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A legendary R&B diva for over four decades, Chaka Khan first gained fame as the sultry lead singer for the group Rufus, which scored major hits in the early 1970s with such funk and soul tracks as "Tell Me Something Good" and "Ain't Nobody." Khan's earthy, sensual presence and force-of-nature vocals soon became more popular than the band itself, which led to tensions within the group and the inevitable smash solo debut, featuring the hit single "I'm Every Woman," with a young Whitney Houston on backing vocals years before she scored her own hit with the song. After splitting with Rufus, Khan firmly established herself as a solo artist with I Feel for You and its Grammy-winning eponymous lead single. The record preceded a run of Top 10 hits in 1985 for Khan, including guest vocals on Steve Winwood's Grammy-winning single "Higher Love," a high-energy pop-R&B workout. But the success of the mid-1980s was quickly followed by a period of decline, both personal and professional, throughout the 1990s. An older, wiser but no less soulful Khan returned in 2007 with the Grammy-winning Funk This, which not only reignited her career, but also confirmed her status as one of soul music's most extraordinary and enduring voices.
Born Yvette Marie Stevens on March 23, 1953 in Chicago, IL, she was raised along with her four siblings in the city's tough South Side housing projects by their parents, Charles Stevens and Sandra Coleman. Two of her sisters, Yvonne Stevens and Tammy McCrary, later enjoyed their own careers in music as singer Taka Boom and as Khan's manager, respectively, while a brother, Mark, formed the funk group Aurra in 1980. Khan was introduced to music by her jazz-loving grandmother before developing her own taste for R&B as a preteen. She formed her first singing group, the Crystalettes, at the age of 11, and later toured with the Afro-Arts Theater behind Motown legend Mary Wells while in high school. In the late 1960s, Khan became involved in the Black Panthers' breakfast program after befriending Chicago activist Fred Hampton. She was subsequently given the name Chaka Adunne Aduffe Hodarhi Karifi shortly before leaving the Panthers to perform in various R&B groups, including Lyfe, which featured her husband, Hassan Khan, whom she would marry in 1970. She would subsequently bill herself as Chaka Khan.
Two years later, she was spotted in a club by members of Rufus, an R&B/rock act formed by members of The American Breed, which quickly signed her to the group as its second lead vocalist. By the time they recorded their self-titled debut in 1973, Khan had assumed the lead vocal position with Rufus, due in part to her astonishingly powerful vocals. Though Rufus failed to generate any substantial attention, their sophomore album, Rags to Rufus (1973), reversed their fortunes. Key to their success was a move towards funkier material like the Stevie Wonder-penned "Tell Me Something Good" that played to Khan's strength as an Aretha Franklin-esque soul belter. The result was a platinum album, as well as a 1974 Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals. For much of the 1970s, Rufus and Chaka Khan, as the group was soon billed, was among the top R&B acts in the country, scoring Top 5 hits on the Billboard R&B charts with "You Got the Love," "Once You Get Started" and "Sweet Thing," which also broke into the Top 20 on the Billboard pop chart.
The group's breakout success was tempered sorely by long-simmering tension between Khan and members of the group, who were displeased by the amount of media attention showered solely on Khan's voice and Junoesque figure. Khan's marriage to Richard Holland, whom she had wed in 1976 following her divorce from Hassan Khan two years prior, generated even greater animosity from her bandmates due to his presence during recording sessions. Eventually, tensions led to a physical altercation between drummer Andre Fischer, Holland and Khan, which necessitated a change in the band's lineup. Khan and the new Rufus released one more album, Street Player (1978), which reached No. 1 on the R&B charts, before she signed with Warner Bros. for her debut as a solo artist.
