Get In Touch
info@stevepafford.com,
Publishing Inquiries
info@stevepafford.com
Back

Perfect 10: Chaka Khan on 45

“I see myself as a being. As a force of nature. And who morphs from one thing to another when needed. I’m just energy. Sometimes it’s a feminine energy. Sometimes it’s a masculine energy. Sometimes it’s both, and sometimes it’s other. I don’t really look at myself that deeply.” — Chaka Khan, 2014

Born on March 23, 1953 in Chicago, Yvette Marie Stevens joined funk ensemble Rufus in the early 1970s. (Tell you something good? They were the funkiest average mixed race band ever.) There she put on her glad rags, changed her name and inspired Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder and Prince to write songs for her (no, not that one, but we’ll come to that in a bit). 

An icon of feminism, funk and R&B, she’s the big-lunged diva with the even bigger hair whose vocal talents have been coveted to such a degree that at her commercial peak in the mid-1980s it seemed like every white limey worth their weight in Goldfingers were queuing up to have her on their records, mentioning no names David Bowie, Robert Palmer and Steve Winwood. And yes, we‘ll come to them in a bit too.

Five decades later, Chaka Khan’s soaring, soulful vocals have helped shift more than 70 million records and bagged her no less than 10 Grammy Awards. With her uniquely broad tone and a powerhouse presence that couldn’t be bottled, it was inevitable that her star would prove to be anything but a fleeting thing in the night—this formidable female was the real deal. She still is.

As Women’s History Month mutates into April showers, we present ten of the best from the feisty foxtress who was for several years my neighbour in West Hampstead, where for 30 years she owned a lovely London townhouse near Abbey Road. Did I ever see her pop in the corner shop for a pint of milk and a packet of pork scratchings? Did I bugger.

I’m Every Woman (1978)

It’s not every solo career that kicks off with a statement as startling as I’m Every Woman, a disco thunderclap of a single that registers as vividly as Annie Lennox’s Why or Beyoncé‘s Crazy In Love as a declaration of independence.

Going it alone gave Khan the ability to assert her presence as one of music’s most dynamic stars. She would reunite with Rufus off-and-on right up to 1983 (out of “guilt”, she later confessed to the Guardian) but this was her moment — the opening declaration and lead 45 from the Chaka album, penned by legendary songwriting duo Ashford & Simpson and featuring backing vocals from celebrated gospelist Cissy Houston (Whitney’s mom, obvs). Naturally, I’m Every Woman became a feminist anthem, it exemplifies the dialectic: despite its popularity on dance floors with the LGBT “community” not a trace of androgyny colours the vocal, yet its femininity is precisely what makes it a drag call to arms.

Either way, the track gained solid positions on the charts of the US, UK, Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands and New Zealand. Moreover, in the ’90s, Whitney Houston released her own successful cover for The Bodyguard soundtrack, but it’s Khan’s powerful original that endures, so much so that in ’89 a poptastic percussive house remix by Brit DJ Dancin’ Danny D shot to No. 8 in the UK, three places higher than the original. Talking of which, this is former Frankie Goes To Hollywooder Holly Johnson’s review of said single — which I happily purchased from Virgin Records in Central Milton Keynes, natch — in the Smash Hits issue dated April 19, 1989. Swingorilliant!

I like this already! (i.e. after about the first note) Throw it down Chaka!!! (Cheers up noticeably and starts to swizz about the floor on the wheely chair he’s sitting on and make various funky noises of approval.) Heurgh! Get down! Oh no, it’s got that piano!! (i.e. the horrible “house” music-type piano that Holly has taken umbrage to lately) Em… absolutely brilliant! “Climb Every Woman”—classic! Oh! I mean “I’m Every Woman”! When I used to dance to this in disco’s in the ‘70s I used to sing “Climb Every Woman” ‘cause I thought that was what the words were, but then I found out that it wasn’t! We love it. It’s one of those remix jobbies but rather better than usual except that there’s dreadful drum fills—you know drums that go ttt ttt ttt ttt ttt towards the middle that aren’t necessary.

Papillon (aka Hot Butterfly) (1980) 

Khan’s sophomore set found her rejoining forces with legendary producer Arif Mardin and yet again the pair created an album that ushered in a new decade with a soulful, fresh funky sound. Its first single, the turbulent jazz-funkfest that is Clouds, is a contender (and not because it boasts Whitney on bvs), but whatever the cut it exemplifies the parent record’s Achilles’ heel — the Naughty LP wasn’t a major success largely by being caught between disco and rock during a changing of the guard and the whole Disco Sucks racist and homophobic tear-up. 

