a lot of marijuana and living a life thatespite her ostensible marriageas far from domestic. In 1972 she joined up with Chicago's Ask Rufus, a versatile group made up of former members of the successful pop act American Breed. Ask Rufus was fronted at the time by singer Paulette McWilliams, with whom Khan became close. By the time McWilliams left the band, Khan knew all their songs and was a natural choice for her replacement.
Stole Spotlight With Rufus
The group paid more dues on the club scene, shortened its name to Rufus, and got new management; after many ups and downs they forged a deal with ABC Records. Even with the group's solid credentials, however, it became clear that the new lead singer would monopolize the limelight. A Down Beat review of a Rufus appearance in Los Angeles in 1973 demonstrates this. After lauding the group's material and musicianship, reviewer Eric Gaer wrote, "Chaka Khan, black, beautiful female vocalist, hides her true ability until about halfway into the set. But the minute she opens her mouth we know she can put us awaynd does."
The band's self-titled debut LP made a few rippleshe single "Whoever Is Thrilling You Is Killing Me" did fairly well on black radiout was by no means a smash. Then superstar singer-performer Stevie Wonder, an admirer of Khan's who had contributed the song "Maybe Your Baby" to the group's first record, appeared at a session for their next album. He offered a song called "Tell Me Something Good." Khan recalled to Rolling Stone that she didn't like a previous song that Wonder had offered for the session. "So he said, 'What's your birth sign?' I said, 'Aries-Pisces,' and he said, 'Oh, well here's a song for you.' And he wrote 'Tell Me Something Good.'" The two collaborated on the lyrics. Released as a single in 1974, the song helped the LP on which it appeared, Rags to Rufus, go gold. "Tell Me Something Good" garnered a Grammy Award for best R&B performance by a group or duo. The album also yielded the dance hit "Once You Get Started" and Ray Parker Jr.'s "You Got the Love"; both songs made it into the Top 20. Also in 1974 Khan had her first child, her daughter Milini. Assan was not the father.
The next year saw the release of Rufusized, which also went gold. The group was by now calling itself Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan; as Rolling Stone critic Jim Miller asked, "Is Rufus a group or is it Chaka Khan with a backup band?" Miller answered his own question by declaring that "Rufus has become a vehicle for showcasing Khan and her idiosyncratic voice," a voice he praised while noting its owner's tendency toward "histrionic displays." Miller found the material on the album lacking "the kind of creative spark that animated Tell Me Something Good.'"
Subsequent albums fared well commercially, if not always critically. Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan, released in 1976. went gold, as did its Top Five single "Sweet Thing." Even so, Rolling Stone's Tom Vickers, while admitting that Khan's vocals had "calmed down recently," insisted that she lacked "emotion." The 1977 release Ask Rufus went platinum and finally earned the approval of Rolling Stone: "With time and experience Chaka Khan has broken away from her screeching Aretha Franklin imitations and found her own voice in both the musical and poetic senses of the term," wrote Russell Gersten, who dubbed Ask Rufus "one of the year's best pop albums." Of 1978's Street Player, the magazine's Joe McEwen noted that Khan's departure from the group was expected and suggested that the group had little to offer without her. "Chaka Khan has been one of the most iconoclastic pop singers of the Seventies, but she has yet to make a substantial album," McEwen concluded. "It's about time."
Khan did in fact embark on a solo career and began recording for Warner Bros, in 1978, though she still periodically recorded with Rufus on ABC and later on MCA, the label that acquired it. Her first solo album, Chaka, received mixed reviews. Melody Maker called it a "clinker," while Rolling Stone declared: "Here she achieves an emotional depth only hinted at on other albums." The record went gold and contained the hit "I'm Every Woman." Produced by R&B wizard Arif Mardin and enlisting members of Rufus and the Average White Band, Chaka was recorded quickly and relatively inexpensively. By 1979 Khan was pregnant again and gave birth to a son, Damien, by her husband, songwriter/producer Richard Holland.
