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Khan, Chaka

Chaka Khan

Singer, songwriter, producer

Began Singing in Clubs at 15

Stole Spotlight With Rufus

Solo Career

Oversaw Next Project

Selected discography

Sources

In his notes to one volume of Rhino Records CD series Soul Hits of the 70s: Didnt 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 asand whatshe 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 Makers Ian Pye. She confided in a Rolling Stone interview that when she was ten years old, her grandmother 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 Stones 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 schools Black Student Union. This was no mere phase. Years later she told Melody Maker that she

For the Record

Born Yvette Marie Stevens, March 23, 1953, in Great Lakes, IL; given the name Chaka Adunne Adufle Yemoja Hodarhu Karifi by an African priest, c. 1970; daughter of a researcher and a free-lance photographer; involved in long-term relationship with Assan Khan (a musician), beginning 1970; married Richard Holland (a songwriter and producer), 1978 (divorced, 1980); children: Milini (daughter); (with Holland) Damien (son).

Began singing as a teenager with vocal group the Crystalettes; worked as a file clerk, 1968; singer and songwriter, 1968; recording artist, 1972; joined group Rufus and recorded debut album, 1972; signed with Warner Bros. Records; released first solo album, Chaka, 1978.

Awards: Numerous Grammy awards, including two with Rufus for best R&B performance by a duo or group, for Tell Me Something Good and Aint Nobody; for solo work, including best female vocalist and best vocal arrangement, 1983, for Bebop Medley, best R&B single by a female vocalist, 1984, for I Feel For You, and best R&B vocal performance, female, 1993, for The Woman I Am; honored by International Association of African-American Music for career excellence, 1992.

Addresses: Record company Warner Bros., 75 Rockefeller Plaza, 20th floor, New York, NY 10019.

retained her radical views: The Panthers were telling the truthAmerica 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 Stones Fred Schruers, and I wanted to prove to my parents and my peers that I could do it. At seventeen she entered a quasi-mar-riageAll we went through were some Indian rites for the ceremony, she told Rolling Stone in 1974with 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 thatdespite her ostensible marriagewas far from domestic. In 1972 she joined up with Chicagos 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 groups 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 groups 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 awayand does.

The bands self-titled debut LP made a few ripplesthe single Whoever Is Thrilling You Is Killing Me did fairly well on black radiobut was by no means a smash. Then superstar singer-performer Stevie Wonder, an admirer of Khans who had contributed the song Maybe Your Baby to the groups 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 didnt like a previous song that Wonder had offered for the session. So he said, Whats your birth sign? I said, Aries-Pisces, and he said, Oh, well heres 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 owners 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 Stones Tom Vickers, while admitting that Khans 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 years best pop albums. Of 1978s Street Player, the magazines Joe McEwen noted that Khans 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. Its about time.

Solo Career

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 Im 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 groups most attractive feature, judged that the songs arent so good. Chaka Khans 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 Khans 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.

Khans 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 dont, 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 Aint Nobody from that years Live Stompin at the Savoy

The 1984 solo releaseI 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 theyve never been shown to greater advantage than on I Feel for You.

Khan didnt 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. Im 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 doesnt think Chaka is a very good jazz singer. That same year, she drew attention for her backing vocals on Steve Winwoods hit single (and video) Higher Love.

In 1988 Khan released C.K., which sports collaborations with Prince and jazz legend Miles Davis. Prince contributed two songs, Eternity and Sticky Wicked; Khan also recorded Wonders Signed, Sealed, Delivered. For New Yorker critic Mark Moses, Once youve relinquished the hope that Khan will ever make a consistent solo albumthis is a career that is crying out for a best of compilation to make sense of itthe record reveals charms (and, even more surprising, an unshowy depth) that you wouldnt 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 didnt 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 C.K., relocating to Europeshe has homes in London and Germanyand 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 Id 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 albums 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 albums 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 Ive ever done, she said of The Woman IAm\n the Warner Bros, press release. There came a point in my life where I really wanted to get serious and this is the result. Ive 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 starsWonder includedfor the Hallelujah Chorus section of Quincy Joness 1992 endeavor A Soulful Celebration, which puts a rhythm and blues spin on Handels 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.

Selected discography

With Rufus

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 Aint Nobody), MCA, 1983.

Solo releases; on Warner Bros. Records

Chaka (includes Im Every Woman), 1978.

Naughty (includes Clouds and Papillon [Hot Butterfly]),1980.

What ChaGonna 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.

Destiny, 1986.

C.K.(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.

With others

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, Ill Be Good to You,Back on the Block, Qwest,1989.

Jones, Hallelujah Chorus,A Soulful Celebration, Warner Bros.,1992.

Whitney Houston, Im Every Woman,The Bodyguard (soundtrack), Arista, 1992.

Sources

Books

Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, revised edition, St. Martins, 1989.

Periodicals

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: Didnt It Blow Your Mind!, Volume 13, Rhino Records, 1991; and from a Warner Bros, publicity biography, 1992.

Simon Glickman

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Khan, Chaka

Chaka Khan

1953

Singer

Chaka Khan has enjoyed a long and fruitful recording career that spans over two decades, but her soaring voice has failed to put her in the same superstar strata as other African American divas of her generation like Patti LaBelle or Tina Turner. Khan's career came of age as disco dawned in the early 1970s, and with her first hit as a member of Rufus the singer became a dynamic presence on the scene. "She was funkier, more contemporary than Aretha Franklin, as she could be just as diverse. Within a mere six years, she would have her own cult of singers who would try to emulate her sound," wrote Curtis Bagley in Essence. An even more successful solo career followed, as well as more Grammy Awards, but her presence on the pop/R&B scene by the mid-1990s had become a lightweight one. The London-based singer was remedying that by 1996, however, with her contributions to the soundtracks of several successful films and plans for a new record as well as a tell-all autobiography.

