I coined Chaka Khan the true Queen of Soul in a post a couple of years back. No disrespect to Aretha Franklin (or Patti LaBelle, someone I also deemed worthy of consideration for the title.) They are clearly in the upper echelon of vocalists, regardless of gender, race or preferred musical genre. However, Chaka’s able to do things with her voice that I find more amazing than the things Aretha or Patti does, and her albums have a consistency that the other two divas haven’t really attained.
At any rate, this past weekend marked 10-time Grammy winner Chaka’s 60th birthday. While she’s busy with birthday celebrations and the preparation of a new album (have you guys heard the single “It’s Not Over” yet?) I decided to put together a short list of five of my favorite slightly under-the-radar Chaka tunes. Enjoy!
“Love Me Still” was recorded for the soundtrack of the Spike Lee film Clockers. It was released as a single, but didn’t gain much traction. The pretty ballad pairs Chaka with master pianist/composer Bruce Hornsby, a fave of my Popdose buddies (in addition to Spike, who has used the musician quite often over the years.) It’s understated for Chaka, but just because the power is down doesn’t mean the feeling is absent. Indeed, this might be my favorite CK song of all time. How the hell did I not know that there was a video for this?
Anyone doubting Chaka’s funk credentials obviously hasn’t heard her early material with Rufus, or the cut “Slow Dancin'” which was a duet with the Super Freak himself, Rick James. What seems like a somewhat incongruous pairing on paper is actually sizzling on wax. They had a chemistry (and I will refrain from making a drug-related joke at this time, as much as that pains me.) This slippery jam appears on Chaka’s self-titled 1982 album, which brought her the first of many Grammy awards she’s won as a solo artist.
Chaka is a master interpreter, having popularized songs written by Stevie Wonder, Prince, Joni Mitchell and many others. On her 1996 greatest hits album, Epiphany, she offered up an island-flavored version of Fleetwood Mac’s Eighties hit “Everywhere” that’s better than the already masterful original (at least in my humble opinion.) This live version makes great use of her jazz chops and idiosyncratic phrasing. Her band ain’t no joke, either.
I was living in Michigan when Chaka Khan’s I Feel for You single and album hit, and “Stronger Than Before” received quite a bit of airplay as an album cut. The Carole Bayer Sager-penned tune was also cut by Mother’s Finest vocalist Joyce Kennedy around the same time, and seeing that there was much vocal similarity between the two singers, it was really easy to get the two confused. On this live performance, there’s a beardy, mulleted horn player added to the album mix, which I’m not crazy about. Still, Chaka sends this one into the rafters.
Chaka’s most recent studio album, Funk This, won 2 more Grammys and earned Chaka her highest chart rank in more than twenty years. Buoyed by the presence of producers Jam & Lewis, Rufus cohort Tony Maiden, and vocalists Mary J. Blige and Michael McDonald, the album proved that CK was still relevant…hell, essential! My favorite track from the album is “Will You Love Me?” Chaka utilizes her lower range here, and the song’s chorus is super catchy. The insistence with which she repeats the song’s title over and over towards the end of the song is super tasty.