Chaka Khan has worked with the best – and there’s an Aussie next on her list

By Michael Dwyer

Chaka Khan, at 70, looks back on collaborations with Prince, Stevie Wonder, and now, Sia.

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If the thing with Sia was under wraps, well, oops. Chaka Khan isn’t the self-editing type. “We just did a song in the studio last week,” she gushes in her fast-talking, open-book way. “I kid you not. Sia and myself, we’re singing on it together. It’s killer. It’s called Immortal Queen.”

Sadly, that’s all the scoop we get before a managerial-type voice comes on the line to suggest we, uh, don’t talk about this until the new year. “Oh, we can talk about the collaboration. I can share with you that we have done a song together,” Khan decides. Come on. What part of “immortal queen” can Sia’s people fail to understand?

It might be more remarkable if the hottest Australian hitmaker du jour had not come knocking on Chaka Khan’s door. The former Yvette Marie Stevens of Chicago has been a magnet for stellar collaborators for 50 years. She coaxed Tell Me Something Good out of Stevie Wonder and into her first hit with a local rock/funk band called Rufus in 1974.

She was just 21 then – albeit with years of experience with her homespun vocal group the Crystalettes and others – so her writing input was not credited alongside the Motown legend. But again, she’s a little impatient with this kind of red tape talk.

Chaka Khan, circa 1970. “I wanted to be a nun at one point. I went all-in. Yeah. I had my family calling me Sister Marie Yvette.”Credit: Getty Images

“You know something? It happens sometimes. But because we are musicians, and we’re not in a competition, and we love what we do … we will not let the song or the music suffer because we can’t come to some kind of agreement on some stuff. You know what I’m saying?

“Any song that I sing with another artist, trust me, I put myself into it. I don’t always get paid for that. I don’t always own part of the product. I’m doing much more of that these days because I’ve become wiser in business, but it’s not at the forefront of my life. It’s about the music.”

Don’t ask what kind. Some call Khan the Queen of Funk, but she wishes they wouldn’t. She’s pleased about her looming Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame induction, “because I’m a rock’n’roller at heart”. But that first Rufus album was a little bit country. Her signature solo hit I’m Every Woman is a disco classic. In three weeks she’ll headline the Melbourne International Jazz Festival in a one-off Australian exclusive.

Back when her mother was chaperoning the Crystalettes to Chicago talent shows, “people were not that interested in what kind of music you were doing, just that you were doing music”, she says.

“Even rap was not new to me because I came from Chicago and there were these guys who were revolutionary-minded type guys …” She means early ’70s jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron, and maybe the Last Poets from Harlem. “They were grown men, and they were rapping. Talking lyrics to tracks. So rap was not a new thing to me.”

It was new to the world at large though, when Grandmaster Melle Mel rapped on I Feel for You, the Prince song he remade with Khan that won two R&B Grammys in 1984. Her duet with blue-eyed soulman Steve Winwood, Higher Love, was another MTV staple. Robert Palmer’s Addicted to Love, David Bowie’s Underground and Rick Wakeman’s rock-synth-phonic adaptation of 1984 smuggled her into other corners of the pop mainstream.

Chaka Khan on stage with Stevie Wonder in Las Vegas.Credit: Getty Images

Then again, if she only crossed your radar five years ago when she blew the roof off Detroit’s Greater Grace Temple singing Goin’ Up Yonder at Aretha Franklin’s memorial service, you’d assume she was born gospel royalty. To say the least, it was a performance worthy of its inspiration.

“We were friends,” Khan says. “I went to see her at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion [in LA in 1977]. I went backstage to say hello, and as soon as she saw me – well, she looked like she didn’t even look at me, sitting at the dresser – she said, ‘Are you that girl that my kids won’t take off their boomboxes?’ I said, ‘Well, I guess that would be me’. That’s how we met.

“She’s no joke. She tells the truth. She doesn’t play. And I don’t play either. We have that in common. Maybe because we’re Aries. I think it’s because of that. And she’s from Detroit, I’m from Chicago … so we grew up a lot alike. A lot of the same stuff going on around us.”

Chaka Khan (centre) with Dionne Warwick (left) and Aretha Franklin in 2008.Credit: Getty Images

Same, but different. Yvette Marie loved her grandmother’s Miles Davis and Billie Holiday records, but she was raised Catholic, far from the hand-clapping Baptist church that spawned popular gospel. That Vatican-sponsored Gregorian groove is not funky, she concedes, “but it was beautiful”.

“I see my Catholicism as a great experience. I think that the more you know about life, the better off you are. I wanted to be a nun at one point, as well. I went all-in. Yeah. I had my family calling me Sister Marie Yvette,” she says, laughing hard. “That was fleeting. But I did that. I went there.

“I’m of a mind now where I don’t really elect to any given philosophy. I do love God. I believe in God. And that’s about it, you know, and I keep it simple. I just try to be kind and fair and loving to other people. Just live by some basic laws, then you’ll be fine.”

The simple wisdom arrived after a long philosophical route. Chaka Adunne Aduffe Yemoja Hodarhi Karifi Khan was given her name by a West African Yoruba high priest when she was 13. A couple of years later, she was selling newspapers for the Black Panther Party in jeans and bare feet on Chicago street corners.