Khan was born Yvette Marie Stevens, the oldest of four children, on the South Side of Chicago. Both parents worked for the University of Chicago, one as a photographer, the other as a research supervisor. Unlike other future R&B stars who cut their musical teeth in church gospel choirs, Khan was raised Roman Catholicbut was exposed to jazz. The singer recalled for Essence writer Isabel Wilkerson that she was first exposed to Billie Holiday through her grandmother's record collection. "She's one of my mentors," Khan said of Holiday. "She's one of the first jazz players I ever heard. The naivete, the suffering, the pain and all the things that come along with the suffering and the pain. She was victimized, and that led to excesses I can relate to and understand. She's a Black woman who went through a lot."

Khan formed her first ensemble with a group of her preteen friends who called themselves the Crystalettes. Their name came from her observation of how the street lights sparkled against the new snow below their Hyde Park high-rise. Big fans of Gladys Knight, Khan and the Crystalettes sang in talent shows where local fans dubbed her "Little Aretha." The official name change to "Chaka" came when she was thirteen and joined an African music group called Shades of Black; it was the onset of the Black Power movement in the mid-1960s and its leader rechristened her Chaka Adunne Aduffe Hodarhi Karifi. Her teen years were spent singing in a number of bands, but Khan also pushed her luck in more potentially self-destructive ways. She told Essence that she used to carry a gun, and even practiced with it once a week: "When I did think about killing people with it, I developed ulcers, and I just threw the gun in the lake."

After dropping out of high school, Chaka moved out of her parents' house when she entered into a common-law marriage with Assan Khan, a bass player from East India. Both wore matching bleached blond coifs, and she was now singing in a group called Lock and Chain. Khan then jumped ship to an act called Lyfe before joining up with another ensemble called Rufus, which had attracted a large Chicago-area following. Working as a file clerk by day, she began hanging around Rufus by night and befriended their frontperson, a woman named Paulette McWilliams. At the time, Rufus was doing dance songs and Sly and the Family Stone covers; when McWilliams quit in 1972, Khan took her place. She was eighteen.

Rufus won a record deal with ABC-Dunhill, and Khan followed them out to California. Their debut LP, Rufus, was released in 1973 to scant notice and little commercial success. During the recording of a second release, recent Grammy Award-winner Stevie Wonder showed up one day at the Torrance studio, much to the astonishment of the band. The visit would spark Rufus's first hit, the Grammy-winning "Tell Me Something Good." Khan recalled the event in a 1974 interview with Jay Grossman of Rolling Stone. "He sat down at the clavinet, y'know, and just wrote the song," she related about Wonder. "The first tune that he laid down, y'know, the first rhythm track, I said, 'I don't like that one so much.' And it seemed as though he was a little upset over that, and I thought, 'Well, a lot of people must not say that to him!' So he said, 'What's your birth sign?' I said 'Aries-Pisces,' and he said, 'Oh, well here's a song for you.'"

After members of Rufus wrote lyrics for the track, Khan began to sing the "Tell Me Something Good" in her own style, but Wonder, still at the studio, interrupted. "NO NO NO!" Khan recalled him protesting in the interview with Grossman. "'Sing it like this!' And it turned out for the better," she said in the Rolling Stone interview with Grossman. "I don't know what would have happened if I'd done it myself, but just him being thereI'd been loving this guy for like 10 years." Khan was nine months pregnant when she recorded the LP; they exited the studio on December 17, 1973, and she gave birth to daughter Milini four days later.

"Tell Me Something Good" catapulted Khan and Rufus to instant stardom, complete with gold records on their living-room walls, a Grammy, sold-out toursand the accompanying heady lifestyle. Khan soon gained a reputation as a wild child of the 1970s. To Essence 's Wilkerson, Khan described those drug-fueled days of her life as a "runaway carriage, the reins flying." Much of it she only knows through others' accounts of her behavior. Discussing the possibility of an autobiography, the singer told Wilkerson that "I need to get a hypnotist, okay? I'm trying to write my life story, and it's like we're going to have to call in a professional at some point and put me in a trance because it's deep."

Despite the substance abuse problems, Khan still went on to record several hit albums with Rufus during the 1970s, such as Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan. Her career was her saving grace, she told Bagley in Essence. "Throughout all my whimsical flights, I have never let anything get completely away from me," Khan said. "Music has always been a grounding factor for me. It has been my one reality check. Even when my head was in the clouds, I always had at least one foot on the ground. That's why I'm alive today."

In 1978 Khan made a successful transition to a solo recording career when she signed with Warner Brothers. Her solo debut came later that year with Chaka Khan, an overwhelming hit buoyed by its first single, "I'm Every Woman." She continued to record several solo efforts, achieving a minor hit in 1981 with What Cha' Gonna Do for Me? However, Khan preferred to make scat and jazz-influenced records instead of straightforward, commercial R&B, until Warner Brothers insisted on a more mainstream sound in 1984 when it came time for her to record her sixth solo effort. Khan remembered a song called "I Feel for You" by Prince that appeared on his second album in 1979. Her producer modernized it a bit for her, bringing in Stevie Wonder to blow harp and Grandmaster Melle Mel, then one of the biggest names in the breaking rap scene, to add his own distinctive voice to the mix.

At a Glance

Born Yvette Marie Stevens, March 23, 1953, in Chicago, IL; daughter of a photographer and a research supervisor; married Assan Khan 1970 (divorced 1971); married Richard Holland 1974 (divorced 1980); married Doug Rasheed 2001; children: Milini, Damien.

Career: Singer. The Crystalettes musical group, co-founder, 1964(?); Afro-Arts Theater, member, 1960s(?); Lyfe musical group member, late 1960s; The Babysitters, musical group member, late 1960s; Rufus musical group member, 1972-78; solo career, 1978; Earth Song record label, co-founder, 1996; Raeven Productions, co-founder, 1996

Selected awards: National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, eight Grammy Awards, 1983 (2), 1984, 1993, 1996 (with Bruce Hornsby) 1997, 2003 (with the Funk Brothers), 2004 (with Kenny G); American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, Rhythm & Soul Heritage Award (first honoree), 1998; Granville White Lifetime Achievement Award, 2000; World Music Awards, Legend Award, 2003; Berklee College of Music, honorary doctorate, 2004.

Addresses: Home London, England. Office c/o Chaka Khan Foundation, 9100 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 515 East Tower, Beverly Hills, CA 90212; Web www.chakakhan.com.