Whatever the commercial fortunes, the follow-up 45 is the real star of the set for me. A whimsical nostalgic fantasy with a midtempo groove, sweeping strings and solid rhythm section, Papillon was first recorded by Bionic Boogie featuring Luther Vandross in 1978, and the latter gracefully deferred to background duty this time around. His and Cissy Houston’s trademark tones curl around Chaka’s sublime vocals like ruffles on a ballgown. Splendiferous.

What Cha’ Gonna Do For Me (1981)

It would be fair to say most Chaka Khan’s albums have their gauche head-scratching moments. Have you heard her reimagining of The Beatles’ We Can Work It Out? For some inexplicable reason it’s the opening track of her third album What Cha’ Gonna Do For Me. Actually, the LP’s title track and lead single is also a cover — written by Beverly Hillbilly Ned Doheny and recorded by the Average White Band — but I came to learn more often than not that the singer functioned as the auteur in the cinematic sense, despite the credits. 

Topping the R&B Singles chart, the 45 is a melodic squelcher with CK’s patented mix of sexiness and intelligent phrasing. Tucked away as track 10 on the album, the fabulous Fate is also a notable for very different reasons, its guitar-licked instrumental intro having been sampled by a host of dance acts through the 1990s and 2000s, most memorably by Stardust on their 1998 chart-topper Music Sounds Better With You. 

Ain’t Nobody (1983)

Ain’t Nobody is quite possibly CK’s best known hit, so it’s something of a surprise that it was considered by some as nothing more than a throwaway bonus studio track on Rufus & Chaka Khan’s swan song, a live album recorded in 1982 and released 18 months later called Stompin’ At The Savoy. Rumour has it that when Warners “heard [their] song” the label didn’t consider it single material. The band disagreed, and its author, keyboardist David “Hawk” Wolinski, threatened to give it to Michael Jackson if it wasn’t the first 45. It’s testament to Chaka’s nuanced and evocative performance that it’s a struggle to imagine the Thriller star singing it, in that era or any that followed.

At the Grammy Awards in 1984 — the Academy’s most-watched show in their history, where Annie Lennox basically performed as Elvis and Irene Cara more than flashed her dance — Chaka took home three gongs, though, ironically, the men with the mostest that night were MJ and Quincy Jones, who swept the board with eight awards for Thriller and its numerous 45s.

Five years later, Chicago House legend Frankie Knuckles helped our gal hit the top of the dance charts with what was essentially a dub remix of Ain’t Nobody, now credited solely to Chaka Khan. A masterclass of build, restraint and ecstatic release, the tweaks are subtle but effective — a bigger bottom for starters, and pushing the Linn drums higher. Rufus’s original hook makes a low-key cameo, with the helixing of Wolinski’s keys so as to build a staircase to the heavens for when Chaka’s blessed-out chorus bursts forth nearly four minutes in.

To many it became the definitive version, peaking at No. 6 on the UK charts in the summer of ’89 (and inspiring a 2003 mash-up by Richard X that pairs its lyrics with the music of Being Boiled by the Human League), thus making the rejig the giant-haired songstress’s biggest British hit with the eminent exception of this next corker.

I Feel For You (1984)

During this period, just before Tina Turner massively expanded the commercial possibilities for black women over thirty, Chaka Khan was kind of alone. Alas, having friends in the best places helped her catapult back into the charts bigger than ever before ’84 was done, getting her in the US top ten for the first time since Rufus’s Sweet Thing a decade prior. Having first released I Feel For You back in 1979, Prince was a long time admirer who tricked Khan into going into Electric Ladyland studio by mimicking Sly Stone on a call to her. Whereas the Pointer Sisters stayed faithful to the slightly weedy original on their 1982 version, Khan and Arif Mardin completed reinvented the song, adding a series of distinctly postmodern touches, including scratching, electro-funk synth stabs, and a groovy, seared-in-the-brain rap (“Ch-ch-ch-chaka-chaka-chaka Khan!”) from Melle Mel of Grandmaster Flash that makes it impossible not to dance to.