“I used to go to a lot of rallies,” she says, mainly at the instigation of her (white) stepmother. “We used to skip high school and go to Loop City College downtown, sneak into a room and watch The Battle of Algiers over and over again. That was our movie. So, yeah, we were very revolutionary. I felt like I was doing something good and helpful for mankind. It was great.”

It was dangerous too. In her 2003 memoir Through the Fire (with Tonya Bolden), Khan recalls stealing a pistol from a policeman’s holster during a scuffle and learning how to use it. She was close friends with Illinois Panthers leader Fred Hampton, assassinated in a Chicago law enforcement raid in 1969.

Chaka Khan performing in Chicago in 1980, two years after the release of her hit “I’m Every Woman”.Credit: Getty Images

“My mother and father both worked with the University of Chicago … at a research centre in the university,” she says of her “enlightened” upbringing. “The beautiful thing about it is that I was raised around the university, which was great. It was an island in the midst of a lot of madness. And you know, that saved me from a lot of stuff.”

The grounded upbringing couldn’t save her from the showbiz cliche of substance dependency that laid so many great talents low in the decades that followed. Khan spent the best part of 30 years outside America, living between London and Germany, a move she credits with saving her life.

“It was more drugs than alcohol,” she says, failing to stifle a wicked giggle. “That’s where I learnt to develop control, coming out of that scene, you know what I’m saying? I knew I had power. I had to put it to use, put it where it belongs. But I got it together. I’m 70 now. I think I did pretty good. I’m holding up and holding it down too.”

Much about the America she revolted against in the 1960s is sadly unchanged, she says. In the aftershock of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin’s 2012 death at the hands of a neighbourhood watch vigilante, she returned to the barricades with a star-strewn video for Super Life: Fear Kills, Love Heals. But that was a rare example of her voice raised in an overtly political context.

“Leading up to Trayvon’s death, several children had been killed by police, and still are as we speak,” she says. “That needs to be addressed. Cities right now are turning into police states, which is sad. The police department is bringing a lot of woes to the black community. That’s just true.”

But, she adds, “I don’t do politics because it’s crooked and it’s a lie”.

“It’s like a passion play, you know? Cuckoo. So I’m not a real political songster. I’m more for the bigger things, and that’s life and people. It’s about love and living. I like to stay honest, you know what I mean? That’s what I’m into.”

“Short guy, cute, playing guitar. I walked in and I asked ‘Where’s Sly?’ And then Prince says ‘Oh, that was me’. I said, ‘Who are you?’ ”

Lord knows that can be fraught enough. A few months ago, Khan made an Instagram apology for a Los Angeles Magazine interview that included frank opinions about fellow singers ranked in a Rolling Stone listicle. Aretha at No. 1? “As she f—ing should be.” Whitney at two? “Great … I’m the one who introduced her to Clive [Davis].” But Mariah Carey at five? “Payola”. Adele at 22, seven higher than Chaka Khan? “OK, I quit.”

Chaka Khan and Prince performing on stage in Los Angeles.Credit: Getty Images

Like Aretha before her, Khan doesn’t play. Another story in her book recalls her slapping Miles Davis upon his first (let’s call it) inappropriate greeting. She also walked out on a young punk named Prince on their first, deviously arranged meeting at a recording studio in San Francisco in the late ’70s.

“It was actually beautiful, what he did,” she says now. “He called me at my hotel room so I don’t know how he got that information, and he pretended that he was Sly Stone. He sounded just like Sly! I guess he’d heard Sly and I were great friends …”

The studio was dark when she arrived, with just a lone figure busy behind the glass. “Short guy, cute, playing guitar. I walked in and I asked the guy, ‘Where’s Sly?’ And then Prince says ‘Oh, that was me’. I said, ‘Who are you?’”

The truncated meeting would precede one of the greatest creative relationships of Khan’s life. “Unbelievable,” she says. “We did that album together called Come 2 My House [in the late ’90s] and we did it in two weeks. He told me to write poetry. I mean, I would give him a poem every other night, maybe. And he would come back the next night with the music ready.

“It was perfect. It was like we were in each other’s musical heads, you know? Yeah, he really got me, and I understood him. So we really were like a pair, a good musical pair that could have gone on and on.”

The call has gone way over schedule. Just time to ask about the only thing that matters. The thing that reminded Miles of the sound of his horn. The thing that Aretha’s kids couldn’t get enough of. The thing that Sia wants a piece of. What does Chaka Khan have to do to keep that voice wailing?

“Nothing. I sing. I get lots of sleep. That’s the only cure: shut up. I sit myself down and shut up. Or I lay in bed and watch TV. I don’t do much and I’m fine. It’s a gift. I don’t mean it as lightly as it sounds. Because it surely is a gift.”

Chaka Khan headlines Jazz at the Bowl at Sidney Myer Music Bowl on Saturday, October 21, with Nile Rodgers & CHIC, Kaiit and Horns of Leroy. The Melbourne International Jazz Festival runs October 20-29.

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