"I Feel For You" was an overwhelming success upon release, charting in the Top Five, and perhaps best remembered for Melle Mel's distinctive triple-fast "Cha-ka Khan" rap. Khan recalled the moment she first heard it in an interview with Rolling Stone 's Debby Bull. After laying down her own vocals, Khan went into the studio the next day and listened to the new version. "I thought 'Oh, God.' It was great, yes, except for how am I going to live this down? Every time a guy walks up to me on the street, I think he's going to break into that rap. And most of them do." The album, also entitled I Feel For You, won Khan her third Grammy and was her biggest success to date.

By this time Khan was living in New York City with Milini and son Damien, born in 1979. She was married a second time briefly in the 1970s but during the mid-1980s was romantically involved with a Harlem schoolteacher who had originally tutored her daughter: "His salary is nowhere near mine, but he still brings his money in. He didn't give up his job like my other two husbands didimmediately stop work and groove and say, 'My work is now you,'" Khan told Bull in Rolling Stone. "No woman wants to hear that. A woman wants to wake up in the morning to the smell of aftershave lotion and not see anybody there."

Still single, Khan relocated her family to London at the onset of the 1990s after stopping briefly there on a tour and falling in love with the city. She also thought it would be a better environment in which to bring up her teenage son. "Right now in America there's a bounty on young Black boys," Khan told Wilkerson in Essence. "And I want him to get some kind of quality education, to speak other languages and live until he's 20 at least." Other members of her family stay for extended periods, including Milini with Khan's granddaughter Raeven, Khan's father from Chicago and sister Yvonne, who followed her older sister into the music business in the 1970s as Taka Boom.

Khan continues to record, and has done a number of works for the soundtracks of popular movies. For the Wesley Snipes/Patrick Swayze film To Wong Foo: Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, Khan contributed "Free Yourself." She also sang "Love Me Still," the theme song for the 1995 Spike Lee film Clockers. Throughout the 1990s, Khan collaborated with such an eclectic mix of musicians as Prince, The Funk Brothers, George Benson, and Freddie Hubbard.

She also dabbled in acting, performing in a number of television sitcoms from the late 1980s. In early 1995 Khan did a stint on the London stage as Sister Carrie in the gospel musical Mama, I Want to Sing, and had performed in a handful of movies, including The Messiah XXI (2000) and Roof Sex (2003). She hobnobs in aristocratic circles and enjoys a cult-like following in Europe, where she moved in 1991 and tours occasionally to great success.

By the 2000s Khan had cemented her stature as a rhythm and blues legend; many of her early music had become staples in the R&B and jazz formats of radio programming. The eight-time Grammy winner released her ClassiKhan album in 2004, and it was hailed as "ambitious" and "elegant," according to PRNewswire. Chuck Arnold of People Weekly praised the album as proof that Chaka Khan is "one of the greatest song stylists of her time." The album helped to bolster the AgU Music Group record label, which formed in 2003 to serve listeners between their mid-twenties to their mid-fifties.

Khan also used her fame to start a charity in the late 1990s; the Chaka Khan Foundation provides help and education for such things as domestic violence, substance abuse, and autism. The service of the foundation is near to Khan's heart as witnessed in her memoir Chaka!: Through the Fire, which traces her troubled teenage years, struggles with drugs, and rise to fame. Her story was produced as a touring musical in 2005 and the proceeds were slated to benefit the Chaka Khan Foundation. Khan had a firm grasp on her desires for her future, as she said in her chairman's message on the Chaka Khan Foundation Web site: "I realize that I can't change the world, but I can do my part in contributing to society. If I leave this world knowing that I've helped one woman break the cycle of addiction and abuse; that one child has believed enough to get the education he/she deserves, then I can rest in peace."

Selected works

Books

Chaka!: Through the Fire, Rodale, 2003.

Recordings

(With Rufus) Rufus, 1973.

(With Rufus) From Rags to Rufus, 1973.

(With Rufus) Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan, mid-1970s.

Chaka Khan, 1979.

What Cha' Gonna Do for Me ?, 1981.

I Feel for You, mid-1980s.

Destiny, 1986.

C.K., 1988.

The Woman I Am, 1992.

Dare You to Love Me, 1995.

Come 2 My House, 1998.

ClassiKhan, 2004.

Sources

Periodicals

Essence, January 1986, p. 69; October 1995, p. 84; March 2003, p. 130.

Interview, November 1998, p. 70.

Jet, January 10, 2005, p. 24; January 19, 1999, p. 56.

People Weekly, November 29, 2004, p. 48.

Rolling Stone, October 24, 1974, p. 17; February 14, 1985, p. 11.

On-line

"Alternatives: Chaka Khan: Still Every Woman," All Hip-Hip, www.allhiphop.com/alternatives/?ID=110 (March 9, 2005).

Chaka Khan, www.chakakhan.com (March 9, 2005).

Chaka Khan Foundation, www.chakakhanfoundation.org (March 9, 2005).

Carol Brennan and

Sara Pendergast

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Khan, Chaka

Chaka Khan

Rhythm and blues singer

Chaka Khan has enjoyed a long and fruitful recording career that spans more than two decades, but her soaring voice has failed to put her in the same superstar strata as other African-American divas of her generation like Patti LaBelle or Tina Turner. Khan's career came of age as disco dawned in the early 1970s, and with her first hit as a member of Rufus, she became a dynamic presence on the scene. "She was funkier, more contemporary than Aretha Franklin, and she could be just as diverse. Within a mere six years, she would have her own cult of singers who would try to emulate her sound," wrote Curtis Bagley in Essence. An even more successful solo career followed, as well as more Grammy Awards, but her presence on the pop/R&B scene by the mid-1990s had become a lightweight one. The London-based singer was remedying that with her contributions to the soundtracks of several successful films.

Khan was born Yvette Stevens, the oldest of four children, on the south side of Chicago. Both parents worked for the University of Chicago, one as a photographer, the other as a research supervisor. Unlike other future R&B stars who cut their musical teeth in church gospel choirs, Khan was raised Roman Catholic—but was exposed to jazz. The singer recalled to writer Isabel Wilkerson of Essence that she was first exposed to Billie Holiday through her grandmother's record collection. "She's one of my mentors," Khan said of Holiday. "She's one of the first jazz players I ever heard. … The naivete, the suffering, the pain and all the things that come along with the suffering and the pain. She was victimized, and that led to excesses I can relate to and understand. She's a Black woman who went through a lot."

