|When asked if she would sing Ain’t Nobody at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, Chaka replied, laughing, "Are you kidding? If I didn’t I would risk a lynching!"|
Bugs' interview with Chaka Khan originally ran in Three Dollar Bill on June 28, 2007
I finally got Chaka Khan on the phone after our first two interviews were postponed. But whatever you do, do not call Chaka Khan a diva.
“It’s not what I am,” Chaka says. “I’m a nice girl. ‘Diva’ to me has a negative connotation. But if people want to call me a diva, call me what you want. Just call me.”
Chaka, born Yvette Stevens in 1953 (“My mom calls me Yvette, my sister calls me every name in the book”), got her saucy sense of humour growing up in Chicago’s tough South Side where she formed her first group, the Crystalettes, at the ripe old age of 11.
But it was during her stint as a volunteer for the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for Children program that she adopted the African name “Chaka.”
So she teamed up with musicians Kevin Murphy and Andre Fisher to form the multiracial ’70s funk band Rufus. Stevie Wonder loved Chaka’s vocals so much he wrote their pop hit Tell Me Something Good. But Chaka would fly solo by decade’s end, charting with her anthem I’m Every Woman. But like Tina Turner during that era, she accepted whatever gig paid the bills.
“I [even] played some hotel back in Montreal for two weeks in the late ’70s. It was a landmark hotel, but I can’t remember the name or the dates. Hell, I can’t remember yesterday.”
Chaka does remember working and recording with a who’s who of the music business: Luther Vandross, Rick James, Prince (whose obscure track I Feel for You Chaka took to the top of the charts worldwide in 1984, and with whom she also toured in 2011), Steve Winwood, Joni Mitchell, Ray Charles, Herbie Hancock and Dizzy Gillespie (they recorded Night in Tunisia with Chaka, and producer Arif Mardin says Chaka hit “notes that aren’t in the book”), as well as Motown’s original house band The Funk Brothers, with whom she won her eighth Grammy in 2002 for her monumental rendition of Marvin Gaye’s classic song What’s Going On (she’s been nominated 19 times and won 10).
“I felt it was such a timely song what with these [right-wing] nuts running our government [at the time],” Chaka says. "I felt that song and playing with all those original guys had an impact.”
Chaka has sung everything (check out the incredible video below of a young Chaka singing the blues with Etta James, Gladys Knight and B.B. King). When I ask what her favourite genre of music is, she replies, “[All] music. But my favourite musicians are Miles Davis and Charlie Parker.”
Jazz legend Betty Carter has praised Chaka’s improvisational skills. And you can hear the influence of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan in Chaka’s approach.
“I love these women,” she says. “They’re all in my voice. I am a culmination and combination of them all. And they laid the groundwork for me as black women. I have the most amazing appreciation for them. I do get it.”
What Chaka gets most of all is her core gay fan base, whom she loves back unconditionally.
In return, the gay community lavished their love on Chaka. But what is it about Chaka Khan that gay men most adore – the big hair? the big voice? the big heart?
“Maybe it’s the butch in me! I dunno, I’ve been asked that question so many times. But I will say this: In a crunch, when I’ve been in need, when things weren’t going well, the gay community always bailed me out. They’re my most loyal friends and following and they have a special place in my heart.”
“Kids have always loved me and I have a soft spot in my heart for them,” Chaka tells me. “I even got to sing with Elmo.”
Click here for the official Chaka Khan website.