Chaka Khan Biography

Chaka Khan

The energetic soul diva Chaka Khan found fame in the disco-infused eras of the 70s and 80s and remixes of her songs still fill the nightclub floor

You'd be hard pushed to find someone who hasn't heard of Chaka Khan. Her music has been performed around the world for decades and covered by scores of other artists, keen to follow in her footsteps. Her wacky hairstyle and huge grin have never disappeared over the years and she has always captured the essence of uplifting, foot-tapping sounds that one and all can sing along to. Queen of all genres, be it blues, jazz, rock, folk, rock, hip-hop and more, Khan has fans across the whole musical spectrum.

Chaka Khan was born Yvette Marie Stevens in Chicago on 23 March 1953. Music was in her soul from a young age and at 11 she formed her first music group with her sister Yvonne called The Crystalettes, which took influence from her favourite singers Billie Holiday and Gladys Knight. She was still at school when she joined the Afro-Arts Theatre, a group which toured with Motown legend Mary Wells.

In 1969, Khan became active in the black power movement and joined the Black Panther Party where she began working on the organisation's breakfast programme for children. It was at this time that she decided to drop out of high school. She also adopted a shortened version of an African name she had been given during a naming ceremony at the Afro-Arts Theatre (Chaka Adunne Aduffe Yemoja Hodarhi Karifi). She became Chaka Khan after marrying bassist Hassan Khan in 1970.

She next joined a group called Lyfe, exiting soon after to become a member of soul band The Babysitters. Neither group showed any sign of making the leap to success, but Khan's luck was to change when she decided to form a new band with Kevin Murphy and Andre Fischer to become Rufus.

Rufus' funk and R&B sound culminated in the band's first album release, 'Rufus' in 1973 on ABC Records, but the band failed to ignite any kind of huge interest from fans and critics alike. However, with the help of Stevie Wonder who penned a single 'Tell Me Something Good' for them (selling more than a million copies), the band crashed back onto the music scene with their second album 'Rags to Rufus' a year later. It was a big success and earned them a Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus for (1974).

The 1970s was to be the decade of soul and funk, and Rufus continued their success with no less than eight platinum albums. In spite of this, in 1978 Khan decided to take a chance in leaving the band and going solo. She released her first solo album 'Chaka' in 1978 and it proved an international hit with the single 'I'm Every Woman' (later to be covered by Whitney Houston), scoring a number one spot and eventually becoming Khan's signature song.

The success of 'Chaka' was somewhat overshadowed by the fact that she was still bound to a contract with Rufus for two more albums. She subsequently contributed to Rufus's album 'Masterjam' in 1979, 'Camouflage' (1981) and 'Stompin' at the Savoy' (1983) to put her in the unique position of earning two Grammy Awards in 1983 – as a solo artist with single 'The Be Bop Melody' (Best Vocal Arrangement for Two or More Voices) and as a member of Rufus with single 'Ain't Nobody' (Best Rhythm & Blues Performance by a Group).

1984's 'I Feel for You' followed the success of Khan's previous solo efforts thanks to the lead single of the same title (borrowed from another hit-artist, Prince). The album hit the top of the charts and won her yet another Grammy.

By this time, Khan had been married twice and had two children. Her daughter Milini was born in 1973 to first husband Hassan Khan and son Damien arrived in 1978 to second husband Richard Holland (she was in fact pregnant with Damien on the cover of her album 'Chaka'). Khan and Holland were not destined to last and divorced by 1980.

It would seem that the past two decades of continual acclaim would finally reach a standstill when Khan's popularity began to waver in the late 80s and early 90s. Her album sales had slowed and she decided to take time out to move to London with her children, while extending her repertoire to acting at the same time. Her role in the stage musical 'Mama I Want To Sing' (1996) was received with applause in London and she settled well into life on the other side of the pond.

Khan has always been proud to speak out about her alcohol and drug problems, which plagued her for a significant chunk of her career. To celebrate being free of both her addictions for good, she set up the Chaka Khan Foundation in 1999 to help women suffering from the same problems. “I led a risky life. It was my youth, that invincibility thing. Then my Pisces side kicked in, and it told me exactly when to stop. Without that, I’d be dead,” Khan comments.

In 2002, Khan scored her eighth Grammy for a cover of Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On' with the Funk Brothers. She penned her life story in 2003 with her autobiography 'Chaka! Through The Fire' which detailed her years of substance abuse and lonely days touring without her children.

2004 would be a turbulent year when Khan's son Damien was arrested in Los Angeles and charged with the shooting of a 17-year-old called Christopher Bailey, apparently after having been confronted by him about having an affair with his girlfriend. Khan testified in court that Bailey wouldn't have died if medical officers had been allowed access the victim sooner. Damien was found not guilty in 2006. She later told the court the entire incident had been “like something out of a nightmare”.

In 2007, Khan made her first original recording in many years with the album 'Funk This'. It debuted at number 15 in the US and became her highest chart position since her first solo album, which peaked at number 12 in 1978 – proving that both her fans and critics still rated her highly.

Not one to rest on her laurels, a return to the stage beckoned in 2008 when she took the role of Sofia in the Broadway version of 'The Colour Purple', where her performance received rave reviews.

Khan's career has spanned over three decades and despite personal and public strife, she has always managed to maintain an air of dignity which has earned her millions of loyal fans worldwide. Her upfront and honest approach in talking about the demons of her past addictions is refreshing in an industry that at times denies its personal abuse issues. Knowing she was able to come out of that chapter of her life with her head held high will ensure that she will carry on entertaining until her very last breath.


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