Khan formed her first ensemble with a group of her preteen friends who called themselves the Crystalettes. Their name came from her observation of how the street lights sparkled against the new snow below their Hyde Park high-rise. Big fans of Gladys Knight, Khan and the Crystalettes sang in talent shows, where local fans dubbed her "Little Aretha." The official name change to "Chaka" came when she was 13 and joined an African music group called Shades of Black; it was the onset of the Black Power movement in the mid-1960s and the group's leader rechristened her Chaka Adunne Aduffe Hodarhi Karifi. Her teen years were spent singing in a number of bands, but Khan also pushed her luck in more potentially self-destructive ways. She told Essence that she used to carry a gun, and even practiced with it once a week: "When I did think about killing people with it, I developed ulcers, and I just threw the gun in the lake."

After dropping out of high school, Chaka Khan moved out of her parents' house when she entered into a brief common law marriage with Assan Khan, a bass player from East India. Both wore matching bleached blond coifs, and she was now singing in a group called Lock and Chain. Khan then jumped ship to an act called Lyfe before joining up with another ensemble called Rufus, which had attracted a large Chicago-area following. Working as a file clerk by day, she began hanging around Rufus by night and befriended their frontperson, a woman named Paulette McWilliams. At the time, Rufus was doing dance songs and Sly and the Family Stone covers; when McWilliams quit in 1972, Khan took her place. She was 18.

Rufus won a record deal with ABC-Dunhill, and Khan followed them out to California. Their debut LP, Rufus, was released in 1973 to scant notice and little commercial success. During the recording of a second release, recent Grammy Award winner Stevie Wonder showed up one day at the Torrance studio, much to the astonishment of the band. The visit sparked Rufus's first hit, the Grammy-winning "Tell Me Something Good." Khan recalled the event in a 1974 interview with Jay Grossman of Rolling Stone: "[Wonder] sat down at the clavinet, y'know, and just wrote the song. … The first tune that he laid down, y'know, the first rhythm track, I said, ‘I don't like that one so much.’ And it seemed as though he was a little upset over that, and I thought, ‘Well, a lot of people must not say that to him!’ So he said, ‘What's your birth sign?’ I said ‘Aries-Pisces,’ and he said, ‘Oh, well here's a song for you.’"

After members of Rufus wrote lyrics for the track, Khan began to sing the "Tell Me Something Good" in her own style, but Wonder, still at the studio, interrupted. "NO NO NO!" Khan recalled to Grossman that Wonder protested, "‘Sing it like this!’ And it turned out for the better." Khan was nine months pregnant when she recorded the LP; they exited the studio on December 17, 1973, and she gave birth to daughter Milini four days later.

"Tell Me Something Good" catapulted Khan and Rufus to instant stardom, complete with gold records on their living room walls, a Grammy, sold-out tours—and the accompanying heady lifestyle. Khan soon gained a reputation as a wild child of the 1970s. To Wilkerson, Khan described those drug-fueled days of her life as a "runaway carriage, the reins flying." Much of it she only recalled through others' accounts of her behavior.

Despite the substance abuse problems, Khan still went on to record several hit albums with Rufus during the 1970s, such as Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan. Her career was her saving grace, she told Bagley. "Throughout all my whimsical flights, I have never let anything get completely away from me," Khan said. "Music has always been a grounding factor for me. It has been my one reality check. Even when my head was in the clouds, I always had at least one foot on the ground. That's why I'm alive today."

In 1978 Khan made a successful transition to a solo recording career when she signed with Warner Brothers. Her solo debut came later that year with Chaka Khan, an overwhelming hit buoyed by its first single, "I'm Every Woman." She continued to record several solo efforts, achieving a minor hit in 1981 with Whatcha Gonna Do for Me? However, Khan preferred to make scat and jazz-influenced records instead of straightforward commercial R&B, until Warner Brothers insisted on a more mainstream sound in 1984 when it came time for her to record her sixth solo effort. Khan remembered a song called "I Feel for You" by Prince that appeared on his second album in 1979. Her producer modernized it a bit for her, bringing in Stevie Wonder to blow harp and Grandmaster Melle Mel, then one of the biggest names in the breaking rap scene, to add his own distinctive voice to the mix.

For the Record …

Born Yvette Stevens on March 23, 1953, in Chicago, IL; daughter of a photographer and a research supervisor; married Assan Khan, c. 1970 (marriage ended); married again briefly in the mid-1970s; children: Milini, Damien.

Joined musical group Rufus, 1972; released first two albums Rufus and From Rags to Rufus, both 1973, for ABC-Dunhill Records; had gold record with single "Tell Me Something Good," 1974; left group to pursue solo career, 1978; signed with Warner Brothers Records, 1978; released Chaka, 1979; released several solo LPs, but scored hit with song "I Feel for You," written by Prince, 1984; released Destiny, 1986; C.K., 1988; Life is a Dance (The Remix Project), 1989; Woman I Am, 1992; Come 2 My House, 1998; Classikhan, 2004; Funk This, 2007; starred in Broadway production The Color Purple, 2008.

Awards: National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Grammy Awards, best group vocal and vocal arrangements, 1983, and best rhythm and blues female vocal performance, 1983 and 1984.

Addresses: Office—Geffen Records, 9130 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90069.

"I Feel for You" was an overwhelming success upon release, charting in the top five, and was perhaps best remembered for Melle Mel's distinctive triple-fast "Cha-ka Khan" rap. In an interview with Rolling Stone's Debby Bull, Khan recalled the moment she first heard it. After laying down her own vocals, Khan went into the studio the next day and listened to the new version. "I thought ‘Oh, God.’ It was great, yes, except for how am I going to live this down? Every time a guy walks up to me on the street, I think he's going to break into that rap. And most of them do." The album, also titled I Feel for You, won Khan her third Grammy and was her biggest success to date.

