Woman Of Fire
by Otis Stokes
If you’re ever in a conversation about female singers and you mention the name “Chaka,” no one will ever respond, “Chaka who?” Everyone knows who Chaka Khan is and has known now for over 40 years. The 10 time Grammy Award-winning vocalist is one of the greatest and most versatile singers of this or any other generation, possessing the rare ability to sing in eight different music genres, including R&B, jazz, pop, rock, gospel, country, classical and dance. She is a songwriter, producer, author, actor, philanthropist, entrepreneur and activist.
Born Yvette Marie Stevens in Chicago, Illinois and raised in the rough south-side housing projects, Khan attributed her love of music to her grandmother, who introduced her to jazz music as a child. Chaka became a fan of R&B music as a preteen and at 11 formed her first all-female singing group, the “Crystalettes,” which also included her sister Bonnie, who would later have her own career known as Taka Boom. As teenagers, Chaka and Bonnie became involved with an Afro-centric organization called the Afro-Arts Theater, where Yvette participated in a naming ceremony led by a Yoruba priest, who gave her the name “Chaka,” which means “Woman of Fire.” As her life and career would later attest, the meaning was who Chaka became.
During that time, Chaka and Bonnie also changed their group’s name to “Shades of Black” and replaced the other two members. In 1969, she dropped out of high school, having attended Calumet High and Kenwood High, and began to perform in small groups around the Chicago area. First performing with the group “Lyfe,” which included her then boyfriend Hassan Khan, whom she would later marry.
After years of performing in local bands, Chaka Khan was spotted by two members of a new group called “Rufus” in 1972 and joined the group soon after. Rufus later signed with ABC Records in 1973. Prior to Chaka signing with the label, she married her on-and-off boyfriend Hassan Khan, changing her stage name to Chaka Khan. In 1973, Rufus released their self-titled debut album. Despite their fiery rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Maybe Your Baby” from Wonder’s acclaimed “Talking Book” and the modest success of the Chaka-led ballad “Whoever’s Thrilling You (Is Killing Me),” the album failed to establish the group.
The group’s fortunes changed when Wonder himself collaborated with them on a song he had written for Chaka Khan. That song, “Tell Me Something Good,” became the group’s breakthrough hit, reaching #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1974 and later winning the group their first Grammy Award. The single’s success and the subsequent Ray Parker, Jr., Chaka Khan-penned follow-up single, “You Got the Love,” which peaked at #11 on the Billboard Hot 100, helped their second album, “Rags To Rufus,” reach platinum selling over a million copies.
Between 1974 and 1979, Rufus would release six platinum-selling albums including “Rufusized,” “Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan,” “Ask Rufus,” “Street Player” and “Masterjam.” Hits the group would score during this time included “Once You Get Started,” “Sweet Thing,” “Hollywood,” “At Midnight (My Love Will Lift You Up)” and “Do You Love What You Feel.” The majority of the band’s material was written and produced by the band itself with few exceptions. Most of Chaka’s compositions were collaborations with guitarist Tony Maiden.
Rufus became popular for their live performing act which featured Chaka’s dynamic vocals, making her the star attraction and selling out shows throughout the country. With her growing popularity as a star, it was inevitable that she would seek a solo career. Chaka’s debut as a solo artist was with the release of the smash hit “I’m Every Woman,” written by Ashford & Simpson. Working with the late producer-extraordinaire, Arif Mardin (Aretha Franklin, Bette Midler), her catalog grew even more impressive with hits such as “Clouds,” “Papillon,” “What ‘Cha Gonna Do For Me?” and the song that made Chaka Khan a household name the world over, “I Feel For You,” written by Prince.
This chart-topping, Grammy® Award-winning song also made music history. Released in 1984, it was the first R&B song to feature a rap, which was performed by Grandmaster Melle Mel. The album of the same name was certified platinum, thanks to two other hits, “This Is My Night,” and the ballad “Through The Fire.”
Unfortunately with success comes excess, and somewhere along the line Chaka fell into the dreaded drug addiction pit and although it didn’t destroy her career, it wreaked havoc in her life both publicly and privately. But because of the depths of her talent and her affable personality, Chaka was able to remain active and relevant to the music industry. Through these trying times, Chaka decided to broaden her horizons to theater and made her musical theater debut on London’s West End, where she starred in “Mama I Want to Sing.” Later, she traveled to Las Vegas, where she starred in “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” a critically-acclaimed musical based on the music of Stevie Wonder.
Her Broadway debut came in 2004, when she took over the role of Sofia in the musical “Oprah Winfrey Presents: The Color Purple.” Now fully recovered, Chaka talks about her struggles in her 2003 autobiography “Through The Fire,” which details her battle with drugs and alcohol plaguing her throughout much of her career. In her book, Chaka writes about an incident that she describes as “shameful and painful,” which helped propel her toward recovery.
With her sister’s encouragement, Chaka had begun working with Reverend Alfreddie Johnson at the World Literacy Project. She had, under his urging, started an arts program for at-risk children in Compton, Los Angeles. She worked with the children twice a week, and loved it and them, until one day she showed up in what she describes in her book as an “altered state.” She recalled, “The children were all eyes… they giggled, whispered. I felt so naked, so awfully wrong… how could I have done that to the children?”
In 2005, Chaka reached her final road to recovery by working with a life coach and entering a traditional residential rehabilitation program. Armed with her newly-found sobriety, Chaka Khan has established the “Chaka Khan Foundation,” which includes a variety of programs and initiatives that assist women and children at risk. In July, 2012, Chaka received the McDonald Corporation’s “365Black Award,” honoring her for her leadership of the Chaka Khan Foundation.
Besides being a successful musician and a devoted philanthropist, Chaka is also an entrepreneur. In 2004, she launched a line of gourmet chocolates, “Chakalates,” which was sold in 20 Neiman Marcus stores around the country. In February, 2013 she re-launched her signature brand of chocolates nationally and internationally. She also introduced the Khana Sutra candle, the first product in a fragrance line for men, women and the home.
With a career resume that includes ten #1 Billboard magazine charted songs, seven RIAA certified gold singles and ten RIAA certified gold and platinum albums, Chaka remains a force to be reckoned with. Her lifetime achievements being constantly recognized as with her star on the “Hollywood Walk of Fame” in 2011, the “Soul Train Legend Award” (2009), the “BET Lifetime Achievement Award” (2006), the “Grammy® Honors Award from the NARAS Chicago Chapter” (2006), the “World Music Lifetime Achievement Award” (2003) and her “Honorary Doctorate of Music” from the Berklee School of Music in Boston, MA.
This vocal-meister has received acclaim from such notable legends as Miles Davis (“She sings like my horn”), Aretha Franklin (“A one-of-a-kind premier vocalist”) and virtually everyone else from Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder, to Prince and George Benson have been touched by her extraordinary talents and have nothing but praise for her artistry. By all accounts, this sultry songstress known as Chaka Khan has definitely been “Through The Fire,” and has managed to come out smelling like roses.