Chaka Khan - Ain't Nobody Better: From Rufus To Prince To Transcending The Hall of Fame
by Geoff Walker
Chaka Khan. Mark Davis / BET / Getty Images
Chaka Khan is a treasure. Just witness her new Rhino re-release celebrating Black History Month which is filled with gold, i.e. classic, undeniable jams like "I'm Every Woman," "Tell Me Something Good," "Ain't Nobody" and "I Feel For You" that are an inextricable part of the American music canon. And her live career, spanning some five decades, is equally impressive, having played enormous stadiums and more intimate venues, which she now favors. According to Pollstar Boxoffice reports, Ms. Khan, aka the Queen of Funk, has grossed some $5.3 million over her last 50 shows. Pollstar spoke with the 67-year-old legend a few days after she was nominated for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and just before her Rhino release. Here, Chaka, as she likes to be called, spoke about her early days on Chicago's Rush Street, meeting her band Rufus, her live performances, some of her favorite artists, including Miles, Whitney and Count Basie and, of course, Prince, who apparently couldn't get enough of playing "Sweet Thing" with her.
POLLSTAR: How are you, Ms. Khan? Chaka Khan: I'm just fine. You can call me Chaka.
I appreciate that, Chaka. So the last live performance I saw before the pandemic began was in November 2019 at the EDITION Hotel in West Hollywood. I heard this voice and I'm literally thinking to myself, "That sounds like Chaka Khan, but that can't be here." And I'm like, "This DJ's killing it because it sounds live." The night was packed, so I start walking through the crowd. I'm like, "Get the hell out of here" - you were on stage, crushing the opening night. I remember that, I had fun. Except it was hot as hell down there. Getting to the club from the hotel room, the club was in the basement of the building, a descent into hell is what it felt like.
My experience was hearing your angelic voice in person for the first time in my life. So I appreciate you being that live voice that I heard before the whole world shut down and hearing it again now. That's poetic.
Is the intimate club environment preferable to you than a larger venue? Oh, hell yeah, when you can breathe. I love being able to see the people I'm singing to. To see their faces, what they look like and to touch people. I love studying people. It's really heaven for me. And if there's some air conditioning that works.
Does that bring you back to when youfirst started out going back to Chicago and playing the smaller clubs on Rush Street and the smaller venues there? Absolutely. And without thinking about it, it feels familiar to me when I play places like that. I enjoy a small audience, a more intimate situation. That's my favorite gig that I get to do.
Rufus featuring Chaka Khan perform on "Midnight Special" T.V. show 1975. (Photo by Gilles Petard/Redferns)
When you were coming up singing in Chicago,and I know you had The Crystalettes and then you kind of moved on and competed against some the other talented singers in Chicago. How did that come to fruition with hearing Rufus across the street from a gig you were at and somehow playing and joining their band? Well you have to understand, we used to play Rush Street. If your band got a gig on Rush Street, that means you were in, because it was like maybe four, five blocks of nothing but clubs back-to-back. And the audiences was mostly people from out of town, who wanted to have a night out. And if you and your band were a local band and you got to play Don Lollys, Rush Over or Mother's or one of those clubs, you had made it in Chicago, because that was the top of the line, you made it. The Holy Grail.
It just so happened that I was playing Rush Over. There's this guy named, his last name was actually Rush, and he owned three clubs. It was Don Lollys, Rush Up and Rush Over. So I was playing one of those clubs and Rufus was playing another one. They were right across the street from each other. The shows were like Top 40 songs and every band, be it rock or R&B or whatever, you had 20-minute breaks all night long. You had an hour on stage and then 20-minute breaks in between, all night until 3 o'clock in the morning. So on your little 20-minute break, you would rush out of the club and try to experience Rush Street. And Rufus just happened to be down the street from us.
I found out that they were The AmericanBreed before they became Rufus. I knew what their songs were. And back then a hip thing to do was to have a black woman singing in front of an all-white band. And there was a black woman, Paulette (McWilliams), another black woman, so being in the business longer than I, she took me under her wing when it came to my looks, fake eyelashes and makeup and also how to walk the tight rope in a world full of white dudes and a black woman as a singer. So we bonded right away from there and we're still close friends, tight friends.
