April 1, 2020 by Harriet Kaplan

Chaka Khan is one of the most versatile, intuitively talented, accomplished and phenomenal singer/songwriters around. For almost five decades, Khan has adeptly covered every genre of music from soul, funk, R&B, rock to jazz. She did it with total ease and finesse while creating her own language in the process. She did this with her own special lyrical style; unleashing or holding back a note and/or belting out a song in such a unique and original way. She became a force of nature (singing the shit out of every song) leaving other artists in her wake blown away in awe and admiration.

Over her tenure, Khan cemented a signature style and brand all her own. With a joyous, wild and explosive voice and a mane of curly, big, voluminous hair cascading down her shoulders; Khan burst onto to scene in the early 1970’s. First known to us as the dynamic and unforgettable front woman of Rufus, a multiracial band that blended soul, funk, rock and jazz . Their music reached mainstream success with a Stevie Wonder-penned song, “Tell Me Something Good” in 1974. It was top-five pop hit that deservedly won them a GRAMMY.


Throughout the 70’s and into the early 80’s, Rufus had albums ascended into the upper reaches of both pop and R&B charts. Before it was all said and done, Rufus would go on to release eight albums with Khan. She released her solo album while still in Rufus, “Chaka.” The album came out in in 1978 with the timeless classic anthem of female empowerment. The album included mega-hit “I’m Every Woman,” which was written by Ashford and Simpson. It became a crossover disco smash and was later covered by Whitney Houston. Kahn would go on win 10 GRAMMY Awards and garner more chart success as her solo career accelerated since the late 70’s to present selling an estimated 10 million records worldwide to-date.

Over her career, Khan has released 13 albums as a solo artist, the latest being “Hello Happiness” in 2019, which was based on the sound of her vast catalog of music with a subtle 21-century makeover.  Earlier this month, Khan released Homecoming (Live) where she returned home to Chicago’s Harris Theater with a 12-piece band to perform hit songs from the span of her entire career in front of a hometown audience.

Among those many lasting works included “Ain’t Nobody” (with Rufus, 1983) and a groundbreaking cover of Prince’s “I Feel for You” merging the worlds of pop and rap together utilizing ultra-hip vocal cutting techniques with Stevie Wonder and Grandmaster Melle Mel on board and a lots of synth keyboarding playing. This hit song, along with radio and video rotation, solidified Khan’s place in popular culture.

Teaming up with Prince in 1998, Khan signed a contract with the Purple One’s NPG Records label and released “Come 2 My House. She later went on tour with him as a co-headlining act. In 2002, she left NPG Records. Despite the split, Khan and Prince remained longtime friends and has continuously said in interviews that Prince was very special to her, and they were kindred spirits in music.

Khan also collaborated with a number of other artists including Ry Cooder, Robert Palmer, Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, De La Soul, Mary J. Blige, among others. In 1986, Khan was featured on  Steve Winwood’s #1 hit, Higher Love. Earlier in Khan’s solo career, another creative collaborator on Khan’s projects was producer Arif Mardin. The former house producer and arranger for Atlantic Records, whose credits include Aretha Franklin among them was at the helm of Khan’s albums. “What Cha’ Gonna Do For Me” though not a critically lauded LP, had a number of inspired moments on it and outstanding vocal performances by Khan if not anything that necessarily screamed “great material.”

Reviews of Khan’s albums have been uneven in that regard; often the centerpiece is the quality and caliber of her talent of selling the song as well the strong and well-crafted arrangements. “What Cha’ Gonna Do for Me” was released on April 15, 1981, and celebrates its 39th anniversary next month, and still holds up by any form of measurement.

Mardin is known for his work on classic pop and jazz recordings and “What Cha’ Gonna Do For Me” ranks up with them. The title track was a hit on radio and remains a favorite song among fans in her catalog. “I Know You, I Live You” and “Fate” are tour de force, go-for-broke numbers. The Beatles cover of “We Can Work It Out” gets a self-assured and funky treatment reminiscent of Stevie Wonder. “And The Melody Still Lingers On (Night In Tunisia)” was written by Khan and Mardin. It’s a homage to 40’s jazz legends and other musical geniuses. This innovative number features a clavitar solo from Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie, and an excerpted solo break from the be-pop pioneer Charlie Parker. Again, Chaka Khan is at the peak of her powers delivering a first-class, classy and tasteful vocal interpretation of this clever and pithy song.

Even among great musicians, Kahn is a favorite. She has established herself as an brilliant artist with sonic vision and a signature sound. Her creative ingenuity delivered in the 20th century and has carried her into the 21st century and most likely, beyond.

Chaka Khan Takes Us One Step and Beyond 

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