Khan next recorded Masterjam with Rufus; it was produced by Quincy Jones and released in 1980. Rolling Stone, while asserting that Khan was "the group's most attractive feature," judged that "the songs aren't so good. Chaka Khan's not in top form and neither is Rufus." Masterjam contained three hit singles, including "Do You Love What You Feel." The same year Khan put out another solo album, Naughty; it featured the hits "Clouds" and "Papillon (Hot Butterfly)." Her 1981 solo LP What Cha' Gonna Do for Me was a smash, despite another pan from Rolling Stone. "Chaka Khan has grown up into an overly facile stylist," wrote Laura Fissinger of the album, which includes Khan's rendition of the jazz classic "A Night in Tunisia." The album went gold. In 1981 Khan also appeared on the Rufus album Camouflage and provided the soundtrack for the public television production of the play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf.
Khan's marriage to Holland ended in 1980, and she took Milini and Damien and moved to New York to live with her boyfriend, Harlem schoolteacher Albert Sarasohn. She appeared with Chick Corea and his group of stellar musicians for the jazz standards album Echoes of an Era in 1982 and released her next solo album, Chaka Khan, that same year; for the latter project she enlisted the help of producer Mardin and experimented with a wide variety of styles. Perhaps the most ambitious track on the album is "Bebop Medley," which touches on a handful of jazz classics. Stereo Review, while acknowledging that with Khan "you either like her or you don't," called the album "a sizzling summary of the state of her art" that demonstrated her evolution into "a solo artist whose performance is as classy as it is brassy." Khan won two 1983 Grammies for "Bebop Medley." She also shared a trophy with Rufus for their single "Ain't No-body" from that year's Live Stompin'at the Savoy.
The 1984 solo release I Feel for You went platinum, thanks in large part to the smash title track. The song was written by Prince and featured pioneering rapper Grandmaster Melle Mel and a harmonica part by Stevie Wonder. Khan walked off with another Grammy, this time for best R&B vocal performance. "Khan has always been a singer of great range and eclectic tastes," opined Don Shewey in his Rolling Stone review, "but they've never been shown to greater advantage than on I Feel for You."
Khan didn't please the critics as much with her 1986 album Destiny, however. "Her attempt to be every singer for every taste falls into the gaps between the formats," read the Rolling Stone review of Destiny. "I'm a big gambler with life," Khan told Essence in 1986, adding that she felt daunted by the prospect of singing jazz: "There is a conscious part of me that doesn't think Chaka is a very good jazz singer." That same year, she drew attention for her backing vocals on Steve Winwood's hit single (and video) "Higher Love."
In 1988 Khan released CK., which sports collaborations with Prince and jazz legend Miles Davis. Prince contributed two songs, "Eternity" and "Sticky Wicked"; Khan also recorded Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered." For New Yorker critic Mark Moses, "Once you've relinquished the hope that Khan will ever make a consistent solo albumhis is a career that is crying out for a 'best of compilation to make sense of ithe record reveals charms (and, even more surprising, an unshowy depth) that you wouldn't have dared to let yourself expect." Melody Maker called the album "just dandy." To the latter periodical Khan admitted disgust at the cobbled-together release Life Is a Dance. "I didn't do this LP," she said. "Warner Brothers did it totally themselves without my knowledge and without my consent and it pisses me off a lot." The record contains a number of collaborations between Khan and other artists over a ten-year period.
Oversaw Next Project
Khan took a sabbatical after CK., relocating to Europehe has homes in London and Germanynd envisioning her next project. It would take a few years to germinate, with Khan (now going only by the name Chaka) co-writing several songs and undertaking the task of overseeing the project herself. "Usually I'd hire a producer and let him do the work of pulling the sessions and songs together," she was quoted as saying in a Warner Bros, press release. "But this time, I wanted to take that responsibility myself. It was a little scary at first, making all the decisions, but I learned a lot, and having done it, I know I could never go back to the way it was." The result was the 1992 album The Woman I Am. The album's single "Love You All My Lifetime" was a Number One single on the Billboard Dance chart and the R&R Urban chart. "Her fiery contralto is in total command" on all of the album's tracks, read a Time review, "swooping effortlessly from a raunchy growl to a soulful wail. The result is frisky, hip-shaking music. Go ahead," concluded the review, citing a line from "Once You Get Started" by Rufus, "party hearty." Pulse! called The Woman I Am "a superb album," though Entertainment Weekly gave it a "C-" grade, labeling the multi-producer approach unfocused and closing its review with the question: "Where is Rufus when we need them?"
