Chaka Khan Biography
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 Catholic—but 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 there—I'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 tours—and 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.
"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 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."
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."
Chaka!: Through the Fire, Rodale, 2003.
(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.
The Woman I Am, 1992.
Dare You to Love Me, 1995.
Come 2 My House, 1998.
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.
"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
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