Today Yvette Marie Stevens,known to much of the world as Chaka Khan,celebrates her 62nd year of life. As for her place in my life? It was very much the way Chaka’s voice sounds: the entire spectrum of life expressed in a physically improvisational revelry. Started out hearing her on what amounts to a musical related PSA staring James Earl Jones called Genius On The Black Side singing her first solo hit “I’m Every Woman”. Than a mid 90’s compilation of my mom’s entitled Epiphany really peaked my interest. And I was off and running. Rufus,Chaka solo? Whatever album I could find on CD or vinyl,I picked it up.
Chaka’s music is exciting yes,not to mention funky as one wants to be. She also proudly comes at her art from a very jazzy standpoint. With a poetic lyrical style informed by the black American liberation end of women’s liberation. And she certainly had no difficulty liberating her own playful sexiness. Aside from wishing her a happy birthday? The best way I can honor this ladies music is showcase my reviews of the albums she’s been a part of. Both as the lead singer/songwriter of the very talented band Rufus,as well as on her own working with some of the finest session players around. So here’s my own best of Chaka Khan & Rufus,as a funky woman making album length statements.
Story goes that an interesting encounter with the Amazing Kreskin himself revealed that “Tell Me Something Good” from Rufus’s sophomore album Rags to Rufus would succeed beyond the bands wildest dreams. This came as a shock since apparently Kreskin hadn’t even known the name of the album the song came from. This apparently anticipated the song becoming the iconic funk classic it is today,and making Rufus’s career and Chaka Khan a household name. Of course what happened after that Ron Stockert,Dennis Belfield and Al Ciner all decided to split from Rufus-main reason being that they felt uncomfortable with Chaka’s name being singled out as a part of the groups name: “Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan”. They were succeeded by Tony Maiden,an extremely strong vocal/guitar presence who helped give the group a strong anchor. Bass player Bobby Watson also entered the picture along with the jazz keyboard player -the late Nate Morgan. Not only did this make the and a complete biracial unit,but also became the version of Rufus which embarked on an extended tour which lasted for most of the next three years. It was a wild and crazy life on the road for the Rufus and Chaka blitz at this point. Yet in 1974 they managed to find the time to get into the studio and complete their third studio album. And their first with their best known lineup as well.
“Once You Get Started” opens the album with strong bass/guitar heavy funk-accented by melodic synthesizer and a quick tempo which finds Chaka’s incomparable vocal instrument and Tony Maiden’s powerfully dynamic singing voice trading off verses throughout. “Somebody’s Watching You” is a uniquely amazing number-starting out as tight rhythm guitar riff before building into a funky swing on the refrain before going into a funky chorus as Chaka does her vocal thing with a lyric dealing with excessive materialism. “Pack’d My Bags” is another epic powerhouse that opens with Morgan’s spiraling jazz piano solo before going into a sweetly reflective soul ballad about the breakup of a family that again launches into hardcore funk on the chorus. “Your Smile” is a dynamically soulful ballad with a strong country-soul melody-again featuring the “symphony of Chaka” effect as she typically performs her own back up/choir vocals. The title song is an instrumental,as it was on the previous album but this features Tony Maiden singing through a talk box and the addition of horns and a more strident beat give this number its might. “I’m A Woman (I’m A Backbone)” is a strong lyrical Afrocentric take on feminism with a slow crawling,blues oriented funk groove. “Right Is Right” and “Half Moon” are both frenetic,danceable jazz-funk jams while the future Brenda Russell penned the jazzily melodic,string accented uptempo soul of “Please Pardon Me (You Remind Me Of A Friend)”. The album ends with the smoldering,sensuous Moog bass led jazzy funk of “Stop On By”-with Chaka and Tony again trading off female/male vocal licks.
