Interview

Chaka Khan: ‘I found ways to hang on. Substance abuse, and all kinds of other s***’

The ‘Ain’t Nobody’ singer talks to Stevie Chick about the rap at the start of ‘I Feel for You’, her years battling drug addiction and alcoholism and her collaboration with Sia

Tuesday 11 June 2024 10:39
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‘I just tell the truth all the time, and I can’t help it. It upsets people sometimes. But hell, if the truth upsets you I can’t really help that’
‘I just tell the truth all the time, and I can’t help it. It upsets people sometimes. But hell, if the truth upsets you I can’t really help that’ (Getty)

You’re supposed to take things easier when you hit your golden years, but clearly no one has told Chaka Khan. The 71-year-old singer is a restless tornado of activity, telling us her life story, packing for a forthcoming six-week European tour (which includes headline sets at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire and the Love Supreme festival in Sussex) and, at this very moment, building up a sizeable head of steam over one of the events she’s playing this summer advertising her as “the Queen of Funk”.

“That’s ridiculous!” she growls, carefully placing another fabulous garment into her suitcase at her Georgia home. “I’ve been trying to drop that ‘funk’ thing forever. For. EVER! I hate to be boxed in, you know?”

Oh, we know. For the last half-century, Khan has followed her own North Star and bent funk, soul, disco, rock and jazz to her formidable will, outpacing and outlasting her contemporaries and triumphing over drug addiction, alcoholism and the worst impulses of a mendacious recording industry. The only constant has been that voice, elevating timeless anthems like “I’m Every Woman”, “Ain’t Nobody” and “I Feel for You”, and owning deeper cuts like “Roll Me Through the Rushes”, “Sweet Thing” and her astonishing version of “Love Has Fallen on Me”. Khan’s voice is an absolute force of nature, and in those moments where she breaks from the melody, lost in emotion, and reaches for the sublime, it feels…

“…it feels like when the wheels of an airplane leave the tarmac – like I’m lifting off,” she says. “It feels like I’m soaring.” She pauses for a second, then smiles. “Music balances me out. It makes everything okay. It lets me know I’m in the right place. It’s where I fit, where I live. It’s what I live for.”

Music was always everything to Khan. Raised by bohemian parents in a south Chicago home where records were always playing, she says she was “singing and dancing as soon as I could walk”. By junior high, she’d joined younger sister Bonnie and two friends in her first group, The Crystallettes. “We were my mother’s proteges – she’d make our dresses and do our hair and makeup and leave us looking like china dolls.”

‘My journey was necessary – it had to happen so I could come out like I am right now’
‘My journey was necessary – it had to happen so I could come out like I am right now’ (Getty)

But it wasn’t until a visit to nightclub the Burning Spear – when a teenaged Khan joined the house band for an impromptu Aretha Franklin cover and the other patrons started throwing money onstage – that she seriously pursued music as a career. She started out singing covers at clubs on Chicago tourist trap Rush Street, befriending funk-rock group Ask Rufus, who were playing across the street. When that group’s singer, Paulette McWilliams, grew tired of the grind, she suggested Khan take the job. The decision was a no-brainer – Ask Rufus were writing their own material. Soon after joining, the group signed to ABC Records (dropping the “Ask” from their moniker); Khan says “It felt like destiny.”

Though success took its sweet time, Rufus didn’t mind. “We were all hippies, you know?” she grins. “Seven of us living in the same apartment, all on welfare… We handled it. We survived. We loved it, really.” Their eponymous 1973 debut LP went mostly unnoticed, save for a steamy cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Maybe Your Baby” that showcased Khan’s inextinguishable vocal. Wonder himself stopped by the studio while the group were working on the follow-up, offering them an unrecorded song of his, “Come and Get This Stuff”.

“And I told Stevie, ‘I don’t like it – what else you got?’,” Khan says. Wonder, the biggest star of soul by 1973? Maybe the greatest genius in pop, full stop? How often does she think Stevie heard “I don’t like your song, what else have you got?”

“I don’t think he ever heard that at all,” she grins. “But I wasn’t thinking about that. I just tell the truth all the time, and I can’t help it. It upsets people sometimes. But hell, if the truth upsets you I can’t really help that.” And Wonder wasn’t upset. “Stevie said, ‘What’s your birth sign?’ Aries. ‘Oh, I got the song for you…’ And then he started playing that ‘wakka-wakka’ on the keyboard, and – bam! – there it was.”

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The “it” in question was “Tell Me Something Good”, the group’s Stevie-penned first hit single, which reached Billboard’s Top 3 in 1974. To ride this momentum, Rufus relocated to Los Angeles, but success brought with it the first in a series of rude awakenings. “The record company renamed us ‘Rufus and Chaka Khan’,” she sighs. “That caused a huge rift in how the band felt about me. I was totally against it, and made that very clear. But the label said, ‘Go along with it, or forget it.’ Of course, I had to ride the pony, for everybody’s sake. But it broke my heart, for them to feel… secondary to me. We’d all been equals. But something beautiful died during that second album, Rags to Rufus, and people are still recovering from what happened. I love those guys. But we can’t talk straight like we used to any more.”