By this time Khan was living in New York City with Milini and son Damien, born in 1979. She was married a second time briefly in the 1970s, but during the mid-1980s was romantically involved with a Harlem school-teacher who had originally tutored her daughter: "His salary is nowhere near mine, but he still brings his money in. He didn't give up his job like my other two husbands did—immediately stop work and groove and say, "My work is now you,"" Khan told Bull. "No woman wants to hear that. A woman wants to wake up in the morning to the smell of aftershave lotion and not see anybody there."

Still single, Khan relocated her family to London at the onset of the 1990s after stopping briefly there on a tour and falling in love with the city. She also thought it would be a better environment in which to bring up her teenage son. "Right now in America there's a bounty on young Black boys," Khan told Wilkerson. "And I want him to get some kind of quality education, to speak other languages and live until he's 20 at least." Other members of her family stayed for extended periods, including Milini with Khan's granddaughter, Raeven, Khan's father from Chicago, and sister Yvonne, who followed her older sister into the music business in the 1970s as Taka Boom.

Khan continued to record, and did a number of works for the soundtracks of popular movies. For the Wesley Snipes/Patrick Swayze film To Wong Foo: Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, Khan contributed "Free Yourself." She also sang "Love Me Still," the theme song for the 1995 Spike Lee film Clockers. In early 1995 Khan did a stint on the London stage as Sister Carrie in the gospel musical Mama, I Want to Sing.

In 2003 Khan started the Chaka Khan Foundation, which provides funds and services for the prevention, treatment, and cure of autism, a condition that affects her nephew Tallon. The foundation works with UCLA and Cure Autism Now, a national group, and also assists outreach programs for lower income children who want to pursue an education beyond high school. "I do it because it's our duty to give," Khan told Allison Samuels in Essence. "Many of the young kids I help don't even know me, but they know I care. I couldn't ask for anything more."

In 2005 Khan's son, Damien Holland, was arrested and charged with murdering a friend, Christopher Bailey, after the two argued about Holland's girlfriend in Khan's home in Los Angeles. Holland pointed a loaded M-16 assault rifle at the friend and shot him; the jury in the case believed his assertion that the shooting was accidental and not intentional, and he was eventually acquitted of the murder charge. Khan went to the courtroom every day to support her son and testified in his behalf. She told Samuels, "It was particularly hard because I was naturally feeling bad for the young man who died and for my son, who never meant any of this to happen." She is grateful for the court's decision, because it "gave my son another chance at a life," she told Samuels. That same year, on November 8, Khan also took on a new life, as a completely sober person; she entered rehab and has remained sober ever since.

In 2006 Khan won the BET Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2007 she released Funk This, her first album of mostly original songs since Come 2 My House in 1998. The album was produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and emphasized the vocal sound that Khan had "when people first fell in love with my voice," she told Clarence Waldron in Jet. The album included work by Mary J. Blige, Prince, Carly Simon, Michael McDonald, Tony Maiden, and Dee Dee Warwick.

After the release, she moved to the stage, with a role as Sofia in a Broadway production of The Color Purple, starting in January of 2008. She told Waldron, "This is the happiest I've ever been. I made it through the fire." She also said, "I am an example that we can all change and for the most part, change for the better. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it is not a train. But there are dues you have to pay. You have to put some work into it."

Selected discography

(With Rufus) Rufus, ABC, 1973.

(With Rufus) From Rags to Rufus, 1973.

(With Rufus) Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan, mid-1970s.

Chaka, Warner Bros., 1978.

Naughty, Warner Bros., 1980.

Whatcha Gonna Do for Me?, Warner Bros., 1981.

Echoes of an Era, Elektra, 1981.

Chaka Khan, Warner Bros., 1982.

I Feel for You, Warner Bros., 1984.

Destiny, Warner Bros., 1986.

C.K., Warner Bros., 1988.

Life is a Dance: The Remix Project, Warner Bros., 1989.

The Woman I Am, Warner Bros., 1992.

Epiphany: The Best of Chaka Khan Live, Reprise, 1996.

Come 2 My House, NPG, 1998.

ClassiKhan, Earth Song/Sanctuary, 2004.

The Platinum Collection, Warner Bros., 2006.

Funk This, Burgundy, 2007

Chaka Khan Greatest Hits Live 2007, Cleopatra, 2008.

Sources

Periodicals

Essence, January 1986, p. 69; October 1995, p. 84; November 2006, p. 188.

Jet, December 17, 2007, p. 58.

People, October 29, 2007, p. 115.

Rolling Stone, October 24, 1974, p. 17; February 14, 1985, p. 11.

Online

E! Online,http://www.eonline.com (June 30, 2006).

—Carol Brennan

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Khan, Chaka 1953—

Chaka Khan 1953

Vocalist

Began Performing At An Early Age

Enters the Majors with Rufus

Solo Efforts met with Further Acclaim

Khan Found Peace Abroad

Selected discography

Sources

Chaka Khan has enjoyed a long and fruitful recording career that spans over two decades, but her soaring voice has failed to put her in the same superstar strata as other African American divas of her generation like Patti La-Belle or Tina Turner. Khans career came of age as disco dawned in the early 1970s, and with her first hit as a member of Rufus the singer became a dynamic presence on the scene. She was funkier, more contemporary than Aretha Franklin, as she could be just as diverse. Within a mere six years, she would have her own cult of singers who would try to emulate her sound, wrote Curtis Bagley in Essence. An even more successful solo career followed, as well as more Grammy Awards, but her presence on the pop/R&B scene by the mid-1990s had become a lightweight one. The London-based singer was remedying that by 1996, however, with her contributions to the soundtracks of several successful films and plans for a new record as well as a tell-all autobiography.

Khan was born Yvette Stevens, the oldest of four children, on the South Side of Chicago. Both parents worked for the University of Chicago, one as a photographer, the other as a research supervisor. Unlike other future R&B stars who cut their musical teeth in church gospel choirs, Khan was raised Roman Catholic-but was exposed to jazz. The singer recalled for Essence writer Isabel Wilkerson that she was first exposed to Billie Holiday through her grandmothers record collection. Shes one of my mentors, Khan said of Holiday. Shes one of the first jazz players I ever heard. . . . The naivete, the suffering, the pain and all the things that come along with the suffering and the pain. She was victimized, and that led to excesses I can relate to and understand. Shes a Black woman who went through a lot.

