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20 People Who Changed Black Music: Funk Songstress Chaka Khan, the Stand-Out Singer

Once you get people started talking about Chaka Khan, it's hard to get them to stop.

"For her generation, she is considered the foremost female voice," said David Nathan, author of the book "Blues & Soul," and a writer for Billboard magazine and Soulmusic.com.

"People still seem to adore her, including the men who knew her way back when," said Yanick Rice Lamb, editorial director of Heart & Soul magazine and a journalism professor at Howard University, who first covered Khan while a college student. "I remember it seemed that every black man had that poster," referring to a Norman Seeff photo of Khan that also graced the inside cover of the "Rufusized" album, when she was a front singer for the funk band, Rufus.

With a great body, big hair and an even bigger voice, Khan was many a brother's dream girl in the 1970s.

"She has a real strong voice, and it has stayed that way. When other artists cover her songs, like Mary J. Blige, Whitney, people leave certain notes out," Lamb told BlackAmericaWeb.com.

Khan, born Yvette Marie Stevens in 1953, was raised on the south side of Chicago and formed her first group, the Crystalettes, at the age of 11. In high school, Khan joined the Afro-Arts Theater, a group that toured with Motown icon Mary Wells.

Khan quit high school in 1969 and joined a band called Lyfe. It was a short-lived relationship, and she quickly moved on to another dance band, the Babysitters. The third time proved to be the charm, as she formed Rufus with musicians Kevin Murphy and Andre Fisher, the group that would catapult her to fame.

Signed to the ABC Records label, the band's self-titled album debuted in 1973 and was a hit straight out the box. Before Khan went solo in 1978, Rufus racked up a half dozen gold or platinum albums.

In those five years, Rufus produced 11 chart albums and nine Top 40 hits, including "You Got The Love," "Sweet Thing," "Once You Get Started" and "Tell Me Something Good," a song penned by Stevie Wonder especially for Khan, which earned the group its first Grammy.

The year she went solo (although still contractually bound to Rufus), Khan's debut LP, "Chaka," soared to the top of the charts, thanks to her most anthemic record, the Ashford and Simpson-penned "I'm Every Woman," a song that became an even bigger hit in 1993 when Whitney Houston -- who sang back-up on Khan's version with her mother, Cissy - remade it. Two years later, in 1980, her second LP "Naughty," didn't do as well as the certified-gold "Chaka," but a year later, "What Cha' Gonna Do For Me" went gols, accelerated by its title cut and songs that include "Night in Tunisia," with Dizzy Gillespie and Herbie Hancock.

Aside from "Night in Tunisia," Khan's early efforts at jazz were not especially well received. In 1982, she recorded "Echoes of an Era," a collection of jazz standards, which was critically acclaimed, but - like many straight ahead jazz albums - wasn't a strong commercial success, despite stellar contributions by Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Stanley Clarke and Chick Corea.

Years later, her album "I Feel For You" went platinum, with the title cut earning a Grammy.

Throughout the rest of the '80s, Khan was a hot ticket. She won another Grammy in 1990 for her vocals with Ray Charles on Quincy Jones' cover of the Brothers Johnson's funk hit, "I'll Be Good To You." She also garnered a number of award nominations in the '90s and in this decade, including Grammys in 1993 and 2003.

Lamb praised Khan's willingness to try different genres and her staying power in the business, maintaining that she's a good role model for young artists trying to figure out how to lengthen one's career.

More recently, Lamb said, Khan is being introduced to a new generation of listeners through Kanye West's "Through the Wire," a song that samples Khan's "Through the Fire."

"I think it's good for younger artists to see the range of things she's done and the stage presence and the longevity," Lamb said.

Some feel she doen't get her props.

"Chaka Khan kinda gets squeezed between Aretha and Whitney and never gets her due," said Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of black pop culture at Duke University.

One of the reasons, Neal said, is that as the lead singer for an otherwise all-male funk band, she was known as much for being eye-candy as she was for her sound.

"When she started to do so solo work, like 'I'm Every Woman,'" Neal told BlackAmericaWeb.com, "it sparked her coming of age. But she clearly never reached the kind of status of Aretha or Patti (LaBelle). The casual fan may not get a full appreciation of her contributions."

"I disagree with that premise," Soulmusic.com's Nathan countered. "There's certainly nobody else when you think of soul music and rhythm and blues. I don't know who else you would think of.

"She hasn't necessarily developed the same kind of mainstream appeal, she's not a household name in that respect," Nathan said. "People may know the name -- not because they recognized her music, but because she is probably the pre-eminent vocalist of R&B for her generation. She had a trademark sound. She was part of a multi-ethnic group mixing R&B, pop and funk -- not just straight ahead R&B. She was part of a fusion group."

Andy Kellman, assistant editor of Allmusic.com, said what makes a vocalist like Chaka Khan stand out is that, unlike today's artists, she had to hone her craft in live performances on a regular basis.

"As a frame of reference," Kellman told BlackAmericaWeb.com, "if you only go back to the '80s, you really have to do some backtracking to understand what was going on before. You had to be able to perform at clubs two to four hours a set and travel across the country. Now, you're going to spend more time working on your image in the vocal booth more often than on the stage."

And, he said, "if you're on stage with Chaka Khan, vocally, you're at a deficit."

"She wasn't just belting them out in the '70s and '80s," said Kellman. "She covered a lot of ground, covering ballads, funk, disco, rock. I don't think they could have had anyone (else) who could have covered all that ground."

Khan's styling was so strong that she is "one of the few you can say improved a song originally performed by Prince," Kellman said of Khan's 1984 cover of "I Feel For You." "There's no way she can get enough credit."

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