In many basic ways,this stands as one of Rufus’s most musically complete albums. Their first two records both had a very garagey production flavor that,while the instrumental flavor was based deeply in funk and soul,had the raggedy quality that a lot of rock ‘n roll bands prefer to have. The production approach on this particular album is completely different. With the addition of Clare Fischer,uncle of the bands drummer Andre’ as an arranger the presence of strings and horns on this albums makes a huge difference in that regard. On the other hand Fischer is able to add orchestration without interfering with the basic rhythm section Rufus provided. As a matter of fact, on the majority of this album that is all that you hear playing in addition to Chaka’s singing. Tony Maiden’s guitar playing style is also far more based in jazz and funk. His sound is much cleaner, and his plays with lines with a beautifully melodic fluidity that is flexible enough to be just as intense as it needs to be. Because one of the major musical commonalities binding Chaka Khan and the members of Rufus together was a love for jazz, that particular style of bass/guitar playing and drumming are emphasized strongly here throughout. You can certainly here on this album how members of Rufus would eventually go on to become some of the most renowned session musicians of the late 70’s/early 80’s. Though her relationship with the band would sour in later years? The marriage of Rufus and Chaka Khan was,at this point a magically funky match if there ever was one.
Ask Rufus (1977)
Rufus And Chaka Khan,aside from CK’s amazing and influencial singing have always been just mildly underrated as musicians. In the years after the debut,especially with the style of the previous Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan their style had been growing from that of a conventional 70’s funk band to what they became with this album.By far this would have to be described as Rufus’s artistic pinnacle and is today justly revered. It is here that Rufus made the transformation to being a fully sophisticated band with brilliant songwriting,fully mature and reflective lyrics and plenty of jazz influences. With a couple minor exceptions this album showcases Rufus sticking with a midtempo jazzy soul/funk sound and a great deal of sudlty. Not only is it solid proof that funk doesn’t have to be a non-stop rhythm barrage to groove like mad but it features songs that all sound like mini classics.
“At Midnight” is the main uptempo song here.The production is far from slick and features probably the best use of synthesizer on a mid period Rufus Recording-the simple beat sounds deceptively like disco but on the breakdown it’s perfectly clear that it isn’t. Lyrically it’s clear that Chaka,who participates very strongly as a writer here is content on reflecting on how her own complicated marriaged and personal life at the at time is effecting her feelings on her own womanhood-strong emphasizing emotional involvement.”Close The Door” is one mournful example;Chaka’s tortured voice and the spare backdrop just drips with meloncaughly of the soul.The superb orchestration of Claire Fischer (cousin of the bands drummer Andre Fischer) not only makes that tune so wonderful but dominates the equally mournful instrumental “A Slow Screw Against The Wall”;the briefly funk blowout of “A Flat Fry”,featuring Ron Wood is pretty much the last tune of that type you’ll find here.The memorable and singable “Earth Song” features a cryptic lyric that,if understood sums up Chaka’s lyrical involvement here as she sings,”Stars/what a mystical woman you’ve made me” and on “Everlasting Love” we’re introduced into a deceptively musically simple vision of romance and sensuality.
“Hollywood” is…well almost an uptempo song because it’s so sprightly even as it looks at the effect fame and surroundings of luxary effect people.”Magic In Your Eyes” is yet another excellent romantic moment whereas “Better Days”,co-written by Chaka’s then husband Richard Holland reflects on a possible optimisitc future for the then faltering couple.As for the music,let’s just say I think Dido was highly influenced by this song when she did her hit song Thank You ovet two decades later. The title of “Egyptian Song” sounds like the song and lyrics will be very complicated and they are. From the melody down to it’s lyrics it reflects on Chaka’s journey to discover her racial identity that was evidently at that point still very much a part of her life. Here you here a very different kind of Rufus,challanging themselves all around to be a band to contend with a very different kind of groove for a very different kind of funk. There is little likelyhood you’ll ever come across an album in Rufus catalog or anyone else’s that sounds quite like this.And that really says an awful lot for this.
