Chaka Khan – Ain’t Nobody Better: From Rufus To Prince To Transcending The Hall of Fame
Mark Davis / BET / Getty Images – Chaka Khan
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.
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.
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.
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.
(Photo by Gilles Petard/Redferns) –
Rufus featuring Chaka Khan perform on “Midnight Special” T.V. show 1975.
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 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.
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.
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.
(Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images). –
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
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.
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.
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.
Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. I’m really still a club chick.v
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, similar to 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.
Bob Berg / Getty Images. –
Sweet Things: Prince performing at Irving Plaza in 1998 with Chaka Khan in NYC.
You think if you were white, they would have let that song run?
Hell, yeah. Hell, yeah, yeah.
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?
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.
No, they can’t take that away from me. That’s right. That’s right.
I never started singing to win an award.