Where To Start With... Chaka Khan
If you've been anywhere near a nightclub in the last 12 months then there's every chance you've already strutted your stuff to 'Like Sugar', the funky, Fatback Band-sampling hit that has been tearing up dancefloors from London to Los Angeles. Whether or not you realised it at the time, you were dancing to the first new music released by the Queen of Funk herself, Chaka Khan, in more than a decade.
Produced by ex-Major Lazer man Switch and his partner Sarah Ruba Taylor, Khan's comeback hit happened almost by accident; the pair had recruited the veteran singer for another project they were working on, but ended up suggesting they produce an album for her – something Khan wasn't even thinking about at the time. The resulting LP, Hello Happiness, makes its arrival in stores this week and is Khan's first full-length offering since 2007's Grammy-winning album Funk This.
Born Yvette Stevens in the Hyde Park neighbourhood on Chicago's south side, Khan's stage name is often attributed to her time as a member of the Black Panthers, which she joined as a teenager after they started a programme to feed poor children in her neighbourhood (“Mostly I sold papers on the corner”), but the name was actually given to her by an African priest from the Yoruba faith who she met through her involvement with the Afro-Arts Theatre group around the same time.
Her musical career had begun even earlier; by the age of 11 Khan had formed a Supremes-influenced group called The Crystalettes (which also included her younger sister Taka Boom), later forming another, more Afro-centric group The Shades of Black.
Khan's big break came when she joined funk band Rufus, who were looking to replace their previous lead vocalist. While their eponymous first album had been a commercial flop, it did include a cover of Stevie Wonder's 'Maybe Your Baby' which, unbeknownst to them, had impressed the Motown legend. Wonder ended up offering the band a couple of songs he had written, including 'Tell Me Something Good', which became the band's first real hit.
Chaka was now firmly the focus of the band's image and throughout the 1970s Rufus continued to score hits with songs such as 'You Got The Love', 'Sweet Thing' and 'Do You Love What You Feel'. Although she remained part of Rufus until around 1982, by the late 70s Khan was ready to branch out on her own and recorded her self-titled solo debut in 1978, an album which opened with disco-crossover hit 'I'm Every Woman'. The song proved to be her biggest hit yet, turning Chaka Khan into a household name and launching a solo career that would see her score a string of hits over the next decade.
Khan's output has been more sporadic in recent years popping up occasionally as a guest vocalist and releasing just a couple of albums in the 1990s, then a covers album, ClassiKhan, in 2004, before her 2007 album Funk This earned the singer her tenth win at the Grammys.
On Hello Happiness, her first album in 12 years, production duo Switch and Sarah Ruba Taylor have succeeded in capturing the essence of Chaka's 1980s heyday while still managing to create something fresh, and in 'Like Sugar' and title track 'Hello Happiness' have helped provide two of her best tunes in years. There's plenty more to enjoy on the new album too, making Chaka Khan's comeback not only one of the year's most unexpected but also, on this evidence, one of the most impressive.
You can find the video for 'Like Sugar' below, beneath that we've picked out five key tracks from Chaka's long career as a guide for the uninitiated...
'Tell Me Something Good'
When Stevie Wonder heard Rufus' cover version of 'Maybe Your Baby' he was so impressed that he decided to make an unannounced visit to the studio while the band were recording a follow-up to their debut album. The story goes that Wonder initially offered them a different song, 'Come and Get This Stuff', but while the rest of the band were starstruck and grateful, Chaka wasn't impressed. A stunned Stevie Wonder reportedly asked Chaka what her star sign was, and when she told him “Aries” he offered up this little gem instead. It proved to be a move that was as shrewd as it was ballsy, becoming the band's first breakout hit.
Chaka's final album with Rufus was 1983's Stompin' at The Savoy, a curious double LP which filled three of its four sides with a career-spanning live set featuring their biggest hits, and a fourth side which included four new studio recordings. One of these, 'Ain't Nobody', was both their last ever single and their most successful, becoming the band's only Top 10 hit in the UK.
'I'm Every Woman'
The opening track from her 1978 solo debut Chaka, written by legendary husband and wife songwriting team Ashford & Simpson, immediately launched Khan's career into the stratosphere and established her as a star in her own right. Not only was it a hit for Khan, but the song also hit the charts again some 20 years later when it was covered by Whitney Houston, who included a shout-out to Chaka on the song's outro.
Although the period between the 1990s and early 2000s was generally a quiet one for the singer, Khan did pop up occasionally as a guest vocalist on tracks by the likes of Prince, Herbie Hancock and Beverly Knight, but arguably the best of these was her guest appearance on De La Soul's 'All Good?'. Taken from the rap trio's 2000 album Art Official Intelligence, Chaka's vocal hook elevates the track to a whole new level and makes it the album's standout moment.
'I Feel For You'
Probably her best-known hit thanks in part to Melle Mel's opening rap verse, on 'I Feel For You' Chaka achieves the rare feat of taking a Prince track and improving on it, adding not only Melle Mel's lyrical talents but also Stevie Wonder, who plays the distinctive harmonica riff on Chaka's version
Hello Happiness is available in hmv stores now, find your nearest store here.