Chaka Khan (born Yvette Marie Stevens; March 23, 1953), frequently known as the “Queen of Funk“, is a 10-time Grammy Award winning American singer-songwriter who gained fame in the 1970s as the frontwoman and focal point of the funk band Rufus. While still a member of the group in 1978, Khan embarked on a successful solo career. Her signature hits, both with Rufus and as a solo performer, include “Tell Me Something Good“, “Sweet Thing” which she wrote for her then husband RIchard Holland, “Ain’t Nobody“, “I’m Every Woman“, “I Feel for You” and “Through the Fire“.
Early life: 1953–1972
Khan was born Yvette Marie Stevens in Chicago, Illinois. Raised in Chicago’s rough South Side housing projects, Khan was the eldest of five children to Charles Stevens and Sandra Coleman. Her sister Yvonne Stevens later became a successful musician in her own right under the name Taka Boom. Her only brother Mark Stevens, who formed the funk group Aurra, also became a successful musician. She has two other sisters, Kathleen Burrell and Tammy McCrary, who is her current manager. Unlike many of her musical contemporaries, Khan was raised as Roman Catholic. Khan attributed her love of music to her grandmother, who introduced her to jazz music as a child. Khan became a fan of R&B music as a preteen and at eleven formed her first all-female singing group the Crystalettes, which also included her sister Taka. In the late 1960s, Khan and her sister formed the vocal group Shades of Black and joined the Black Panther Party after befriending fellow member, activist and Chicago native Fred Hampton in 1967. While a member, she was given a name change to Chaka Adunne Aduffe Hodarhi Karifi by an African shaman. In 1969, she left the Panthers, dropped out of high school, having attended Calumet High School and Kenwood High School (now Kenwood Academy), and began to perform in small groups around the Chicago area, first performing with the group Lyfe, which included her then boyfriend Hassan Khan, whom she’d later marry. Khan was asked to replace the late Baby Huey of Baby Huey & the Babysitters after Huey’s untimely death, in 1970. The group disbanded a year later. While performing in local bands in 1972, Khan was spotted by two members of a new group simply called Rufus and soon won her position in the group. The group later signed with ABC Records in 1973. Prior to Khan signing with the label, she married her on-again, off-again boyfriend Hassan Khan, changing her stage name to Chaka Khan.
Early career and success: 1973–1978
In 1974, Rufus released their self-titled debut album. Despite their fiery rendition of Stevie Wonder‘s “Maybe Your Baby” from Wonder’s acclaimed Talking Book and the modest success of the Khan-led ballad “Whoever’s Thrilling You (Is Killing Me)”, the album failed to garner attention. That changed when Wonder himself collaborated with the group on a song he had written for Khan. That song, “Tell Me Something Good“, became the group’s breakthrough hit, reaching number-three on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1974 later winning the group their first Grammy Award. The single’s success and the subsequent follow-up, “You Got the Love“, which peaked at number-eleven on the Billboard Hot 100 helped their second parent album, Rags to Rufus, go platinum selling over a million copies. Between 1974 and 1979, Rufus would release six platinum-selling albums including Rufusized, Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan, Ask Rufus, Street Player and Masterjam. Hits the group would score during this time included “Once You Get Started”, “Sweet Thing“, “Hollywood”, “At Midnight (My Love Will Lift You Up)” and “Do You Love What You Feel“.
The band gained a reputation as a live performing act with Khan becoming the star attraction, thanks to her powerful vocals and stage attire, which sometimes included Native American garb and showing her midriff. Most of the band’s material was written and produced by the band itself with few exceptions. Khan has also been noted for being an instrumentalist playing drums and bass, she also provided percussion during her tenure with Rufus. Most of Khan’s compositions were often collaborations with guitarist Tony Maiden. Relations between Khan and the group, particularly between Khan and group member Andre Fischer, became stormy. Several group members left with nearly every release. While Khan remained a member of the group, she signed a solo contract with Warner Bros in 1978. While Khan was busy at work on solo material, Rufus released three albums without Khan’s participation including 1979’s Numbers, 1980’s Party ‘Til You’re Broke and 1983’s Seal in Red.
