A young, fierce-looking Chaka Khan behind the drum kit for Rufus back in the early 1970s.
Unless a significant generation gap presented itself, I would find it hard to trust someone who was not familiar with the “Queen of Funk” Chaka Khan. Likewise, I’d probably have trouble hanging out with someone that actually didn’t at least enjoy grooving to a few songs from Chaka’s vast body of work. I mean, saying you don’t dig Chaka Khan is pretty much the same thing as hating on Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner or Donna Summer. And you don’t want to be that guy, do you, dummy?
Born Yvette Marie Stevens, Chaka came into the world in 1953, a few years before the Chicago music scene exploded once again in the 60s and 70s. Meaning that she was old enough to properly bear witness to the baffling number of musical acts making things happen then. I’m talking the Staple Singers, the Chi-lites, Minnie Ripperton and Earth, Wind & Fire. And this is just a small sampling of the kind of musical genius that surrounded the soon-to-be-funky-as-hell singer during her most formative years. At the age of eleven, Khan (who was still going by her birth name Yvette Stevens) was already performing with her first band, the Crystalettes along with her sister Yvonne. As she entered her teen years Chaka was exposed to the messages and activism of the Black Panther Party and at the age of fourteen, she became a part of the radical political organization. It would be during her time with the Panthers that she would acquire her new name Chaka Adunne Aduffe Yemoja Hodarhi Karifi. She became deeply involved in working with underprivileged youth in Chicago. Chaka soon dropped out of school and embarked on what would be a long musical career that continues to this day.
The “curve-some” Chaka Khan in action with Rufus back in the 1970s.
When she was discovered by members of Chicago band Rufus singing in a local club in 1972, Chaka was nineteen and already divorced from her first husband Hassan Khan whose last name she decided to keep. The timing was perfect as Rufus would sign on with ABC Records in 1973 with the enchanting powerhouse that is Chaka Khan at the helm. Her partnership with Rufus would prove to be hugely successful and the band would produce six gold and platinum records over the course of four short years. And that was just a start for Chaka as her solo career would arguably eclipse her time with Rufus starting with a song that propelled her debut record into the funky stratosphere (and one that everybody knows at least seven words to), “I’m Every Woman.” Here’s the thing, I’m only really able to scratch the surface of Khan’s compelling and complicated life here today, so I’ll leave you with my final thoughts as to why we should all have the love for Chaka Khan.
In 1984 Khan got the idea to cover a song from Prince’s self-titled 1979 album called “I Feel For You.” Highly influential producer Arif Mardin was able to secure the services of both Stevie Wonder to play the harmonica on the single, and hip-hop god Grandmaster Melle Mel to provide opposing vocals to Chaka’s. While Prince never released the song as single, it was a goddamn smash for Khan and the album as a whole has stood the test of time. By the way, as mentioned in the title of this post, Khan has always been a pretty great drummer, so I posted a short vintage video of Chaka behind her kit below. I’ve also included a number of images of Chaka Khan in action, as well as videos of Khan working her magic with Rufus live back in the day. Bow to the Queen of Funk, baby.
More after the jump…