Chaka (1978) quickly eclipsed Street Player on the strength of its lead single, "I'm Every Woman," which featured backing vocals by young Whitney Houston, who would later enjoy her own hit with the song in 1993. The song hit the top of the R&B charts while also breaking the Top 30 on the Billboard singles chart, ultimately earning the album platinum sales status. Her newfound success did not improve her relationship with the members of Rufus, but they nevertheless reunited for 1979's Masterjam, a Top 20 album buoyed by Quincy Jones in the producer's chair. It would soon follow a period of several years in which Khan would release solo efforts between collaborations with Rufus, which while critically lauded, would not reach the heights of their earlier work during this time. Khan's sophomore solo record, Naughty (1980), spawned only a minor hit with "Clouds," while 1981's What Cha' Gonna Do for Me scraped the bottom of the Top 20 album charts, despite earning a Grammy nomination for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. Khan would win a Grammy for "Be Bop Medley," an experiment with jazz vocals from her eponymous fourth LP before burying the hatchet with Rufus for the double LP Stompin at the Savoy (1982). The live album featured a side of studio recordings that included "Ain't Nobody," which became the final chart hit of their careers. Shortly after its release, Rufus decided to separate, while Khan continued to pursue her solo career.
In 1984, Khan rebounded in a big way with I Feel For You, which generated a Top 5 single with its title tune, an obscure composition by Prince which featured a harmonica solo by Stevie Wonder and a memorable rap by hip-hop pioneer Melle Mel, whose presence helped to bring the song considerable street credibility in the growing urban music market. It claimed the Grammy for Best R&B Song in 1985, and was quickly followed by two additional hit singles, "This is My Night" and the ballad "Through the Fire," which helped the album reach platinum sales. Khan also enjoyed success with the No. 1 single "Higher Love," her duet with Steve Winwood from his 1986 comeback album, Back in the High Life. Khan might have scored a fifth hit that year with Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love," which was initially recorded as a duet between Khan and Palmer, but contractual issues between Warner Bros. and Island Records forced the removal of her vocals from the track.
Khan's subsequent albums, Destiny (1986) and CK (1988) kept her in the Top 20, though neither reproduced the runaway success of I Feel For You. However, she remained a chart-topping superstar in the United Kingdom, where her 1989 album Life is a Dance: The Remix Project broke the Top 20 on the albums chart. Khan would subsequently devote most of her energy to Europe during the early 1990s, save for a Top 20 duet with Ray Charles on the Brothers Johnsons' "I'll Be Good To You" for Quincy Jones' Back on the Block (1989), which earned both performers a Grammy. During this period, Khan also struggled with a serious drug problem that had gone unchecked since her tenure with Rufus.
She eventually reignited her solo career with 1992's The Woman I Am, which went gold, but Warner Bros. failed to release its follow-up, Dare You to Love Me (1995), which prompted her departure from the label. She then enjoyed modest success with Prince's NPG Records in 1998, but left them for Sanctuary U.K. for 2004's ClassiKhan, her first collection of jazz standards since 1982. The following year, Khan successfully gained sobriety from alcohol dependency, and after signing with the Sony imprint Burgundy Records, scored her official comeback with Funk This (2007). The album's lead single, "Disrespectful," featuring Mary J. Blige, was a chart-topping hit on the U.S. dance charts, as well as a Grammy winner for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals, while the record itself claimed the Best R&B Album Grammy that same year. A year later, Khan continued her victory lap by joining the Broadway production of "The Color Purple" opposite Fantasia Barrino.
Issues involving her son, Damien Holland, sorely tempered the period of success. In 2006, he was accused of murdering a teenager who shared a home with him owned by Khan. Holland was eventually acquitted of the crime, but both he and Khan were forced to pay $1.3 million to the victim's family in a civil suit in 2008. By 2009, however, she was on the road with the iconic U.K. soul singer Lulu, and received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame two years later. In 2012, she recorded a new version of her single "Super Life" from Funk This with an all-star lineup of collaborators, including Eric Benet and Kelly Price, to pay tribute to slain teenager Trayvon Martin.
By Paul Gaita
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