“When I’m on stage I plug into another power source that’s all-encompassing. My whole religious experience happens right there in those two hours,” says Chaka Khan. It is that power that can take a note and soar over it, under it, bend it, stretch it or nail it. A natural gift that can squeeze a half dozen emotions out of a single phrase, word, or syllable with aching clarity.
For the past 40 years Chaka Khan has crossed and blurred the borders between rhythm and blues, jazz, pop, fusion and funk with ease, refusing to be categorized. The story of this present-day diva began on March 23, 1953 in Great Lakes, Ill., where she was born Yvette Marie Stevens. At age 11 she formed her first band, the Crystalettes. At 13 she was christened Chaka—which means fire—by an African shaman, and by 15 was performing in local clubs under that name. At 17 she had a brief marriage to an East Indian bass player named Hassan Khan (which is where her last name was acquired), and at 18 Chaka found herself in a Chicago band called Rufus. Between 1972 and 1978 they had hit singles with “Tell Me Something Good” (written for them by Stevie Wonder), “Sweet Thing” and “Ain’t Nobody.” That band went on to earn six gold or platinum LPs before Khan went solo in 1978 and racked up another three decades of awards and accolades.
To celebrate Chaka’s birthday today, here are excerpts from an interview I had with her in 1996. I met her in a 36th floor suite at New York’s Rhiga Royal Hotel, and my most overwhelming impression was that she is a force to be reckoned with: five feet, two inches of someone definitely in control. I remember that she was wearing black jeans and a black shirt, and would occasionally flip her enormous mane of raspberry red hair back as though she just couldn’t be bothered with it. I spent a magical hour laughing and listening to Chaka spin her tales, every now and then singing a line from something to illustrate a point, and I would get chills realizing that that was the voice.
Happy birthday, Chaka—thank you for a lifetime of great music!
What’s the hardest part of songwriting for you?
Just starting. Looking at that blank piece of paper and starting.
Are your lyrics melodically driven?
Oh yeah, definitely. I think every melody has the lyrics right there in it—you just have to really listen to be able to see them and pull them out.
Tell me about writing “Love Me Still” with Bruce Hornsby.
I went to Virginia and visited with Bruce and his family and had such a great time. We were working on some songs, and he finally said, “OK, I know you like this melody so let me work on it some more and send it to you.” So he finished it and sent it to me and when I heard it, it just blew me away. It was this beautiful hymn-like piece and it just sort of told me what it was about—the sentiment was there. So I sat down and the lyrics just came out. And I recorded it immediately and was so happy with it that I called Bruce up and played it for him over the phone. And we were both knocked out by it.
How long did those lyrics take you?
Oh, they took a while … at least a couple of hours.
(Laughing) A couple of hours?
That’s a long time to be messing around with words! (Laughs)
Have you noticed a maturing process that you’ve gone through vocally, such as “less is more”?
Absolutely. My thing was always to kind of scream and go over the top. When I listen to my old stuff I also sound like I’m going at about three speeds faster than I am now. I sound a little bit frantic and young and wet. Now my vibrato has slowed down. My voice has deepened. So yeah, it definitely feels much more effective to pull back and then be choosier about the over-the-top parts.
I really noticed a more reserved delivery in the song you and Hornsby wrote.
That was one of the hardest songs I’ve ever had to sing, because I knew I had to really hold back on it and still get the message and emotion across.
Do non-singing composers affect your singing? Frank Sinatra, for instance, said that he listened to Tommy Dorsey to help his phrasing.
Horn players will do that for me —Miles Davis, of course. Charlie Parker and Coltrane. I kind of visualize my voice as a saxophone, so I’m really affected by those musicians. To sound like an instrument more than like a singer. Also drummers and percussionists influence me a lot. The rhythm that you get for your words.
I know Billie Holiday had a big impact on you. What specifically did you learn from listening to her?
She taught me how to get an emotion across with my singing. I remember the first time I ever heard her I was listening to an album of hers with my grandmother. I’ve never really talked about this, but I remember it very vividly … my grandmother was telling me about Billie and how sad she was and of all of the hardships she was going through in her life. And I could hear it in the songs—in her voice and her delivery … look, the hair on my arms is standing up right now. She got so much emotion across just by the way she would add those little nuances (imitates Billie Holiday singing). I really did learn a lot by just listening to her.
Are you a Prince fan?
Yeah. I’ve always loved his music and I covered it because I felt it was good stuff. I had been thinking about recording “I Feel For You” for a long time before I actually did, but it didn’t really fit in with the stylings of my previous records. Then when Warner wanted me to come out with a commercial record at that time, I remembered it and we put it on there. Now nobody can seem to walk up to me without breaking into that rap (laughs). If I hear that one more time … I didn’t even know that part was going to be on the song in the first place.
When you recorded “I Feel For You,” did Prince have much involvement in the studio—knowing that he likes to maintain a lot of control?
Oh no, he just got like that later. That was so early in his career, and he really didn’t have any involvement there. But then later, on “Sticky Wicked,” he was all over that one (laughs). He wanted to have his hands in the production of it, so Russ Titelman and I let him.
Working with so many great producers—Quincy Jones, Arif Mardin, David Foster and Russ Titelman to name a few—tell me some of the different approaches they have in the studio and what they’re like to work with.
Well, let me just say that whenever I go into the studio it doesn’t matter who the producer is —I have total control over my vocals. And I think I deserve that. I go into the studio and can lay down all the background vocals in less than an hour. I challenge myself; it’s like a game I play with myself to see how quickly I can get it done. Then I go in and get the lead vocals down and I’m outta there. That’s where I shine. And I’ll do it their way—although I’m not always thrilled about it (laughs)—as long as we’ve also done it my way. Then I’ll have them play their way and my way and ask them which is the better way … and you know my way is always the better way (laughs)!
Tell me the story of meeting Stevie Wonder and how he ended up writing “Tell Me Something Good” for you.
I remember we [Rufus] were in the studio recording our first album. I was 19 at the time, I was very pregnant, very tired, and I’m sure not in a very good mood. So Stevie Wonder had been told that he should drop into the studio while we were there to check us out, and he came into the room, sat down and played us a song. And when he finished I just remember saying, “Do you have anything else?” The whole band was standing there very quietly slitting their wrists (laughs). They just couldn’t believe I said that —I mean, we were really nobodies and this legend was sitting there playing us songs. So then Stevie started playing the chords to “Tell Me Something Good,” and I said, “Now that I like.” It was that simple. We fleshed out the song right there and it became our biggest hit.
What’s the most valuable piece of advice anyone has ever given you pertaining to your career as an artist?
My father told me when I was first starting out to always stay humble, to stick with it and try to maintain your integrity. Don’t force it and be true to yourself. And that’s the most important piece of advice I’ve ever gotten.
—By Lydia Hutchinson
From Performing Songwriter Issue 22, January/February 1997