This guy saying my name over and over… I was like, Oh, hell no

Chaka Khan

Rufus ploughed on with a series of strong albums and hits like “Sweet Thing” and “Stay”. But then, in 1978, Khan released her solo debut, which was a hit, and Rufus recorded a Chaka-less album, which wasn’t. Khan returned to Rufus for 1979’s Quincy Jones-produced Masterjam, then quit again, then returned, then quit again, then returned for a final live album, 1983’s Stompin’ at the Savoy.

By then, Khan was already an established solo star, though the role didn’t come easy to her. “I had a very hard time, especially in concert. I was so used to having [guitarist Tony Maiden] on one side of me and [bassist Bobby Watson] on the other.” In Rufus, she’d simply been the voice. Now she was the star, the focus. “All of a sudden, I’m all on my own. I had to step forward and be what was really going on. And I didn’t know how to do that. And the record company was screwing Rufus, screwing me – there was just a royal lot of screwing going on. And I was beginning to lose my love for what I love to do. And that scared the hell out of me. Because if I lost that… I wouldn’t be here. I’d have to go. Do you know what I’m saying? So I found ways to hang on. Substance abuse, and all kinds of other s***.”

The bright spot amid all this misery was her working relationship with legendary producer Arif Mardin, who helmed her first six solo albums. “Arif really helped me with my self-esteem issues,” she says. “He pulled me into his family, and I loved them all – his wife, Latife, and his children. We were all very close, living a block from each other on New York’s Upper West Side. Having a family like that again made me stronger.” Mardin pushed Khan beyond her comfort zones, urging her to reinterpret Dizzy Gillespie’s landmark jazz composition “A Night in Tunisia” as “And the Melody Still Lingers On”. “He said, [affects heavy Turkish accent], ‘My dear, we’re going to do this song, okay? No, no – you can do it!’ He made me focus on what was real. He’d challenge me all the time. And we’d have fights in the studio. I’d be overdubbing my background vocals, and he’d cut in, saying ‘I’m looking at the sheet music and that is not correct!’ I don’t have sheet music, I can’t read music. ‘But my dear, it’s not correct.’ Well, if it doesn’t sound good… ‘It sounds beautiful!’ Then what the hell are we talking about?? [pause] ‘Carry on!’”

Khan describes these fights as “mere tiffs”, though one dispute cut deeper than most: when she recorded perhaps her greatest anthem, her cover of Prince’s “I Feel for You”, in 1984. “I just liked the song, and I recorded it, and I went home,” she says. “That night, Arif called in the rapper [Grandmaster Melle Mel]. His move, not mine. I came in the next day and heard the rapper’s introduction and… I was devastated. This guy, saying my name over and over, and what he wants to do to me… I was like, Oh, hell no. ‘Don’t worry my dear, it will be a hit.’ I just shut up then, because as I always told Arif, I can’t tell a hit from a non-hit – I love all my songs – but he was trained to do that. And that track did its thing, it kept me current. But I’ll never get used to the rapper saying my name over and over and over again.”

‘I was singing and dancing as soon as I could walk’
‘I was singing and dancing as soon as I could walk’ (Getty)

The track led to a number of fruitful collaborations and a long-running friendship with Prince. His death in 2016 still troubles her. “I’ve lost so many people I loved,” she says. “I’ve lost Whitney [Houston, a close friend since lending backing vocals to Khan’s second album, Naughty]. I’ve lost Miles [Davis, who played horn on her 1988 album CK]. So at my age, I’m gathering up all my young people.” Among those newer friends is singer/songwriter/producer Sia, whose new single “Immortal Queen” is both duet with and tribute to Khan. The pair have just completed work on a new Khan album, which she hopes will be released before the end of the summer.

“That woman is amazing,” Khan smiles. “You know the song, ‘Killing Me Softly’? That’s her, that’s what she does to me. She’s in my head and my heart, she says what I want to say. She’s been listening to me since she was a little girl, so she feels like she grew up with me. It’s like I’ve been waiting for her to grow up and come see me, so we can do this. I was at her house a couple of weeks ago and Willow [Smith, daughter of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith] came to dinner, and I got to know her, too. Great human being, great writer, great singer. We may do something together in the future. So all these wonderful things are coming to me now. It’s like a renaissance or something.”

Khan’s in buoyant mood now, almost bubbling over, but still grounded. Of the years she spent battling drug addiction and alcoholism, she says, “My journey was necessary – it had to happen so I could come out like I am right now. I wouldn’t have the depth of feeling I do if I hadn’t gone through the things I went through, you dig? There are things I have done in my life I will never do again. Those were my life lessons. And I got the lesson. That’s the important thing. I got it. I’m all about right now, and what’s next, I do not wallow in the mire.” She places another dazzling outfit in the suitcase and zips it closed, ready for her next adventure. “And I don’t regret a thing.”

Chaka Khan is on tour this summer, including shows at Blenheim Palace on 13 June (nocturnelive.com) and the Love Supreme Jazz Festival on 7 July (lovesupremefestival.com). See chakakhan.com for all dates. She also curates this year’s Meltdown festival from 14-23 June.

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