One of the most dynamic and accomplished artists to debut during the early '70s, singer and songwriter Chaka Khan secured her high standing as the frontperson of Rufus. A multiracial band that skillfully moved across soul, funk, rock, and jazz, they reached the mainstream with the slinking "Tell Me Something Good" (1974), a Top Five pop hit that won a Grammy, and throughout the decade continuously placed albums within the upper reaches of the pop and R&B charts. As Rufus remained active, Khan launched her solo career with "I'm Every Woman" (1978), an anthemic crossover disco smash that led to eight additional Top Ten R&B hits. Among those indelible works are "Ain't Nobody" (with Rufus, 1983) and a cover of Prince's "I Feel for You" (1984), high-tech productions that did not overshadow the inherent joy and power in Khan's voice. Versatile throughout her five-decade career, Khan has recorded numerous jazz standards, heard in concentrated form on albums such as Echoes of an Era (1982) and Classikhan (2004). Her covers-oriented set Funk This (2007) resulted in two of her ten Grammy awards. After a lengthy recording break, she returned with Hello Happiness (2019), an effervescent EP that ranged from retro-contemporary disco to fluid reggae.
Yvette Marie Stevens was raised in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago's South Side. Surrounded by music as a youngster, she formed her first group, the Crystalettes, at the age of 11. While in high school, she participated in Afro-Arts Theater, a collective that toured with Motown great Mary Wells, and as an eager political activist joined the Black Panther Party. By then, she was known as Chaka Karifi, a name given to her by a Yoruba priest. In 1969, she left the Black Panthers and dropped out of high school, and eventually joined Cash McCall's Lyfe, a band that also featured Hassan Khan, to whom she was eventually (and briefly) married. She left Lyfe to sing with the Babysitters, who had just suffered the loss of singer Baby Huey, but this period was similarly short and unsatisfying.
Chaka Khan found solid ground after she was heard and sought by former American Breed members Kevin Murphy and André Fischer, who were trying to gain ground with a fledgling act called Rufus. Khan joined the band, who in 1973 made their recorded debut with a self-titled album on the ABC label. Distinguished by Khan's radiant vocals and energizing stage presence, the band released six gold or platinum albums through the end of the decade and scored three Top Ten pop hits, including "Tell Me Something Good," which won a Grammy for Best R&B Performance. Reflective of Khan's growing stature, the band's billing constantly evolved during these years. Simply Rufus at first, they became Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan, and then Rufus & Chaka Khan, and ultimately Rufus & Chaka.
At some point in 1978, possibly the week in July when Quincy Jones topped the R&B chart with "Stuff Like That," featuring lead vocals from Chaka Khan and Ashford & Simpson, it became evident that Rufus could no longer contain their singer and co-songwriter. Khan had a pile of additional extracurricular credits on recordings by the likes of Stephen Bishop, Chicago, the Gap Band, Joni Mitchell, and Lenny White, but they were comparatively modest. "Stuff Like That," combined with the ever-brightening spotlight in Rufus, left her truly poised for a breakout. Khan signed a deal with Warner Bros. and that October stepped out with Chaka. Establishing a lengthy partnership with producer and arranger Arif Mardin, the album featured "I'm Every Woman," an elegant disco anthem, written by Ashford & Simpson, that topped the R&B chart and reached number 21 on the Hot 100. While it departed from Khan's output with Rufus, the LP reaffirmed her Chicago roots with an update of "Love Has Fallen on Me," composed by Charles Stepney, who produced the song for the Rotary Connection's Hey Love.
During the first couple years of the following decade, Khan was featured on the charting De La Soul single "All Good?" and wrote an autobiography, Chaka! Through the Fire. In 2004, she collected another Grammy, this time for performing Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" with the Funk Brothers in the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Later that year, she returned to jazz standards with Classikhan, issued globally through various independent labels. Another change of direction was made with Funk This, a mixture of covers and originals with production from Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The album won the 2007 Grammy for Best R&B Album, while highlight "Disrespectful" won Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals. Khan continued collaborative work and received more honors, including one from her hometown, which renamed a street Chaka Khan Way. Khan's next solo release, "Like Sugar," arrived in 2018.
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