You're known for your incredible style andwillingness to push the limits, especially during that time giving freedom to women to be able to rock what they wanted to rock and your costume fashion sense set you apart. And when coupled with your voice, I can only imagine what a band of white men were thinking when you came through. It was interesting [laughter]. It was what you expected, probably. There's a lot of things going on. But I was about the business. I'm a businesswoman. Period. I was like one of the fellas. I didn't run it, but I had my way in what I wanted to do. They treated me like a little sister. I was younger than all those guys. They were from a band that had seen success and were on their way down and tried to make it back up in the industry.
You gave them an injection. Yeah, yeah. Exactly. It turned out, Paulette had played with them before she quit, she was going to go solo. I was playing with a band called The Babysitters, which was right after Baby Huey died. And The Babysitters still had a band and she was actually with Rufus then.
So then you replaced her in Rufus and that fit perfectly. I did, yeah, I replaced her. And she said, "I'm going to go solo now, but the guys really love you." We jammed together and we had five minutes and I jammed with her a little bit and vice-versa.
And then you came out to California together, right? Yes, Rufus and I, we all came out together.
So when you got here, you sat in with Stevie Wonder and you guys collaborated on some songs. How was your and Stevie's vibe, together? Well, I adore Stevie. I thought he was the best thing since butter and bread - raisin bread, rather, than butter - but I just found that he has all these great gifts and we went on tour for like three years.
The King & Queen: Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan perform at the VH1 Divas Duets at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 22nd, 2003 in Las Vegas. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)
Together? Rufus and Stevie Wonder. We opened for him for three freaking years. In fact, they had to call us back in. The label had to call us back in to do our next album. They were calling us, and they were threatening legal action if we didn't get off the road and come back in and do another album, his label and mine. We became really good friends, that's where our friendship gelled. We became tight.
What are your favorite places to play live? The places you love - where you feed off the audience - that stand out to you? I like to play places where I'm appreciated. Now, a lot of places, I played in Los Angeles back in the day, really large places outdoors.
Chaka Khan, circa 1984. Nicky J. Sims / Redferns
Hollywood Bowl, Greek Theatre? Yeah, Hollywood Bowl is nice. Now, that's class, but I'm talking about the big crazy places where they had sports events outdoors. And it was me in the summer and it would be like 100 degrees and the sun beating down on you and the bands would start playing, like those festivals that went from like noon to 1 o'clock in the morning. And you would see people in the audience getting their hair braided and stuff as they're watching the concert - It was crazy - and really living their lives, just another day in the life for them with us as background music. Those kind of places are interesting to me, but they didn't fulfill me. I felt like background music. Sometimes they just got restless and a gun would go off, and we had to stop the show and wait 45 minutes before we went back on and continued.
Early on, I developed a real appreciation for Europe when I went for the first time and I saw people that actually sat down and listened. And when I did interviews there, they knew more about myself than I knew. When I went to Japan it was stressy to do interviews because they would call to mind stuff that I didn't know I did or forgot I did [laughter]. And they knew the whole skinny. They knew the year, who I was staying with, what street the studio was on, or whatever. For the first time I experienced real fanaticism. But that kind of fanaticism has an upside and a downside. But I prefer places where I can be heard. Places where you can hear the music, here's a good sound system, air conditioning in a small joint. I prefer smaller places. I'm really intimidated still by really, really large crowds. I just feel like I'm playing to a big slab of meat sometimes.
You like having that connection with the fans and people listening. Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. I'm really still a club chick.
Where would you want to perform as soon as
the world opens back up again? I love being at home. Let me tell you, I've not had a vacation, ever. I've never taken downtime. It's not worked. I mean I've played places like Hawaii. I'm not an Island person either but say, for instance, I play Nova Scotia. I would have loved to have stayed maybe three or four days after the show to get to know the place and to absorb the history of where I was at.
The culture. You never get a chance to do that. I've been everywhere but I don't know anything [laughter] - you know what I'm saying?
Because it's like the next city. Yes. I put that in the lyric. "You could say I've been everywhere but can't say what I've seen." And it's the truth. I've never really had a vacation, so I am luxuriating right now. I'm telling you. I am sleeping. I love to sleep. I'm a queen of sleep. I love My bed and the television are my favorite friends. [laughter]
Rhino's reissue of Epiphany: The Best of Chaka Khan, Vol. 1, will be out on Feb. 26, 2021
As the world awakens, who would you like to see live as things open up in a small, intimate environment? Who would you like to see musically? Most of the people I'd like to see have died. Like Miles Davis, I would love to see again. Of course, Prince, I'd love to see again. I'd love to hear Whitney, I'd love to see her. These are people who I would go out of my way, because I did not go out clubbing when I was working, because that's work for me to go to a club. And I would only go to a place where there was live music, like a jazz club I might frequent when I was in New York. love to go and hear jazz. So I would do that if I went out at all. But that's about it. Count Basie, my God. I saw him and I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. Marvin Gaye, Joni, shoot, k.d. lang, I haven't seen her for a minute. I love her shows. I love her music.
