I had a brief love affair with Chaka Khan. It didn’t,
alas, come to much. In fact, without wishing to sound too sexist about it, my
ardour died somewhat after seeing her on an episode of The Tube. Dressed in fish-net tights and thigh-length black leather
boots and sporting about half as much weight again as the already buxom ‘wild
child’ with a huge ear-to-ear smile on the cover of Rufusized, she looked well, frankly rough.
As she sings on the album, anticipating her biggest solo
hit, ‘I’m a woman/I’m a backbone’. She sho’
'nuff was. And for a few years, Chaka Khan, Chak-Chak-Chaka Khan, was here,
there and everywhere. She was the queen of soul during the interregnum between
Aretha Franklin and… well, who is the queen of modern soul?
Probably not Erykah Badu, certainly not Angie Stone, possibly not even Sharon
Jones with or without her Daptones.
In any case, Rufus
were more on the cusp of rock and soul, which made this album a perfect point
of departure at a period of my life when my main focus was shifting from rock
to black music in all its wonderful facets. A mixed-race five-piece band, they
were in many ways the heirs to the throne that Sly & the Family Stone had
recently vacated and the album is full of songs that feature hard rocking
rhythms driven by the swirling organ associated with Sly’s band of troubadours
and the chugging wah-wah guitar passed on by James Brown. It’s surely no
coincidence that drummer André Fischer had been part of Curtis Mayfield’s
group, another pioneer of the soul/rock genre.
connection is a clue to the group’s origins: in the Windy City of Chicago, home
to the Curtom label (and of course Chess and Vee-jay). Chaka, apparently, was
an ardent young fan of the group and befriended the band’s original vocalist,
who persuaded the other band members on leaving them to sign up her young
friend. She even stayed on long enough to coach the future star through the
band’s repertoire. Now that’s what I call a friend.
At that point, the
band didn’t really look like it was going places. Their first album sank with
almost no trace, but – in recording it and its successor in LA – they hooked up
with a couple of Fischer’s mates whose guitar and bass would give the band the
funkier edge they needed for long-term success.
The apogee of the
six-piece Rufus Mk1 is the infectious ‘Tell Me Something Good’, which was given
to the band by Stevie Wonder when he heard them recording their second album in
the studio. This remarkably generous gesture is reminiscent of Lennon and
McCartney giving the Stones their first hit, ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’. Almost as
compellingly funky as ‘Superstition’, ‘Tell Me Something Good’ became a
Grammy-winning million-selling hit single and in the process must have earned the
group’s benefactor a fistful of royalties.
The replacement chantousse obviously exuded star quality and the second album, Rags To Rufus,
went platinum. I must have picked up on the surrounding publicity when Rufusized
was recorded and rush-released the same year (1974). One particular first-year
student spent too big a part of his parent’s parsimonious financial
contribution on a gatefold copy. Already by now the band was billed as ‘Rufus
Featuring Chaka Khan’, which would serve, ominously, as the fourth album’s
starts and concludes with its two best tracks: the dynamic brass-infused ‘Once
You Get Started’ (oh it’s hard to stop), with Chaka Khan’s utterly
irresistible high-octane vocals, and the simmering Bobby Womack-penned ‘Stop On
By’, whose relentless shuffling groove leads the tone-arm to its final resting
place. In between, there are plenty of good numbers, mainly up-tempo and funky,
including the instrumental title track that showed how the group could, for
now, get along well enough without their star vocalist.
It certainly hooked
me and from Rufusized I first went backwards to its less polished,
earthier predecessor and then forwards to several later releases, including the
Quincy Jones production, Masterjam, which is the only one of those later
albums that would remain on my shelves. Part of the problem perhaps derived
from the customary situation of the singer outgrowing the group. Internal
tensions led to changes in personnel and, perhaps, to Chaka Khan’s first,
eponymous, solo album – which gave the world the immortal ‘I’m Every Woman’.
wouldn’t have been helped by the fact that Chaka’s solo efforts sold like hot cakes,
while Rufus albums without her sank like mobsters in the Chicago River. Chaka
Khan would return for a couple of albums to fulfil contractual obligations, but
apart from the wonderful ‘Ain’t Nobody’, they were fairly forgettable.
Nevertheless, the divine Miss Khan and what became effectively her backing band
would both earn nominations for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Chaka Khan would
also go on to publish a co-authored autobiography, but such is the extent to
which my ardour diminished over the years that I never bothered to investigate.
I’m content enough now to listen to her belting it out on ‘Once You Get
Started’, ‘Ain’t Nobody’ or ‘I’m Every Woman’, that lithesome imp with a
radiant smile that spoke of the vitality of youth and a self-confident belief
in her future.