Early solo career and final years with Rufus: 1978–1983
In 1978, Warner Bros. Records released Khan’s solo debut album, which featured the crossover disco hit, “I’m Every Woman“, written for her by songwriters Ashford & Simpson. The success of the single helped the album go platinum, selling over a million copies. Khan also was a featured performer on Quincy Jones‘ hit, “Stuff Like That”, also released in 1978.
In 1979, Khan reunited with Rufus to collaborate on the Jones-produced Masterjam, which featured their hit, “Do You Love What You Feel“, which Khan sang with Tony Maiden. Despite her sometimes-acrimonious relationship with some of the group’s band mates, Khan and Maiden have maintained a friendship over the years. In 1979 she also duetted with Ry Cooder on his album Bop Till You Drop. In 1980, while Rufus released their second non-Khan release, Party ‘Til You’re Broke, Khan released her second solo album, Naughty, which featured Khan on the cover with her six-year-old daughter Milini. The album yielded the minor disco hit “Clouds” and went gold. Khan released two albums in 1981, the Rufus release, Camouflage and the solo album, What Cha’ Gonna Do for Me. The same year, Khan appeared on three tracks on Rick Wakeman‘s concept album 1984. In 1982, Khan issued two more solo albums, the jazz-oriented Echoes of an Era and a more funk/pop-oriented self-titled album. The latter album’s track, the jazz-inflected “Bebop Medley”, won Khan a Grammy and earned praise from Betty Carter who loved Khan’s vocal scatting in the song.
In 1983, following the release of Rufus’ final studio album, Seal in Red, which did not feature Khan, the singer returned with Rufus on a live album, Stompin’ at the Savoy – Live, which featured the studio single, “Ain’t Nobody“, which became the group’s final charting success reaching number twenty-two on the Billboard Hot 100 and number-one on the Hot R&B chart, while also reaching the top ten in the United Kingdom. Following this release, Rufus separated for good.
I Feel For You and Solo success: 1984–1996
In 1984, Khan released her sixth studio album, I Feel for You. The title track was the first single released. Originally written and recorded by Prince for his eponymous follow-up to his debut album in 1979, it had been previously recorded by The Pointer Sisters and Mary Wells. Khan’s version featured a harmonica solo by Stevie Wonder and was closely associated with the singer as in the song’s introductory rap Grandmaster Melle Mel states “Chaka Khan” repeatedly. This version of the song became a million-selling smash in the U.S. and UK, and it helped to relaunch Khan’s career. I Feel For You topped not only the U.S. R&B and dance charts, but achieved great success on U.S. pop charts, and reached number one in the United Kingdom as well. The song reached number three on the Billboard Hot 100 in December 1984, and remained on that chart for 26 weeks, well into 1985. It was listed as Billboard’s number 5 song for the year 1985, and netted Prince the 1985 Grammy Award for Best R&B Song. In addition to the song’s successful radio airplay and sales, a music video of Chaka Khan with break dancers in an inner-city setting enjoyed heavy airplay on television and helped to solidify Chaka Khan’s notoriety in popular culture.
Other singles which helped the I Feel For You album to go platinum included “This is my Night” and the ballad “Through the Fire“, the latter which was also very successful on the adult contemporary charts. Khan was featured in Steve Winwood‘s 1986 number one hit, “Higher Love“. That same year, a duet was planned with Robert Palmer for his album Riptide, on the song “Addicted To Love“. However, her manager declined to allow the duet to be released, citing the desire to not have too much “product” from her in the marketplace at one time; she was still credited for the vocal arrangements in the album’s liner notes, and the song became an international hit. Khan followed up her successful I Feel For You album with 1986’s Destiny and 1988’s CK. Khan found more success in the late 1980s with a remix album, Life is a Dance – The Remix Project, which reached the top ten on the UK albums chart. As a result Khand performed regularly in the United Kingdom, where she maintained a strong fan base.
In 1990, she was a featured performer on another major hit when she collaborated with Ray Charles and Quincy Jones on a new jack swing cover of The Brothers Johnson‘s “I’ll Be Good to You“, which was featured on Jones’ Back on the Block. The song reached number-eighteen on the Billboard Hot 100 and number-one on the Hot R&B chart, later winning Charles and Khan a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance By a Duo or Group. Khan returned with her first studio album in four years in 1992 with the release of The Woman I Am, which went gold thanks to the R&B success of the songs “Love You All My Lifetime” and “You Can Make the Story Right”. Khan also contributed to soundtracks and worked on a follow-up to The Woman I Am which she titled Dare You to Love Me, which was eventually shelved. In 1995, she and rapper Guru had a hit with the duet “Watch What You Say”, in the UK. That same year, she provided a contemporary R&B cover of the classic standard, “My Funny Valentine“, for the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack. In 1996, following the release of her greatest-hits album, Epiphany: The Best of Chaka Khan, Vol. 1, Khan abruptly left Warner Bros. after stating the label had neglected her and failed to release Dare You to Love Me.