By 1979,the relationship between the now burgeoning solo artist Chaka Khan and the band Rufus was beginning to seriously decay. Sadly the sex and drugs cliches of the pop music world had began to catch up with Chaka. The band had even opted to record without her the previous year for their album Numbers(sadly their only album that has never been on CD as far as I can tell) while simultaneously introducing their new drummer John Robinson. It was from here that Rufus hooked back up with a rather beleaguered Chaka and set their sites on the production guidance of Quincy Jones-whose stable of musicians included the Brothers Johnson and Jerry Hey’s Seawind Horns. Rufus’s bassist Bobby Watson had already played bass for MJ on his smash funk/pop triumph Rock With You earlier in the year. Sensing that perhaps their sound could use a make over,it was Quincy who ended up producing this eighth Rufus album-even as Chaka Khan’s interest in the band was severely on the wane.
“Do You Love What You Feel” as well as the title song are both extremely indicative of the Rufus/Quincy collaboration. Both are high octane,Afro-Latin drum/percussion heavy pop hook filled danceable funk songs with that Quincy Jones/Rod Temperton-style horn/string packed late 70’s disco era funk sound written all over them from top to bottom. On both Chaka’s vocals and Tony Maiden’s clean rocking guitar riffs are at their most powerful and energetic. “Any Love” and especially a remake of the old Quincy/Leon Ware collaboration “Boby Heat”-with its extended percussive intro both more strongly reflect the 4 on the floor disco era. Some might even complain some of the bass lines identify them as more polka than funk at the root. However the bluesy bass/guitar interaction and especially Chaka’s vocals tell another side of that story. “Heaven Bound” and “Live In Me” are both slickly sensual midtempo numbers with a much heavier melodic funk orientation. The pretty straight up hard funk groove of “What Am I Missing” finds Chaka lamenting how the blitz of her life at that time was beginning to shelter her from fulfillment.
“Walk The Rockaway” is definitely on the heavier funk side of the disco era-with a thick rhythmic blend of percussion,guitar,bass and horns where Tony declares proudly “everybody’s got their own way of moving/it don’t matter as long as your grooving”. Wonderful metaphor for life wouldn’t you say? Patti Austin and Peggy Lipton Jones co-wrote “I’m Dancing For Your Love” with the band-a very impressive soul/funk/pop number with a strong Michael McDonald/Doobie Brothers attitude about it. In a lot of ways,this is my favorite album by Rufus. Every song is quite different from the other. And the funk,pop-jazz and disco era elements are all presented in the most high quality and rhythmically powerful way possible. By virtue of the music itself and those involved in making it,this album is creatively Rufus’s Off the Wall-an album possessed of the most dignified and classy funk and dance grooves it was dressed for big success. Though it was,producing the bands only two music videos that I know of for the first and final track,this was not exactly a reboot of Rufus & Chaka Khan as a band. She was back to her solo career in a years time. And her and Rufus gradually broke apart within the next several years. But even if this was the cap off to an era,it was one serious “masterjam” to go out on for sure!
Rufus’s 1979 album Masterjam was not the official finale for Rufus & Chaka Khan. But according to the lady herself,it was the last time she recorded an entire album in the studio with them. With her personal life continuing to spiral out of control in a dizzying array of a mutually abusive marriage,two children and epic proportions drug abuse Chaka began focusing on her career seemingly as an effort to lose herself in a form of musical sublimation. Continuing on at Warner Brothers with Arif Mardin at the helm and Ashford & Simpson penning many of the songs,Chaka also found herself at the disposal of yet more excellent singers and musicians such as Steve Ferrone,Marcus Miller and with him of course the late great Luther Vandross. Where sometimes album cover art reflects the music within to near perfection this albums cover,including a similarly dressed photo of Chaka’s almost lookalike than 6 year old daughter Milini,it was a superb window to what would come.
