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  Chaka Khan
 

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Click below for a Chaka Khan sample:

One Million Kisses

I'm A Woman (I'm A Backbone)

Clouds

 

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In the pantheon of female singers, you basically have a handful of categories: the down-home sister (Millie Jackson, Mary J. Blige), pretty face with no voice (Janet Jackson), club queens (Kim English), pop chanteuse (Whitney Houston) and the overworked classification of diva.  And then you have Chaka Khan.  Fitting into all the aforementioned classes, Chaka Khan has secured an intensely devoted fan base and critical acclaim as one of the most distinctive stylists of her generation.  That she has done this despite an infrequent release schedule in recent years is a testament to her power.

Born Yvette Stephens in Chicago, she changed her name shortly after becoming involved in the city's black power movement. Through a series of referrals, she found herself singing lead for Rufus, a talented but struggling band that had yet to perfect their fusion of rock and soul. Upon Khan's arrival, she became the centerpiece of the band, providing them with the dynamic presence they needed for mainstream success.   Stevie Wonder was impressed enough with Chaka to write "Tell Me Something Good" as a way to establish the band on the charts.  Sure enough, it went to #1 and is still considered Rufus' most recognizable song.

For the rest of the 70s, Rufus and Chaka Khan (as the group was now known, in an acknowledgement of her importance) charted time and again with "Once You Get Started," "Sweet Thing," "Do You Like What You Feel," "Hollywood" and "Fool's Paradise," all major radio hits that continue to receive airplay on classic soul stations.  But what set Chaka apart from her contemporaries was her performance on LPs cuts such as "I'm A Woman (I'm A Backbone)," "Destiny" and "Egyptian Song" where she demonstrated her synthesis of traditional soul, jazz, and Janis Joplin into her own inimitable style. So alluring was her voice that the lyrical content of the song didn't matter - you bought the record to hear Chaka soar.

Despite being one of the most popular bands of the time, tensions between Rufus and Chaka Khan caused her to leave the band after Masterjam.   She soon signed with Warner Brothers and established herself as a solo act with the Ashford and Simpson-penned "I'm Every Woman."  Forming a creative partnership with producer Arif Mardin, Khan's music had as much success in clubs as on the charts: "One Million Kisses," "Clouds" and "I Know You, I Live You" were excellent post-disco soul while "Earth to Mickey" sounds like a lost step in the development of house music.   

Already a celebrity, Chaka Khan became a superstar with I Feel For You, her triumphant moment.  The title song not only brought recognition to a forgotten Prince composition, but was one of the first pop records to employ hip-hop in its groove: in addition to Melle Mel's vocal introduction, there was a flash of Stevie Wonder's "Fingertips" that qualifies as early sampling.   The video made the hip-hop connection clear with the utilization of turntables and break dancers, showing Chaka Khan again to be ahead of the competetion in her recognition of new trends.

After this album, her records seemed to fall a bit short of achieving maximum exposure.  Whether this was due to shifting tastes, changes in the music industry or her resistance to play the role expected of females, CK, Destiny and The Woman I Am, which containing hits, failed to have the expected commercial impact. Khan became frustrated at her inability to reach as many people as her talented demanded, and her disillusion with the music business ended only when Prince bought out the remainder of her Warner Brothers contract and associated her with his NPG label.   She's had one album there, and apperances on a couple of soundtracks since.

Chaka Khan's Deepest Grooves

Rags to Rufus (ABC, 1974)
Breakthrough session.  Home to "Tell Me Something Good" and the scorching "You Got the Love." The band's talent is documented on the instrumental title jam. 

Rufusized (ABC, 1975)
Perhaps the best Rufus LP, with Chaka in peak form.  With "Once You Get Started," "Stop On By," "I'm A Woman (I'm A Backbone)" and "Pack'd Your Bags."

Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan (ABC, 1976)

Ask Rufus (ABC, 1977)

Street Player (MCA, 1978)

Masterjam (MCA, 1979)
Produced by Quincy Jones in his trademark smooth style, this set the stage for her to officially step out on her own.

Chaka (Warner Brothers, 1979)
Is there a better debut single than "I'm Every Woman"?   On her first post-Rufus record, she strongly declares her multi-faceted identity with mesmerizing vocals over a stomping backing track.  Had this been her only recording, she would still have a place in music history.  As it turned out, this was only the beginning.   

Naughty (Warner Brothers, 1980)
Ashford and Simpson hook up with Chaka one more time with "Clouds," which was lovingly deconstructed by DJ Sneak years ago.

What Cha' Gonna Do for Me (Warner Brothers, 1981)

Chaka Khan (Warner Brothers, 1982)
Relatively ignored among the previous classic albums, no less than Betty Carter proclaimed Chaka Khan as possessing serious jazz credentials based on the "Bebop Medley" included here.

Stompin' at the Savoy (Warner Brothers, 1983)
Reunion session with Rufus done primarily to finish out contractual obligations. Mostly live performances, but the studio cuts include "Ain't Nobody" and "One Million Kisses."  Regardless of their personal animosities, the new songs prove they still had a musical bond. 

I Feel For You (Warner Brothers, 1984)
Best known for the pop singles "Through the Fire" (proving again that she does not need great material to provide a great performance) and "I Feel For You," the slinky groove produced by the System, "This Is My Night," tends to be forgotten among this LP's treasurers.

Destiny (Warner Brothers, 1986)

C.K. (Warner Brothers, 1988)
Widely thought to be one of Chaka's best efforts prior to its release, this failed to shift units despite the hyped Prince song "Sticky Wicked." 

Life Is A Dance (Warner Brothers, 1989)
Another landmark in the pioneering career of Chaka Khan.  Cognizant of her popularity in the dance community, this collection of house remixes of her back catalog features interpretations by Frankie Knuckles, Civiles and Cole, and Winston Jones.  

The Woman I Am (Warner Brothers, 1992)

Epiphany: Best Of (Warner Brothers, 1995)
Necessary compilation of many highlights from Chaka's solo career.   This is a nice introduction, but it's most likely that you'll find yourself digging for the entire albums once you've heard this. 

Come 2 My House (NPG, 1998)

Copyright 2001 B.Graff.  All rights reserved.

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