Chaka Khan was the soundtrack for life back in my vinyl days. I can still conjure up the feel of the soft cardboard patina of my Ask Rufus and Rufus album covers. My friends and I knew all the words to “Once You Get Started,” “I’m Every Woman,” “Tell Me Something Good,” “Sweet Thing,” “Ain’t Nobody” and countless other tunes that she sang. She lived on our turntables, on our lips, on the jukebox and in the soundbooths of the deejays who played all the best music at the local hot spots that we frequented. We danced to her funky music all the time.
All. The. Time.
Chaka Khan has lived inside my head for decades, offering motivation when called for, sassy attitude when all else failed and the funky, soulful kick in the pants required when love or life hasn’t turned out the way that I’d like it to. In some ways, she stayed frozen in time for me. But once I got started digging into what she’s been up to, it soon became clear that she has stayed in constant motion.
Since her big breakthrough at the tender age of 18 as the lead singer for the 1970s multiracial band Ask Rufus (later shortened to simply Rufus), Chaka Khan has released 22 albums and amassed ten No. 1 Billboard hits, eight Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)-certified gold singles and 11 RIAA-certified gold and platinum albums. Nominated 22 times for Grammy Awards, she has won ten. And, with the ability to sing R & B, jazz, pop, rock, gospel, country, classical and dance music, she has produced more than 2,000 catalogue song placements. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, an honorary Doctorate of Music from the prestigious Berklee School of Music and has received lifetime achievement awards from Soul Train, BET, the Apollo Theatre and many others.
Two years ago, a documentary series, Being, premiered to mark her 40th anniversary as an entertainer and musician. I asked her, “Looking back on your younger self, are you surprised at where you are, now that you’re 62?” “I have no regrets,” she said. “If I hadn’t had all the experiences I’ve had, I wouldn’t be the amazing human being that I am today. I’m good. I’m thankful to still be relevant. I’m in a state of grace.”
Since she’s a devout Christian, her use of that phrase is a nod to more than just the innate talent, hard work and perseverance that have served her so well. And later, she didn’t miss a chance to say that she does an hour of Bible study every day. But her music – the music that earned her the title of “the Queen of Funk” – has a decidedly secular tone.
The music business is not an easy path, and when Khan was coming up, she got good advice from Etta James and Aretha Franklin, among others. Whenever she gets the chance to speak with younger women who want a career in music, she tells them, “It’s tough, it isn’t easy. But if you were born to do this and you have the chops, you’ll do whatever it takes. And, I tell them, ‘Do what I did: Stay true to what you’re doing.’ I’d like to see them take a course in business, so they can really do their own thing without help. That’s the key.”
“And yes, I learned the hard way, but I’m glad I did,” she said. “Learning the hard way means more. There’s no better way to learn if you survive that. If it doesn’t cure you, it will make you strong.”
Her dedication to improve the quality of life, particularly for children with autism, spawned the Chaka Khan Foundation, where she also puts a focus on educational initiatives for college students and community work. “I’m really tied into quite a few charities, but my work with autism started because of my nephew. We didn’t know what to do at the onset, and there was misdiagnosis and mistreatment. We did a lot of footwork and investigation about this malady, and shared our journey with a lot of people in the same plight.”
“I’m not as hands-on as I’d like to be these days, but I do give a percentage of every check to autism. And I have a new single, ‘I’m in Love with Myself,’ that’s coming out the first of the year. It’s geared toward body image and bullying, and is produced by B. Slade.” The producer, formerly known in the gospel-music world as Tonéx, is, like Chaka Khan, an artist who is conversant in many musical genres.
She chronicled her career and her life in an autobiography – Through the Fire (Rodale Books, 2003) – and it’s currently being updated for rerelease and adapted into a screenplay. She has also pursued an entrepreneurial path, launching lines of gourmet chocolates and a fragrance line for men, women and the home.
But back to the music: If any Joni Mitchell fans are reading, Khan reports that her good friend is “doing better and better every day, though it’s very slow progress. I’m working on a tribute CD. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and it was time to get it out of my heart and off my chest.” An English label approached Khan, and she has since been in the studio, working on it between gigs for the past six months. “I’m doing unplugged, slowed-down, funky renditions. The young kids especially need to hear her lyrics, and my philosophy is that they work for everybody. I’m doing my favorite Joni Mitchell songs – not necessarily the ones others might choose; she has such a wealth of material – songs like ‘Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire’ and ‘Hejira.’”
Khan wouldn’t single out her proudest accomplishment, saying there were “thousands of them,” but she did mention how much she enjoyed working with many of the jazz masters to whom she listened while growing up in Chicago: “Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Henderson, Chick Corea, Quincy Jones…they’ve produced some of the greatest music on the planet. I’m always gonna be jazzy, but I like all types of music. I don’t even know what to call what I do. I’m looking more forward than backward these days.”
And, the mother of two says, her greatest joy is her four grandchildren: “I see them often and am totally in touch with them.” She confesses that when she’s not working, “I’m a great sleeper! I get in my muumuu and take it down. I watch old movies on TCM.”
But don’t expect her show at the Ulster Performing Arts Center in Kingston this Sunday night to be laid-back. “There’ll be songs for everybody, from back in the day to new songs. I bring an eight-piece band with me: three singers and five musicians. I put on a damn good show!”
I believe it. I think that once she gets started, ooh, it’s hard to stop, and that what she’s got to give will sure ‘nuff do you good…
Chaka Khan, Sunday, November 8, 7 p.m., $30/65, Ulster Performing Arts Center (UPAC), 601 Broadway, Kingston; (845) 339-6088.