The City of Chicago honored ten-time Grammy Award winner Chaka Khan this past weekend by naming a street after her. A ceremony took place on Saturday, July 27th, christening “Chaka Khan Way”, and Sunday, July 28th, has now been declared “Chaka Khan Day” in Chicago, which is the FUNKY singer’s hometown. Born Yvette Marie Stevens on March 23, 1953, Chaka made her presence known during the 1970s.
A life long fan of Chaka Khan’s, I didn’t rely on my memory to point out some of her outstanding moments in history. A lot of the reading to follow is courtesy of biography.com, however I inserted significant aspects of her timeline, like her years working with Prince and my personal interaction with her. Once after interviewing Chaka, she told me the experience “was vivid and real” — that’s one of the best compliments for an interview I ever got. Chaka (then still Yvette) formed her first group, the Crystalettes, with her sister Yvonne when she was only 11 years old. In 1969, she became active in the black power movement, joining the Black Panther Party and working on the organization’s free breakfast program for children. It was around this time, she took on a new name Chaka Adunne Aduffe Yemoja Hodarhi Karifi. She also said good-bye to her formal education, dropping out of high school.
In the early 1970s, after performing with a few other groups, Khan joined the band Rufus, which had a strong R&B and FUNK sound. The world got its first taste of Khan’s powerhouse vocals when the group released its first self-titled album in 1973, which included the modest hits “Whoever’s Thrilling You” and “Feel Good.” The band’s follow-up album, “Rags to Rufus,” was a smash commercially and critically acclaimed. It featured the Stevie Wonder penned the hit single, “Tell Me Something Good,” which sold more than a million copies and gave the band International success. The group scored a Grammy Award for the LP as Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus for the song in 1974. Khan co-wrote the group’s first number one hit, “Sweet Thing,” which climbed to the top of the charts in 1975. Later hits co-written by Khan included “Do You Love What You Feel” and “Ain’t Nobody.”
While she recorded with Rufus until the early 1980s, Chaka made an impressive debut as a solo artist in the late 1970s. In 1978, she released the album “Chaka”, which featured the hit “I’m Every Woman,” that was written by Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. In an odd twist of synchronicity, she won two Grammy Awards that year. One as a solo artist and one as a member of Rufus in 1983. Chaka continued to reign as a solo act, later doing a cover of Prince’s song “I Feel for You” featuring rapper Melle Mel, which won her another Grammy Award in 1984. Other hits from the album included “This Is My Night” and “Through the Fire.” In 1990, Kahn won another Grammy Award for her duet with Ray Charles for the Brothers Johnson remake “I’ll Be Good to You.” I had the fortune to meet — by this time the legendary Chaka — when she released her CD “The Woman I Am,” for which she got yet another Grammy in 1992. “The Woman I Am” is still a CD I’ll pop in these days, as it’s one of her latter day works that captures the essence of her magnificent voice.
Shortly after that album was released, Khan left the United States for London to have a better environment to develop her relationship with her two children. Bio.com actually says she left to “raise” them, however by this time her daughter Milini was 20, as she was born in 1973 although her son Damien was born in 1979. While there, she branched out into acting and appeared as “Sister Carrie” in Vy Higgenson’s musical “Mama, I Want to Sing.” The show did phenomenally well here in the states. Near the end of the decade, Khan established the Chaka Khan Foundation, which provides education programs to at-risk children and helps low-income families with autistic children. In 1998, Chaka hooked up with Prince for a couple of years to tour and record her CD “Come 2 My House.” It featured the songs “Spoon”, “The Drama” and the title track. During this period, she and fellow funk-a-teer Larry Graham teamed up with his majesty for several shows and appearances.
In 2002, Chaka Khan scored her eighth Grammy Award—this time for her cover of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” with the Funk Brothers. The song was taken from the soundtrack of the documentary film “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” which talked about the record label’s history and the house band that was essentially cast to the way side after building the Motown brand. The following year, she put out her autobiography, “Chaka! Through the Fire.” In the book, she detailed her career as well as her years of substance abuse. For years Khan’s sorted behavior was associated and attributed to her over indulgence in drug culture. Chaka also described the loneliness she felt while touring during those years. She was often away from her two children, which compounded her sadness and guilt. In an interview, Khan told JET magazine “I think a big part of my drug thing was escaping from those feelings.” She also revealed that she had a history of bad luck when it came to relationships.
Once she got her life back on track, Chaka experimented with different musical styles. She did an album of standards with the London Symphony Orchestra entitled “ClassiKhan” in 2004. That same year, she faced a personal tragedy. Her son Damien was arrested and charged with murder. He and a friend had been fighting in her home, when Damien accidentally shot him. Rallying her family together, Khan attended the trial and testified on her son’s behalf. He was found not guilty in 2006.
Khan returned to the studio to make her CD “Funk This” in 2007. The album features a diverse mix of songs and guest appearances. Her ballad “Angel” came from a poem she wrote while she was high years earlier. The up-tempo “Disrespectful” paired Khan with her musical protégé, Mary J. Blige. The CD also features a cover of “You Belong to Me,” which she sang with former Doobie Brothers member, Michael McDonald. She included a few more covers on the album, recording tracks by Prince, Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell. In 2008 Chaka appeared as “Sofia” in the Oprah Winfrey produced Broadway musical “The Color Purple.” Last year Chaka Khan walked the runway for Chris March, wearing his design at “The Heart Truth’s Red Dress Collection 2012 Fashion Show” at Hammerstein Ballroom on February 8th, in New York City.
There are not many women that can really be attached to the genre of FUNK. Among other women in FUNK are the legendary Patti LaBelle. I wondered if the city of Philadelphia had named a street after her, but I saw no evidence of that upon researching. LaBelle was the first group to play at the Metropolitan Opera House, and the first black vocal group to land the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. Other notable women amidst the musical category of FUNK include: the Brides of Funkenstein; Betty Davis (Miles’ wife); Teena Marie; Rose & Cynthia Stone, Lyn Mabry and Dawn Silva, who all worked with Sly Stone; and the women of FUNK ala James Brown’s era, including Lynn Collins, Marva Whitney and Vicky Anderson.
Chaka had to cancel a few shows back in June. According to a recent press release from Chaka Khan Enterprises, due to exhausted vocal cords, per her doctor’s orders — “It’s best that we move the date to give her the proper and adequate time to promote and market the new album.” Tammy McCrary, Khan’s manager, said in a statement: “We are looking forward to a great project and a very robust concert and tour schedule this fall.” Her new album, “The iKhan Project,” is set for release at that time too.
For the LOVE of the Almighty CHAKA KHAN, Chaka Khan…