Poignantly, Stevie Wonder ended up completing things with a turn on the chromatic harmonica that was recorded on April 4, the same day he attended his Motown compatriot Marvin Gaye’s funeral. The euphoric live interjection by someone sounds like a young boy? That’s also “Little” Stevie, sampled from his 1963 hit Fingertips Pt. 2, when he was just 11. The occasional use of electric guitar even adds a touch of rock and blues to the track, making it the perfect example of true musical fusion: “A time-shifting stylistic summit meeting that offers nothing less than a Grand Unified Theory of black American pop over the past two decades,” Freaky Trigger’s Tom Ewing wrote of the song, a summation that’s difficult to better.

Ironically, the Purple Regnant’s Purple Rain — and Wham!’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go prevented CK from the No. 1 slot in the US, though the 45 had no such trouble in Britain, cruising to the top for three weeks that November, and deposing Wham!’s Freedom in the process. I Feel For You remains Chaka Khan’s only chart-topper but also a single that is secure in the pop culture firmament, not only defining 1984 but pretty much the entire 1980s.

This Is My Night (1985)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DqndKeVct4I

Not as well remembered as it should be, I Feel For You’s second single was programmed by The System, piling on the synthesized whomps and keyboard burbles, with Khan emoting herself into a human juggernaut with such commitment that it’s a wonder the Bomb Squad didn’t sample her later. Chaka’s aesthetic sympathy for electro-funk toughens This Is My Night, and the banger is soaked through with the vibe of contemporaneous club hits — Shannon’s Let The Music Play, Arthur Baker’s Hall & Oates 12“ remixes and New Order’s Confusion in particular. 

Not without controversy, viewers in Blighty were treated to the sight of a rare performance on the BBC’s Top Of The Pops, where CK and her high-heeled brethren pitched up in a London television studio and made it look like a girls’ nite out. Pre-empting Madonna’s basque image by a good couple of years, the singer’s “scandalous” outfit was very thigh-icious for 1985, which Aunty Beeb’s cameramen couldn’t fail to remind you as they beamed low-angled images of her plentiful figure into living rooms across the nation, a startling and formative sight for the our stiff upper lips, so much so that my mother had rechristened her Chaka Thighs before the song was done. 

Never Miss The Water (1996)

The album that followed I Feel For You, 1986’s glossily expensive flop Destiny, went all Tina Turner and boasted Brit chum corporate collabs with the gorgeous Green Gartside from Scritti Politti and the less gorgeous Phil Collins from Genesis. It has its moments but it’s not unreasonable to point out the second half of the 1980s were a topsy turvy time for Chaka Khan, amid a swirl of record company disagreements and well-documented addictions issues. In 1995, Chaka was all set to release her tenth solo set, Dare You To Love Me, when the album was shelved by Warner Bros, who were also battling Prince for control of his recorded output.

Several of the unreleased tracks materialised on various soundtracks, while six (seven in the bonus track land of Japan) — including a reggae-tined version of Fleetwood Mac’s Everywhere — appeared as “new songs” bait on 1996’s Epiphany: The Best of Chaka Khan, Vol. 1, the inevitable contract-filler that saw the singer abruptly jumping ship after complaining stating the label had neglected her.

Never Miss The Water, the compilation’s lead 45, is a soulful ballad which also sports a guest rap from the equally fierce atheist androgyne Me’Shell Ndegéocello. It’s a beautifully poignant song that speaks of the importance of appreciating the people and things in our lives before they are gone. CK’s powerful vocals are at the forefront, and the heartfelt lyrics are delivered with an emotional heft over a pleasingly funktastic workout that provides allows the message to shine. Overall, it’s a testament to Chaka’s skill as a vocalist and her ability to convey deep emotions through her music. Interestingly, the song belatedly topped the Billboard Dance Chart and became the official anthem for Australia’s Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras in 2003.

Don’t Talk 2 Strangers (1998)

Chaka re-teamed with Prince several times after I Feel For You, most notably on two tracks notably for 1988’s CK, neither of which were singles. After the hoo-ha surrounding her departure from Warners, 1998’s Come 2 My House would end up being her first studio album since The Woman I Am six years earlier.  Now a free agent, the singer signed to the Purple One’s NPG label, resulting in the criminally overlooked album Come 2 My House – although her interactions with him seem to have been as bizarre as everyone else’s.

The Minneapolis marvel wrote and co-produced almost all of the tracks, representing foray into various arenas, including funk, gospel, and hip-hop/rap. The smooth tender ballad of the set was actually written years before for the movie I’ll Do Anything, where, in an ultimately deleted scene, the song was performed by actress Tracey Ullman, as mother singing to her young daughter. The Prince take, demoed in Melbourne, would find its way on 1996’s Girl 6 soundtrack before Chaka recorded her revamp in late at Paisley Park Studios and reuses some of the basic tracks from the Aussie original.