Chaka, as usual, cared little for reviews. "I think this is the best representation of me, the person, that I've ever done," she said of The Woman I Am in the Warner Bros. press release. "There came a point in my life where I really wanted to get serious and this is the result. I've always been my own biggest competition so I guess if I feel good about it, I must be doing something right."
Chaka joined a number of singing starsonder includedor the Hallelujah Chorus section of Quincy Jones's 1992 endeavor A Soulful Celebration, which puts a rhythm and blues spin on Handel's classic Messiah. She was honored the same year by the International Association of African-American Music for her career work as a recording artist. Having come a long way from the funky siren of "Tell Me Something Good," she further demonstrated her staying power in the music world.
Rufus (includes "Whoever Is Thrilling You Is Killing Me" and "Maybe Your Baby"), ABC, 1974.
Rags to Rufus (includes "Tell Me Something Good," "Once You Get Started," and "You Got the Love"), ABC, 1974.
Rufusized, ABC, 1975.
Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan (includes "Sweet Thing"), ABC, 1976.
Ask Rufus, ABC, 1977.
Street Player, ABC, 1978.
Masterjam (includes "Do You Love What You Feel"), MCA, 1980.
Camouflage, MCA, 1981.
Live Stompin' at the Savoy (includes "Ain't Nobody"), MCA, 1983.
Solo releases; on Warner Bros. Records
Chaka (includes "I'm Every Woman"), 1978.
Naughty (includes "Clouds" and "Papillon [Hot Butterfly]"), 1980.
What Cha ' Gonna Do for Me (includes "A Night in Tunisia"), 1981.
Chaka Khan (includes "Bebop Medley"), 1982.
I Feel for You (includes "I Feel for You"). 1984.
CK. (includes "Eternity," "Sticky Wicked," and "Signed, Sealed, Delivered"), 1988.
Life Is a Dance, 1989.
The Woman I Am (includes "Love You All My Lifetime"), 1992.
Ry Cooder, "Down in Hollywood," Bop Til You Drop, Warner Bros., 1979.
Chick Corea, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, and others, Echoes of an Era, Elektra. 1982.
Steve Winwood, "Higher Love." Back in the High Life, Island, 1986.
Quincy Jones, "I'll Be Good to You," Back on the Block, Qwest, 1989.
Jones, "Hallelujah Chorus," A Soulful Celebration, Warner Bros., 1992.
Whitney Houston, "I'm Every Woman," The Bodyguard (soundtrack), Arista. 1992.
Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, revised edition, St. Martin's, 1989.
Down Beat, October 11,1973.
Entertainment Weekly, May 1.1992; May 15,1992.
Essence, January 1986.
Jet, June 10, 1985.
Melody Maker, July 12,1975; December 9,1978; April 14,1984; February 9,1985; January 7,1989; June 3, 1989.
New Yorker, March 20,1989.
Pulse!, July 1992.
Rolling Stone. October 24, 1974; March 27, 1975; January 29, 1976; April 8,1976; May 19,1977; April 6,1978; January 25, 1979; April 5,1979; March 20,1980; August 6.1981 ; November 8,1984; February 14,1985; October 9,1986.
Stereo Review, April 1983.
Time, May 11,1992.
Upscale, August/September 1992; October/November 1992.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from liner notes by Paul Grein to Soul Hits of the 70s: Didn't It Blow Your Mind!, Volume 13, Rhino Records, 1991 ; and from a Warner Bros. publicity biography, 1992.