Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1000


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Chaka Khan Chaka Khan

When I first interviewed Chaka Khan from my little flat in Bayswater in 1974, it was inspired by the first Rufus single, 'Whoever’s Thrilling You Is Killing Me' (a wonderful Allen Toussaint song). I knew little about the group except that they sounded (in the immortal words of Tina Turner) “funkier than a mosquito’s tweeter"!

I subsequently learned that Rufus was a multi-ethnic team, based in Chicago and fronted by a fiery singer named Chaka. Back in those days, U.S. record companies would be besides themselves with joy that a British music magazine wanted to interview one of their new groups so setting up a chat with Ms. Khan (formerly Yvette Marie Stevens before she adopted the Yoruba name, translated as “woman of fire”) was a piece of cake.

It was Chaka’s first interview with a British music journo and she was polite and responsive and seemed to be genuinely excited that there were folks in the UK interested in Rufus’ music. Neither of us knew that within a year or so, Rufus would become a supergroup, scoring a significant number of hit singles that eventually earning the status of “old school classics” and that the team’s ABC (and then MCA) albums would achieve gold and platinum.

While somewhere in the back of her mind, Chaka might have had an inkling that someday, she’d break away from the group and start a solo career, neither of us could have known that day in ’74 that she would go on to become a veritable musical icon, influencing a couple of generations of singers (check Mary J. Blige, Erykah Badu and before them, Miki Howard, Vesta and others) with her trademark powerhouse, instantly recognizable vocal style.

An incredible thirty-three years later, Chaka’s been through the fire; we’ve done countless interviews together; and she has become one of my favourite people: smart, funny, thoughtful and committed to her music as art and – as she has now discovered – a healing force for so many folks all over the planet. In a recent interview we did for the bio accompanying her excellent upcoming Sony/Burgundy CD – 'Funk This', produced by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis – Chaka revealed that she is just coming to terms with the true impact her music is having on people the world over. I’ve certainly been aware of it given how many Chakaholics I know! As we laugh about knowing each other for over three decades, Chaka shares…

B&S: Give us an overview of your career since we first spoke in 1974.
CK: I think it’s been a good one, it’s been a career full of fascination! It’s been immensely rewarding - although not in a financial way at all! I’m fascinated at my willpower, how I’ve been able to keep the love alive in myself, how I’ve been able to keep going. I’ve had a recent epiphany: that God gave me this voice and that it has had a wide influence, that I can do something empowering with it. When I think about it, I might have done many things differently. But if I had I wouldn’t be the fascinating woman I am today!

B&S: What is your favourite Rufus album and why?
CK: I would have to say 'Ask Rufus' – because of tracks like 'Egyptian Song' and 'Earth Song'. I think then my self-expression was kinda embryonic, introspective. I was writing about my feelings, stuff I was getting from my dreams. When we did that album, I was in a landmark kind of place creatively."

B&S: And your favourite Chaka album?
CK: Well, I think 'Whatcha Gonna Do For Me', and that has more to do with what was going on when we were recording it. We were in Montreux, Switzerland and it was a wonderful time in my life. I had my kids with me, my grandmother, we were living in a chalet; we could go out to the lake and watch the swans, the ducks. And then, working with Arif Mardin and having the best musicians on the planet! We had the best of everything on that album – Steve Ferrone from the Average White Band on drums, The Brecker Brothers on horns…a real super band. So, yeah, I guess that would be pretty high on my list.

B&S: So bringing things forward, what are you up to these days?
CK: I have a new album coming out in September. I’m starting a world-wide tour in mid-October and I have some UK dates with Prince on August 31 and September 1. Also, I’m running the Chaka Khan Foundation and we’ve just adopted a school in Watts (in Los Angeles)…and we’re introducing them to the world! The Foundation has also partnered with a company who is doing major research into autism.

B&S: What’s your view of the current music scene?
CK: I’m still listening to Joni Mitchell, Miles (Davis)! I do love Ledisi, I think she’s amazing. Rahsaan Patterson and Anthony Hamilton, I love him! There are only a few people I really love – there’s hope with singers like Jennifer Hudson and of course Mary J. I listen to jazz stations but I don’t listen to mainstream radio. You can’t dirty up your ears listening to most radio these days…especially if they’re playing the same song over and over, and particularly if it’s some bitch who can’t sing!

Amen to that! As she revealed in our second interview in late 1975, “I really love my work and I intend to keep at it for as long as it’s necessary…”

For those of us who love some CK, it may be necessary for a long time to come.
Words David Nathan

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