It’s Not Over (2013) 

Newly sexagenarian, 2013 marked the soul grandessa’s 40th anniversary in music, where myriad multi-genre projects under the iKhan umbrella were announced, not all of them seeing the light of day. Released on Valentine’s Day, the single It’s Not Over was the first instalment and featured Christian rapper LeCrae on a celebratory and catchy throwback.

I half expected the track to be a soulful slow jam full of melancholy and regret, but, alas, it’s an upbeat, inspirational foot-tapping anthem that can act as a show of defiance and willpower when faced with their own trials and tribulations. Anyone who knows a little about Chaka Khan and her chequered past realises that she has lived this song and it’s meaning is 100% genuine. 

Woman Like Me (2022)

Three-and-a-half years on from her most recent studio album (2019’s Hello Happiness), the delectable diva returned in 2022 with a brilliantly powerful ballad entitled Woman Like Me. An impassioned and incisive ode to female empowerment, in many ways it’s the fairer sex’s reply song to James Brown’s It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World with throwbacks to all Chaka’s sisters of the past including TLC, En Vogue and Destiny’s Child. 

Exploring the dichotomy between the perception and reality of identity, the lyrics, penned by Francesca Richard, Gregg Pagani and Jeffrey Anderson, take on the objectification of women so insidiously present in much of today’s music and movie culture. Coming out out of the box swinging, Chaka mostly uses her lower range, confronting the listener with her best auntie attitude, the forthright foxtress delivering a message that every man should heed. How’s this for an opening verse?

“She’s more than her body
More than her ass in some jeans, let’s be clear
More than her makeup
More than the lace front that she chose to wear
She is your sister
She is your mother, your daughter, your girl
Better remember
It was a woman who brought you in this world 

Every girl ain’t a stripper or on the Internet try’na hustle

Even if she was, who are you to judge?

You don’t even know her strugglе

So, watch what you say

Stones that you’re throwing may come back, comе back your way.”

Happily, almost 45 years after her debut single, Chaka Khan proved she had lost none of her funk and fire.

She ain’t no everywoman, she’s a one-woman whirlwind.

Steve Pafford

BONUS BEATS:

Such was her commercial hotness in the mid-‘80s that it seemed every goddamn white limey wanted a piece of the CK. All recorded around the same time in the autumn of 1985 but released as singles in 1986 were David Bowie‘s Underground, Steve Winwood’s Higher Love and Robert Palmer‘s Addicted To Love.

Originally intended to be a duet with Chaka, Addicted To Love was produced by Chic‘s Bernard Edwards and eventually issued without any CK vocals when Warners refused to grant her a release to work on Palmer‘s label, Island. Alas, Khan is still credited for the vocal arrangements in the album liner notes for 1985‘s Riptide, which suggests she was present at the recording.

Curiously, WEA did consent to Khan contributing, along with Cissy and Luther, to a cacophony of indistinguishable gospel choir vocals drowned in the mix by Arif Mardin on one of the worst ever Bowie singles, released by EMI as the lead single from the Labyrinth film soundtrack.

Hell, at least you could hear and see Chaka (she’s in the video along with the other Chic geek, Nile Rodgers) when Steve Winwood made better use of her vocal chops on Higher Love, released by Island Records (er…?) and which, spookily, entered the British charts at a lowly 80 the very same week that Underground entered at 26, one place behind the fabulously foul Chicken Song by Spitting Image.

Still, Stevie banked the more enduring slow burner in the end (and would later be covered by Whitney Houston), whereas the Bowie 45 stalled at 21 the following week.

BONUS BEATS 2: 

The only times I saw Chaka Khan live in concert were two years running, a 2008 club gig at the IndigO2 where I remember very little except she seemed a bit stoned and the other entertainment of the night was Abs from 5ive trying to queue jump at the bar with the whole “Don‘t you know who I am?“ routine, until I told him in no uncertain terms where to get off.

The second was the 2009 Thank ABBA For The Music charity event at Hyde Park where CK did a, well, passable rendition of The Winner Takes It All, which included fluffing the first verse. No self-confidence, probably.

Liked it? Take a second to support Steve Pafford on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!
Steve
Steve

We use cookies to give you the best experience. Cookie Policy