Chaka Khan is without question one of the great R&B voices of the 1970s, whether on her solo work late in the decade, or on the classics she recorded with Rufus - records that helped define soul music in a turbulent time. Born Yvette Marie Stevens in Chicago on March 23, 1953, Khan’s bohemian upbringing was key to her development as a singer; she was introduced to jazz early in her life, and developed a passion for R&B and began performing before she was even a teenager.
When Rufus was scaling the charts with such albums as Ask Rufus, Rags to Rufus and Masterjam, Khan was the consummate front woman, and along with contemporaries like WAR, the Commodores, Earth, Wind & Fire and the like, the band oversaw a great era of R&B. Later in her career, Khan would find solo success and be seen (rightfully) as an influence on new generations of singers and performers.
How might you explain how great Chaka Khan is to someone unfamiliar with her work? Play these five songs and sit back as that person recognizes the awesomeness hitting their ears.
“I’m Every Woman”
The first song on Khan’s first solo album is this anthem, composed by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Imagine coming out of the gate with something this powerful, this empowering. And it was funky, too; Khan’s warmth and confidence shine on the song, but you could also dance to it, which was of utmost importance at the time.
“Tell Me Something Good”
Rags to Rufus (1974) was a great album, and this song is but one reason why. Stevie Wonder wrote it and handed it over to the band - a surefire hit on a silver platter. But regardless of how obvious it was (why would Wonder give away something so cool?), Rufus made it great - the wah-wah guitar and keyboards give it definition; the bass gives it a consistent bottom, and Khan’s vocal is insistent and sassy.
“Do You Love What You Feel”
Quincy Jones produced 1979’s Masterjam - the last full album Khan made with Rufus - and though band and singer were soon splitting for good, the easygoing vibe here betrayed none of the drama likely happening in the background. Khan trades verses with bandmate Tony Maiden, the band puts down some snazzy funk, and everything is breezy and fun.
Though Khan and Rufus were split by 1983, they still had a record to make to address a contractual obligation. Out came Stompin’ at the Savoy - a three-sides-live album with one side of new studio material. The lead single was this insistent, dramatic number - their last No. 1 R&B hit and a reminder to their audience of what they’d soon be missing.
“I Feel For You”
In 1984, Khan released this Prince cover and had a massive hit. Everything comes together perfectly – the groove, Khan’s voice and that Melle Mel rap that gives the song its hook.