All those names are absolutely legendary like Count Basie, that's tremendous. I couldn't believe that I actually met him. I can't believe that I met and worked with so many people that my mother and father used to listen to. That was really magical for me.
To that point, when I was a youngster dancing, my parents would put on your records. The moments of just sitting back in the basement of our house in Chicago and in Michigan and listening to your music are some of the finest memories that I have of my time with my parents. So Rhino Records is about to re-release an incredible album of all your number ones, all of which I and everyone else loves and you've talked about before, but I want to know what are your favorite B-sides? Oh, all my favorite songs are mostly B-sides. [laughter]. And they're the ones when I finished an album or a CD or whatever, they would ask me what I think should be the first song to be released and some of them never happened. They always ended up picking it themselves. And most of them bombed. They didn't have the success that they thought they would. I believe we would have had a lot more success with singles had they listened to me, if I had that opportunity to be able to choose that song. To have more control.
When you and Prince were working together, obviously the big song, "I Feel for You," that was '84 I believe.,I was a young breakdancer at that period of time. My mom telling me to stop spinning on my head. [laughter] Yeah bouncing on cardboard boxes. [laughter]
I lived off of the cardboard boxes. That's so funny.
That's what we did. So you and Prince, similarto you and Stevie, you guys had an incredible connection when it came to collaborating. Any of those moments performing together, whether you're performing "Sweet Thing," whether you're performing some of your other songs, that stand out to you? Well, I got to say it, I got tired of singing "Sweet Thing" with Prince, okay. That was his favorite song. Every time I sat in with him, it was just "Sweet Thing" all night and he'd just "Sweet Thing" me to death. With Stevie, I didn't jam with him as much. I was still in sort of the beginnings of my career and I was still in too much awe. I was happy just to watch some of his shows. But he's one of the artists that I would stay and watch their show after I did my opening bit, I would stay instead of going back to the hotel. Prince and Stevie, I would watch their shows. I had favorite parts of the show. Of course, with Prince it was also like we were one act, a duet.
Sweet Things: Prince performing at Irving Plaza in 1998 with Chaka Khan in NYC. Bob Berg / Getty Images
Who else did you immediately gel with? Robert Palmer, we were on the same label. And we met one summer and we fell in love and everything. We were hanging out real tough. And he was in the studio. And he asked me to come in and sing a song with him. And we smoked it. It was beautiful. And we said, "Ooh, we smoked it, the record company is going to be so happy when they hear this because it's so great, and blah, blah, blah." They made him do another version of the song without me. They did not want me and him to sing together. It baffles me because I was like, "That's a win-win friggin' situation." And that was one of my racial experiences.
You think if you were white, they would have let that song run? Hell, yeah. Hell, yeah, yeah.
I'm sorry to hear that. What kind of things are you doing to give back? Are you still operating your philanthropic organization and foundation? Well, not as much as I was in the past because I'm doing so many other things now that are more based around honing my craft, you might say. I still do a lot of philanthropic work with people, but not on a large scale. I'm doing it on my own and do what I can because my life's become too busy to do all that and to run an organization.
How did the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nomination
make you feel? Well, it sounds like somebody really feels I should be in it. [laughter] I mean I remember when I wasn't up for it. Who chooses these people to be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? It can't have anything to do with the public. [laughter].
With Women's History Month coming up nextmonth, Black women have been the ones that have moved the needle of this country forward. And when you think about this past year, especially 2020 with Stacey Abrams and the work she did ... Absolutely, because the power that women possess, Black women in a special way, in a very special way, it's undeniable. It's just crazy, we've been used as pawns, too, to popularize a thing or a school of thought and carry it through. We've been fueling the whole thing forever.
Black women are an absolute treasure in this country and at the same time this country is trying to keep Black women underneath their thumb. It's amazing the perseverance that Black women have shown and still give to this country to make it a better place. I want to thank you for your time and wish you congratulations on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nomination. I want you in. I know the fans want you in. But at the end of the day, they can't take away Chaka's music from us, regardless of what happens. No, they can't take that away from me. That's right. That's right.
You have an untouchable legacy. I never started singing to win an award.