Began Performing At An Early Age

Khan formed her first ensemble with a group of her preteen friends who called themselves the Crystalettes. Their name came from her observation of how the street lights sparkled against the new snow below their Hyde Park high-rise. Big fans of Gladys Knight, Khan and the Crystalettes sang in talent shows where local fans dubbed her Little Aretha. The official name change to Chaka came when she was thirteen and joined an African

At a Glance

Born Yvette Stevens, March 23, 1953, in Chica go, IL; daughter of a photographer and a research supervisor; married Assan Khan, c. 1970 (marriage ended); married again briefly in the mid-1970s; children: Milini, Damien.

Singer, Joined musical group Rufus in 1972; released first two albums Rufus and From Rags to Rufus, both 1973, for ABC-Dunhffl Records; had gold record with single Tell Me Something Good from From Rags to Rufus, 1974; left group to pursue solo career, 1978; signed with Warner Brothers Records, 1978; released first solo LP, Chaka, in 1979; released several solo LPs, but scored hit with the song I Feel for You, written by Prince, 1984; recorded several other albums and songs for movie soundtracks throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

Awards: Grammy Awards, National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, for best group vocal and vocal arrangements, 1983, and for best rhythm and blues female vocal performance, 1983 and 1984.

Addresses: Home London, England. Office c/o Geffen Records, 9130 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90069.

music group called Shades of Black; it was the onset of the Black Power movement in the mid-1960s and its leader rechristened her Chaka Adunne Aduffe Hodarhi Karifi. Her teen years were spent singing in a number of bands, but Khan also pushed her luck in more potentially self-destructive ways. She told Essence that she used to carry a gun, and even practiced with it once a week: When I did think about killing people with it, I developed ulcers, and I just threw the gun in the lake.

After dropping out of high school, Chaka moved out of her parents house when she entered into a common-law marriage with Assan Khan, a bass player from East India. Both wore matching bleached blond coifs, and she was now singing in a group called Lock and Chain. Khan then jumped ship to an act called Lyfe before joining up with another ensemble called Rufus, which had attracted a large Chicago-area following. Working as a file clerk by day, she began hanging around Rufus by night and befriended their frontperson, a woman named Paulette McWilliams. At the time, Rufus was doing dance songs and Sly and the Family Stone covers; when McWilliams quit in 1972, Khan took her place. She was eighteen.

Enters the Majors with Rufus

Rufus won a record deal with ABC-Dunhill, and Khan followed them out to California. Their debut LP, Rufus, was released in 1973 to scant notice and little commercial success. During the recording of a second release, recent Grammy Award-winner Stevie Wonder showed up one day at the Torrance studio, much to the astonishment of the band. The visit would spark Rufuss first hit, the Grammy-winning Tell Me Something Good. Khan recalled the event in a 1974 interview with Jay Grossman of Rolling Stone. He sat down at the clavinet, yknow, and just wrote the song, she related about Wonder. The first tune that he laid down, yknow, the first rhythm track, I said, I dont like that one so much. And it seemed as though he was a little upset over that, and I thought, Well, a lot of people must not say that to him! So he said, Whats your birth sign? I said Aries-Pisces, and he said,xOh, well heres a song for you.

After members of Rufus wrote lyrics for the track, Khan began to sing the Tell Me Something Good in her own style, but Wonder, still at the studio, interrupted. NO NO NO! Khan recalled him protesting in the interview with Grossman. Sing it like this! And it turned out for the better, she said in the Rolling Stone interview with Grossman. I dont know what would have happened if Id done it myself, but just him being there-Id been loving this guy for like 10 years. Khan was nine months pregnant when she recorded the LP; they exited the studio on December 17, 1973, and she gave birth to daughter Milini four days later.

Tell Me Something Good catapulted Khan and Rufus to instant stardom, complete with gold records on their living-room walls, a Grammy, sold-out tours-and the accompanying heady lifestyle. Khan soon gained a reputation as a wild child of the 1970s. To Essences Wilkerson, Khan described those drug-fueled days of her life as a runaway carriage, the reins flying. Much of it she only knows through others accounts of her behavior. Discussing the possibility of an autobiography, the singer told Wilkerson that I need to get a hypnotist, okay? Im trying to write my life story, and its like were going to have to call in a professional at some point and put me in a trance because its deep.

Despite the substance abuse problems, Khan still went on to record several hit albums with Rufus during the 1970s, such as Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan. Her career was her saving grace, she told Bagley in Essence. Throughout all my whimsical flights, I have never let anything get completely away from me, Khan said. Music has always been a grounding factor for me. It has been my one reality check. Even when my head was in the clouds, I always had at least one foot on the ground. Thats why Im alive today.

Solo Efforts met with Further Acclaim

In 1978 Khan made a successful transition to a solo recording career when she signed with Warner Brothers. Her solo debut came later that year with Chaka Khan, an overwhelming hit buoyed by its first single, Im Every Woman. She continued to record several solo efforts, achieving a minor hit in 1981 with Whatcha Gonna Do for Me? However, Khan preferred to make scat and jazz-influenced records instead of straightforward, commercial R&B, until Warner Brothers insisted on a more mainstream sound in 1984 when it came time for her to record her sixth solo effort. Khan remembered a song called I Feel for You by Prince that appeared on his second album in 1979. Her producer modernized it a bit for her, bringing in Stevie Wonder to blow harp and Grandmaster Melle Mel, then one of the biggest names in the breaking rap scene, to add his own distinctive voice to the mix.

I Feel For You was an overwhelming success upon release, charting in the Top Five, and perhaps best remembered for Melle Mels distinctive triple-fast Chaka Khan rap. Khan recalled the moment she first heard it in an interview with Rolling Stone s Debby Bull. After laying down her own vocals, Khan went into the studio the next day and listened to the new version. I thought Oh, God. It was great, yes, except for how am I going to live this down? Every time a guy walks up to me on the street, I think hes going to break into that rap. And most of them do. The album, also entitled I Feel For You, won Khan her third Grammy and was her biggest success to date.