“Clouds” is the complete flipside of “I’m Every Woman” from her debut Chaka-a much slower and funkier number that’s still disco friendly but somewhat more emotionally fearful. Very much in the duel lyrical nature of classic soul really. The bubbling melodic bass synthesizer groove of “Get Ready,”Get Set” represents some of the most powerful,unique and sensually alluring funk on this album. “Move Me No Mountain” is a favorite of mine on here-a hard groove adult contemporary type re-imagining of a standard full of Chaka’s trademark vocal passion and ability. “The sweetly composed jazzy ballad “Nothing’s Gonna Take You Away” segues into the fan faring funk/pop of the title song. “Too Much Love” is an amazing mix of rocking,dancefloor read Latin funk with more than enough energy to spare while “All Night’s All Right” represents the hardest funk on this album-sounding very much like an early 70’s Rufus track. “Papillon” is a bumping,mid tempo soul oriented groove with a pretty melody and featuring the vocals of both Vandross and a young Whitney Houston. “What You Did” and “Our Loves In Danger” are both two more dance friendly pop/funk numbers defined again by Chaka’s singing.
This album is one of my favorite Chaka Khan albums,perhaps my very favorite. The reason for that is it’s consistency. While her iconic solo debut had many powerful and funky moments,the production and general sound of the songs had a somewhat jarring flavor. They sounded as if they were produced at very different times and places. This album,though actually very diverse sounds like a totally coherent album session of songs that were instrumentally and conceptually designed to flow together from beginning to end. It was where Chaka Khan’s solo identity emerged as being capable of delivering genuine album statements as opposed to smash dance singles. The musicianship and production on this album is absolutely impeccable. And with all the studio techniques used on Chaka’s voice her-from her renowned concept of doing her own back-round vocals to different echo plexes,her vocals are only even more enhanced by everything that touches it. Neither the musicians nor Chaka herself are drowned out by anyone behind the console. This is a great example of a sleek pop/funk/post disco sound where everything was just coming to a wonderful and successful musical head.
What ‘Cha Gonna Do For Me (1981)
Sometimes there’s a point in an artists career,and they never know exactly where there comes a time when there is a perfect match of musicianship,production,songwriting and vocals that just come together. This is also one of those cases where the album art actually says a lot about the sort of music contained within. We see a beaming,airbrushed Chaka looking enraptured with life and having just experienced a revelry of excitement. And that’s exactly the same feeling I got after listening to this album. After two albums that placed Chaka in something of an urban,late 70’s disco-funk context here Chaka is fully back to the power and vitality of her Rufus days. Her voice is an instrument that’s part of the band,part of the song and fully involved in the entire musical experience. She never overwhelms the music and it never overwhelms her but…..it in a way is ALL overwhelming. The arrangements are dramatic,cosmic,surprising and give me goosebumps just listening to the very involving virtuosity of what’s here.
This album has more electronic textures than before but they’re used in the classiest possible way and you can really hear Chaka’s noted high musical standards oozing out of every song. Billy Preston really bumps up the production to the N’th degree on the hard hitting,bass keyboard/horn led version of “We Can Work At Out” that has Chaka as pretty much the rest of the orchestra as it were.It comes to an abrupt start and you feel as if you’ve heard a whole album but….it goes on. Then you come to the urban fusion-jazz dynamics of the title song where Chaka’s voice is yearning,searching,imagining and give you to feel she’s living the song she’s singing and she very likely was. “I Know You,I Live You” really kicks it out with one of the catchiest latin funk jams I’ve ever heard;after Chaka’s done her thing vocally on the song it kicks into this amazing reverbed bass/drum interaction before she’s right back in action. “Any Old Sunday” is the more relaxed of the tunes here,not a ballad but more of an interpretive piece for Chaka. “We Got Each Other”,sung with her brother Mark who obviously shares her tremendous vocal instrument is another reverb heavy sonic funk monster finding Chaka absolutely BAKED HIGH on love alone and singing in the most euphoric way one can imagine.