Later career and current work: 1998–present
In 1998, Khan signed a contract with Prince’s NPG Records label and issued Come 2 My House, followed by the single “Don’t Talk 2 Strangers“, a cover of a 1996 Prince song. Khan later went on a tour with Prince as a co-headlining act. In 2000, Khan departed from NPG and in 2004 released her first jazz covers album in twenty-two years with 2004’s ClassiKhan. She also covered “Little Wing” with Kenny Olson on the album Power of Soul: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix. Three years later, after signing with Burgundy Records, Khan released what many critics called a “comeback album” with Funk This, produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
The album featured the hit, “Angel”, and the Mary J. Blige duet, “Disrespectful”. The latter track went to number one on the U.S. dance singles chart, winning the singers a Grammy Award, while Funk This also won a Grammy for Best R&B Album. The album was notable for Khan’s covers of Dee Dee Warwick‘s “Foolish Fool” and Prince‘s “Sign o’ the Times“. In 2008, Khan participated in the Broadway adaptation of The Color Purple playing Ms. Sofia to Fantasia Barrino‘s Celie.
In a 2008 interview Khan said that she, unlike other artists, felt very optimistic about the current changes in the recording industry, including music downloading. “I’m glad things are shifting and artists – not labels – are having more control over their art. My previous big record company (Warner Music) has vaults of my recordings that haven’t seen the light of day that people need to hear. This includes Robert Palmer‘s original recording of “Addicted to Love” – which they took my vocals off of! We are working on getting it (and other tracks) all back now.”
In 2009, Khan hit the road with singers Anastacia and Lulu for Here Come the Girls. In 2010, Khan contributed to vocals for Beverley Knight‘s “Soul Survivor“, collaborated with Clay Aiken on a song for the kids show Phineas and Ferb, and performed two songs with Japanese singer Ai on Ai’s latest album The Last Ai. Khan continues to perform to packed audiences both in her native United States and overseas.
On May 19, 2011, Khan was given the 2,440th Hollywood Walk of Fame star plaque on a section of Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. Her family was present when the singer accepted the honor, as was Stevie Wonder, who had written her breakout hit “Tell Me Something Good“.
On September 27, 2011, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame committee announced that Khan and her former band Rufus were jointly nominated for induction to the hall. It was the collective’s first nomination 13 years after they were first eligible. The group were nominated partly due to Khan’s own storied reputation, including her own solo career in conjunction with her years with Rufus.
Khan has been married twice and is the mother of two children, daughter Milini, 36, and son Damien Holland, 22. Khan’s first marriage was to Hassan Khan, in 1970, when she was 17. They divorced a short time later. Milini’s birth was the result of a relationship between Khan and Rahsaan Morris. Khan married her second husband, Richard Holland, in 1976. The marriage reportedly caused a rift between Khan and several members of Rufus, in particular, Andre Fischer. Khan dated a Chicago-area schoolteacher in the mid-1980s in the middle of her solo stardom. Following their separation, Khan moved to Europe, first settling in London, later buying a residence in Germany.
In the past, Khan struggled with drug abuse and alcoholism. Her drug use, which at times included cocaine and heroin, ended sometime in the early 1990s. Khan would have an on-again, off-again struggle with alcoholism until 2005 declaring herself sober. In 2006, her son Damien Holland was accused of murder after 17-year-old Christopher Bailey was shot to death. Khan testified on her son’s behalf defending her son’s innocence. Holland claimed the shooting was an accident and was found not guilty. Though she sang at both the 2000 Democratic and Republican conventions, Khan says that she is more of a “Democratic-minded person”.
Recently Khan won temporary custody of her granddaughter after reporting that her granddaughter’s mother, girlfriend of Khan’s son Damien Holland, was unwilling to raise her due to her drug addiction. It was reported that Khan’s son was also addicted to drugs