By this time Khan was living in New York City with Milini and son Damien, born in 1979. She was married a second time briefly in the 1970s but during the mid-1980s was romantically involved with a Harlem schoolteacher who had originally tutored her daughter: His salary is nowhere near mine, but he still brings his money in. He didnt give up his job like my other two husbands did-immediately stop work and groove and say, My work is now you, Khan told Bull in Rolling Stone. No woman wants to hear that. A woman wants to wake up in the morning to the smell of aftershave lotion and not see anybody there.

Khan Found Peace Abroad

Still single, Khan relocated her family to London at the onset of the 1990s after stopping briefly there on a tour and falling in love with the city. She also thought it would be a better environment in which to bring up her teenage son. Right now in America theres a bounty on young Black boys, Khan told Wilkerson in Essence. And I want him to get some kind of quality education, to speak other languages and live until hes 20 at least. Other members of her family stay for extended periods, including Milini with Khans granddaughter Raeven, Khans father from Chicago and sister Yvonne, who followed her older sister into the music business in the 1970s as Taka Boom.

Khan continues to record, and has done a number of works for the soundtracks of popular movies. For the Wesley Snipes/Patrick Swayze film To Wong Foo: Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, Khan contributed Free Yourself. She also sang Love Me Still, the theme song for the 1995 Spike Lee film Clockers. The singer also considers making a transition from singer to actress via a television sitcom, perhaps inspired by seeing her contemporary Patti LaBelle excel in the medium. In early 1995 Khan did a stint on the London stage as Sister Carrie in the gospel musical Mama, I Want to Sing. She hobnobs in aristocratic circles and enjoys a cult-like following in Europe, where she tours occasionally to great success. Khan seems happy to have grown up, settled down, cleaned up, and found an inner peace. Of that last personal achievement, the singer explained to Wilkerson that its a place you evolve to, not a place you go to consciously, you dig? You wake up better and better. Sometimes you slip. Basically, you just live.

Selected discography

(With Rufus) Rufus, 1973.

(With Rufus) From Rags to Rufus, 1973.

(With Rufus) Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan, mid-1970s.

Chaka Khan, 1979.

Whatcha Gonna Do for Me?, 1981.

I Feel for You, mid-1980s.

Sources

Essence, January 1986, p. 69; October 1995, p. 84.

Rolling Stone, October 24, 1974, p. 17; February 14, 1985, p. 11.

Carol Brennan

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Khan, Chaka

Chaka Khan

R & B singer

Began Performing at an Early Age

Enters the Majors with Rufus

Solo Efforts Met with Further Acclaim

Khan Found Peace Abroad

Selected discography

Sources

Chaka Khan has enjoyed a long and fruitful recording career that spans over two decades, but her soaring voice has failed to put her in the same superstar strata as other African American divas of her generation like Patti LaBelle or Tina Turner. Khans career came of age as disco dawned in the early 1970s, and with her first hit as a member of Rufus, she became a dynamic presence on the scene. She was funkier, more contemporary than Aretha Franklin, as she could be just as diverse. Within a mere six years, she would have her own cult of singers who would try to emulate her sound, wrote Curtis Bagley in Essence. An even more successful solo career followed, as well as more Grammy Awards, but her presence on the pop/R&B scene by the mid-1990s had become a lightweight one. The London-based singer was remedying that with her contributions to the soundtracks of several successful films.

Khan was born Yvette Stevens, the oldest of four children, on the south side of Chicago. Both parents worked for the University of Chicago, one as a photographer, the other as a research supervisor. Unlike other future R&B stars who cut their musical teeth in church gospel choirs, Khan was raised Roman Catholicbut was exposed to jazz. The singer recalled for Essence writer Isabel Wilkerson that she was first exposed to Billie Holiday through her grandmothers record collection. Shes one of my mentors, Khan said of Holiday. Shes one of the first jazz players I ever heard. The naivete, the suffering, the pain and all the things that come along with the suffering and the pain. She was victimized, and that led to excesses I can relate to and understand. Shes a Black woman who went through a lot.

Began Performing at an Early Age

Khan formed her first ensemble with a group of her preteen friends who called themselves the Crystalettes. Their name came from her observation of howthe street lights sparkled against the new snow below their Hyde Park high-rise. Big fans of Gladys Knight, Khan and the Crystalettes sang in talent shows where local fans dubbed her Little Aretha. The official name change to Chaka came when she was thirteen and joined an African music group called Shades of Black; it was the onset of the Black Power movement in the mid-1960s and its leader rechristened her Chaka Adunne Aduffe Hodarhi Karifi. Her teen years were spent singing in a number of bands, but Khan also pushed her luck in more potentially self destructive ways. She told Essence that she used to carry a gun, and even practiced with it once a week: When I didthinkabout killing people with it, I developed

For the Record

Born Yvette Stevens, March 23, 1953, in Chicago, IL; daughter of a photographer and a research supervisor; married Assan Khan, c. 1970 (marriage ended); married again briefly in the mid-1970s; children: Milini, Damien.

Singer. Joined musical group Rufus in 1972; released first two albums Rufus and From Rags to Rufus, both 1973, for ABC-Dunhill Records; had gold record with single Tell Me Something Good from From Rags to Rufus, 1974; left group to pursue solo career, 1978; signed with Warner Brothers Records, 1978; released first solo LP, Chaka, in 1979; released several solo LPs, but scored hit with the song I Feel for You, written by Prince, 1984; recorded several other albums and songs for movie soundtracks throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

Awards: Grammy Awards, National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, for best group vocal and vocal arrangements, 1983, and for best rhythm and blues female vocal performance, 1983 and 1984.

Addresses: Home London, England. Office Geffen Records, 9130 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90069.

ulcers, and I just threw the gun in the lake.

After dropping out of high school, Chaka moved out of her parents house when she entered into a common-law marriage with Assan Khan, a bass player from East India. Both wore matching bleached blond coifs, and she was now singing in a group called Lock and Chain. Khan then jumped ship to an act called Lyfe before joining up with another ensemble called Rufus, which had attracted a large Chicago-area following. Working as a file clerk by day, she began hanging around Rufus by night and befriended their frontperson, a woman named-Paulette McWilliams. At the time, Rufus was doing dance songs and Sly and the Family Stone covers; when McWilliams quit in 1972, Khan took her place. She was eighteen.