“And The Melody Still Lingers On (Night In Tunisia)”…well lets just say if nothing else here was that great this alone would make it a classic. With Stevie Wonder’s brooding bass keyboard leading the way as Chaka takes her improvisational instrument right to the heart of the song. “Night Moods” says it all here as the only ballad-the musical again some of the most beautifully euphoric,non sentimental tribute to romance imaginable as Chaka goes from sensual,uncertain and moody at the change of a note and it’s one of those handful of ballads that just punches you right out. “Heed The Warning” is this amazing,spiky keyboard led funk-rock jam that anyone with a heart will get instant goosebumps from. And…well aside from an honorable mention for the breezy disco-funk of “Fate” I cannot really say anymore about this album because just thinking about this music overwhelms me some. For anyone now who sees the key to making successful funk and R&B lies in unadorned,un-produced “real” instrumentation and understated vocals this album stands as an important reminder of how important the right kind of production flourishes and a strong voice with the ability to act as it’s own musical instrument to creating truly magical funk and R&B that shimmers,sparkles and truly withstands the test of time.
Chaka Khan (1982)
Over the years there’s been quite a little artist cult that’s developed surrounding this album. Many music review books I’ve read name dropped it again and again as being a crownign achievment of her early career and the album even won her a grammy. All the same it would up being the most obscure Chaka Khan album during the CD reissue era. It’s never been issued domestically and even Chaka’s compilation Epiphany: The Best of Chaka Khan, Vol. 1 doesn’t include any of it’s songs. Having heard it on CD for the first time I have to say that in many ways this album very much lives up to all the hype surrounding it;one of the few albums that actually does so. One of the main reasons for that is that album sounds like nothing else in her vast catalog. This came out around the same time Chaka joined back up with Rufus for a reunion tour and interestingly enough this album is among the more consistantly funk oriented of her solo albums.
Earlier recordings were open ended explorations of soul,pop-jazz,funk and disco yet this album features a somewhat electronic,bassy,thrusting sound that is very much in keeping with electro-funk style of the era but at the same time is still distinctly Chaka Khan. Her group of musicians on this album including Robbie Buchannon,Will Lee,Hiram Bullock as well as AWB members Hamish Stuart and Steve Ferrone absolutely cook musically throughout the album and that results in every song containing some of the finest vocal performances of Khan’s career,marked by the fact she’s relying more on strengh here than scaling up and down as is her trademark singing style. “Tearin’ It Up” pulls this all together right from the start with Chaka and the bassy synth funk of the groove all in a deep framework. The Rick James duet of “Slow Dancin'” and the pounding,epic “Twisted” emphasizes a slower groove than was common during the naked funk era and that is much to Chaka’s credit as she understands funk by it’s nature tends to be a tad of a slower music to start with. The majority of the tunes here are uptempo however including th cowboy/funk send up “Best In The West”,complete with fiddle solo and one of those hooky melodies Chaka seemed to be able to so easily turn out during her earlier Arif Mardin era.
Much has been said about “Be Bop Medley” and trust me;it’s all deserved. She links a medly of her be-bop era favorites,everything from Monk’s “Epistrophy” and Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” in and around this fast paced,bass synthesizer led naked funk jam and the music and melodies all work with eachother wonderfully. In this case she does do more vocal scaling but it’s needed;she does really well with jazz composition and this song really takes the cake. Her powerhouse version of “Got To Be There” and “So Not To Worry” are the slower tunes here but are more midtempo than ballads and are the more relaxed,organically textured of the tunes here. “Pass It On (A Sure Thing)” is another uptempo funk scorcher to the end the album off on. In terms of funk music construction and intense musical dynamics there are very few albums I can think of offhand that match it. It is still a shame that today the only CD version of this album comes from the boxed set Original Album Series:Chaka/Chaka Khan/I Feel For You/Naughty/What Cha’ Gonna Do For Me. If you don’t have any Chaka Khan albums,pick that up without a second thought. But if you only are missing this one,this CD edition is essential to pick up if you find it reasonably because it represents an important creative step in her musical development as a solo artist.
Well there’s my written tribute(s) to Rufus and Chaka Khan,both together and apart. Very thankful I could be alive during a time when her musical career was still in peak shape!