Rhino Black History Month: Chaka Khan
She’s every woman. She feels for you. And when she asks “What Cha’ Gonna Do for Me,” you’d damned well better have the right answer. Her name is Chaka Khan, and if you suddenly find yourself with an overwhelming desire to do nothing but rock her, keep her warm, and make her more than just a physical dream even as she makes you want to scream...yeah, well, she gets that a lot.
Chaka Khan (birth name Yvette Marie Stevens) was born in Chicago, where she developed a love of music as a result of her grandmother introducing her to jazz. From there, however, she discovered R&B, developing such a strong attraction that she formed her first singing group, the Crystalettes, before she’d even hit her teens. After serving as a member of a few other groups and developing a more distinctive moniker thanks to a combination of being blessed with a new name by an African shaman and getting married, Chaka was eventually spotted by a couple of guys from the group Rufus and asked to join their ranks.
Although Rufus’s self-titled debut didn’t set the charts on fire, their sophomore effort, 1974’s Rags to Rufus, turned out to be a major breakthrough for the group, with the single “Tell Me Something Good” hitting #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and “You Got the Love” topping the R&B charts. When the follow-up, Rufusized, was released later that year, it wasn’t quite as successful, but it did pull a top-10 pop hit (“Once You Get Started”), and both that song and “Please Pardon Me (You Remind Me of a Friend)” were top-10 R&B hits. For Chaka, however, the big turning point came in 1975, when she got name-checked in the title of the group’s next album (Rufus featuring Chaka Khan), featuring the top-five single “Sweet Thing.”
With her name out in front, Chaka was in a position to make a move and go solo, and she took advantage of it with 1978’s Chaka, an album which – thanks to the #1 R&B hit “I’m Every Woman” – quickly established her as a force to be reckoned with even without Rufus. If her second album, 1980’s Naughty, didn’t match her debut’s success, then all was forgiven with 1981’s What Cha’ Gonna Do For Me, the title track of which was another R&B #1. After her self-titled album in 1983, however, she took another step into the stratosphere, with the title track of 1984’s I Feel for You becoming all but ubiquitous on both radio and MTV.
Chaka may not have been in the upper reaches of the pop charts since then, but she’s topped the dance charts on several occasions since, thanks to songs like “This is My Night,” “Love You All My Lifetime,” collaborations with Me’Shell Ndgeocello (“Never Miss the Water”) and Mary J. Blige (“Disrespectful”), and – from her 1989 Life is a Dance project – a remix of Rufus’s “Ain’t Nobody.” As of this writing, her most recent album is 2007’s Funk This, which is a long time to wait for another record, but don’t lose faith: Chaka’s been in the studio working on a new effort, reportedly called iKhan. (Get it?) In the meantime, we’ve put together a playlist for help celebrate her legacy, so give it a listen…and let Chaka Khan rock you for a change.