Enters the Majors with Rufus

Rufus won a record deal with ABC-Dunhill, and Khan followed them out to California. Their debut LP, Rufus, was released in 1973 to scant notice and little commercial success. During the recording of a second release, recent Grammy Award-winner Stevie Wonder showed up one day at the Torrance studio, much to the astonishment of the band. The visit would spark Rufuss first hit, the Grammy-winning Tell Me Something Good. Khan recalled the event in a 1974 interview with Jay Grossman of Rolling Stone. [Wonder] sat down at the clavinet, yknow, and just wrote the song. The first tune that he laid down, yknow, the first rhythm track, I said, I dont like that one so much. And it seemed as though he was a little upset over that, and I thought, Well, a lot of people must not say that to him! So he said, Whats your birth sign? I said Aries-Pisces, and he said, Oh, well heres a song for you.

After members of Rufus wrote lyrics for the track, Khan began to sing the Tell Me Something Good in her own style, but Wonder, still at the studio, interrupted. NO NO NO! Inthe RollingStone interview with Grossman, Khan recalled him protesting, Sing it like this! And it turned out for the better. She continued, I dont know what would have happened if Id done it myself, but just him being thereId been loving this guy for like 10 years. Khan was nine months pregnant when she recorded the LP; they exited the studio on December 17, 1973, and she gave birth to daughter Milini four days later.

Tell Me Something Good catapulted Khan and Rufus to instant stardom, complete with gold records on their living-room walls, a Grammy, sold-out toursand the accompanying heady lifestyle. Khan soon gained a reputation as a wild child of the 1970s. To Essence. Wilkerson, Khan described those drug-fueled days of her life as a runaway carriage, the reins flying. Much of it she only knows through others accounts of her behavior. Discussing the possibility of an autobiography, the singer told Wilkerson that I need to get a hypnotist, okay? Im trying to write my life story, and its like were going to have to call in a professional at some point and put me in a trance because its deep.

Despite the substance abuse problems, Khan still went on to record several hit albums with Rufus during the 1970s, such as Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan. Her career was her saving grace, she told Bagley in Essence. Throughout all my whimsical flights, I have never let anything get completely away from me, Khan said. Music has always been a grounding factor for me. It has been my one reality check. Even when my head was in the clouds, I always had at least one foot on the ground. Thats why Im alive today.

Solo Efforts Met with Further Acclaim

In 1978 Khan made a successful transition to a solo recording career when she signed with Warner Brothers. Her solo debut came later that year with Chaka Khan, an overwhelming hitbuoyed by its first single, Im Every Woman. She continued to record several solo efforts, achieving a minor hit in 1981 with Whatcha Gonna Do for Me? However, Khan preferred to make scat and jazz-influenced records instead of straightforward, commercial R&B, until Warner Brothers insisted on a more mainstream sound in 1984 when it came time for her to record her sixth solo effort. Khan remembered a song called I Feel for You by Prince that appeared on his second album in 1979. Her producer modernized it a bit for her, bringing in Stevie Wonder to blow harp and Grandmaster Melle Mel, then one of the biggest names in the breaking rap scene, to add his own distinctive voice to the mix.

I Feel for You was an overwhelming success upon release, charting in the Top Five, and perhaps best remembered for Melle Mels distinctive triple-fast Chaka Khan rap. Khan recalled the moment she first heard it in an interview with Rolling Stones Debby Bull. After laying down her own vocals, Khan went into the studio the next day and listened to the new version. I thought Oh, God. It was great, yes, except for how am I going to live this down? Every time a guy walks up to me on the street, I think hes going to break into that rap. And most of them do. The album, also entitled I Feel for You, won Khan her third Grammy and was her biggest success to date.

By this time Khan was living in New York City with Milini and son Damien, born in 1979. She was married a second time briefly in the 1970s but during the mid-1980s was romantically involved with a Harlem schoolteacher who had originally tutored her daughter: His salary is nowhere near mine, but he still brings his money in. He didnt give up his job like my other two husbands did immediately stop work and groove and say, My work is now you, Khan told Bull in Rolling Stone. No woman wants to hear that. A woman wants to wake up in the morning to the smell of aftershave lotion and not see anybody there.

Khan Found Peace Abroad

Still single, Khan relocated her family to London at the onset of the 1990s after stopping briefly there on a tour and falling in love with the city. She also thought it would be a better environment in which to bring up her teenage son. Right now in America theres a bounty on young Black boys, Khan told Wilkerson in Essence. And I want him to get some kind of quality education, to speak other languages and live until hes 20 at least. Other members of her family stay for extended periods, including Milini with Khans granddaughter Raeven, Khans father from Chicago and sister Yvonne, who followed her older sister into the music business in the 1970s as Taka Boom.

Khan continues to record, and has done a number of works for the soundtracks of popular movies. For the Wesley Snipes/Patrick Swayze film To WongFoo: Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, Khan contributed Free Yourself. She also sang Love Me Still, the theme song for the 1995 Spike Lee film Clockers. The singer also considers making a transition from singer to actress via a television sitcom, perhaps inspired by seeing her contemporary Patti LaBelle excel in the medium. In early 1995 Khan did a stint on the London stage as Sister Carrie in the gospel musical Mama, I Want to Sing. She hobnobs in aristocratic circles and enjoys a cult-like following in Europe, where she tours occasionally to great success. Khan-seems happy to have grown up, settled down, cleaned up, and found an inner peace. Of that last personal achievement, the singer explained to Wilkerson that its a place you evolve to, not a place you go to consciously, you dig? You wake up better and better. Sometimes you slip. Basically, you just live.

Selected discography

(With Rufus) Rufus, 1973.

(With Rufus) From Rags to Rufus, 1973.

(With Rufus) Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan, mid-1970s.

Chaka Khan, 1979.

Whatcha Gonna Do for Me?, 1981.

Feel for You, mid-1980s.

Sources

Essence, January 1986, p. 69; October 1995, p. 84.

Rolling Stone, October 24, 1974, p. 17; February 14, 1985, p. 11.

Carol Brennan

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