From the moment Chaka came on the music scene, as a member of the sophistofunk band Rufus, one of the first multi-racial pop/rock/soul bands, it was apparent that someone of vocal importance was emerging. Chaka was a new breed of singer — self-taught and she bluntly ignored tradition. When it wasn’t fashionable for singers to record their own background vocals, Khan made her own fashion statement and arranged her own — laying down one track while assembling another — competing with herself endlessly until all of her trademark vocals were seamlessly matched.
Chaka’s unprecedented contralto and incalculable vocal range, originality and delivery (not to mention her sublime physical presence!), set new standards in the music world and in recent years, Chaka’s style has been emulated by a legion of female singers. Although imitation is the sincerest form of flattery — Chaka Khan is clearly in a class by herself. Her vocal style, identifiable in a flash, is a major force of nature in music, a sound like no other.
When Chaka first emerged, she was a young girl from Chicago with relentless enthusiasm and a God-given talent for singing. Born Yvette Marie Stevens on March 23, 1953, in the Chicago suburb of Great Lakes, she formed her first group, The Crystalettes, at the age of 11 and began her professional career at 15. While still in high school, she joined the Afro-Arts Theater, a group which toured with Motown great Mary Wells, and a few years later, while working on the Black Panthers’ breakfast program, she adopted the name Chaka, which is African for “Woman of Fire”. Her full African name is Chaka Adunne Aduffe Yemoja Hodarhi Karifi. She later acquired Khan from a brief marriage in her late teens.
After quitting school in 1969, Khan joined the group Lyfe, soon exiting to join another dance band, The Babysitters. She worked as a file clerk by day and sang in local clubs at night. At 18, she made her move to Los Angeles and hooked up with a group of fledgling musicians called Rufus. Two years later, in 1973, their self-titled debut album “Rufus” was released. Their second album “Rags To Rufus” (1974) contained the Grammy award winning classic “Tell Me Something Good”, and all of a sudden they found themselves being the name on everybody’s lips. Chaka had set out to become a singer and instantly became a star.
In the years to come, Rufus and Chaka Khan would prove to be one of the most influential pop, rock, funk and R&B groups around and the central reason was Khan’s amazing vocal talents and electrifying stage presence. With a string of classic gold and platinum albums like “Rufusized”, “Ask Rufus”, “Street Player” and “Masterjam”, the band endured as one of music’s most popular and successful groups of the seventies. In 1978, Chaka made her solo album debut and had an instant hit with “I’m Every Woman”, penned by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. She was now a star in her own right and enjoyed great success with her following albums “Naughty” (1980), “What Cha’ Gonna Do For Me” (1981) and “Chaka Khan” (1982).
Chaka would continue to record three more albums with Rufus but it was inevitable that she eventually would step out her own. In 1983, she left the group for good. And after Chaka — there was no more Rufus. They said “thank you and goodbye” with one of the best live albums ever released — “Live: Stompin At The Savoy”. The album produced the immortal Grammy winning single “Ain’t Nobody”, which turned out to be one of their biggest hits and a song that, maybe more than any other, defines the inimitable vocal style of Chaka Khan.
Chaka Khan is among the few singers who have left a group and continued to reap ever greater success. Album after album has produced Top Ten hits including “I’m Every Woman”, “This Is My Night”, “Got To Be There”, “What Cha’ Gonna Do For Me”, and her biggest hit “I Feel For You” — the rap-tinged Prince classic which scored on the charts in 1984 and earned her a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Female Vocalist.
Chaka has always delighted in working with an outstanding array of talented contemporaries across genres. She has contributed to more than 70 different albums, working with artists as diverse as David Bowie, Quincy Jones, The Manhattan Transfer, Lenny White, Joe Henderson, Eric Clapton, Gladys Knight, Stephen Bishop, Guru, Joni Mitchell and Brandy. On her own recordings, she’s hosted guests like The Artist, Miles Davis, Bobby McFerrin, Larry Graham, Queen Latifah, Dizzy Gillespie, Me’Shell Ndeg?cello and the guys of Toto.
Always searching for ways to execute her originality and inspiration, Chaka recorded a jazz album, “Echoes Of An Era” (1982). This album ran the gamut of musical moods that served notice of a creative giant step for the richly talented and dynamic singer.
Heavily involved in charitable work, Chaka Khan has established The Chaka Khan Foundation to assist drug and alcohol treatment and/or services for women and their children, to support battered women and those with HIV. Says Chaka: “It’s time to build up and time to give back.” Her life harmonious and focused, Khan is just as likely to be at a 1PM board meeting about her foundation and starring at a sold out 10PM concert.
Chaka’s most recent album “Come 2 My House” (1998) is a classic blend of her talent and demonstrates even further growth of her vocal abilities and creative prowess. She is what she is and she’ll only do what she likes. Many people like to place her in the soul and R&B category, some call her a jazz singer — some might even call her a disco diva. Nothing could be more wrong. On her albums you will find everything from bittersweet soul ballads, blistering pop covers, funk-drenched rap, smoky jazz renderings and all the way through the jungle to energetic rock n’ roll, spiritual gospel, powerful disco, syncopated funk, steamy R&B and, yes — back again. “Come 2 My House” was co-produced by The Artist and Chaka and proves, yet again, ample evidence that Chaka Khan will always transcend any categorization.
Like any other singer, Chaka Khan has been given several more or less fitting nicknames. But no, she’s not the Queen of Soul, not the Godmother of R&B nor the Grand Lady of Funk. Yes, she may me divalicious — but she’s not a soul or disco diva. Chaka has perfected a style, a sizzling stage presence and intimacy with her adoring fans that keeps them stuck like glue. The New York Times once wrote: “Chaka Khan’s singing is extraordinary. She can coo with a girlish sweetness, cut to the bone with a nasal Dinah Washington, turn, whisper a breathy invitation or proclaim high-flying jubilation.” In New York Newsday, the words were equally flattering: “Her huge voice refuses to acknowledge any state other than sheer ecstasy.”