I am a very excited boy, as tonight I am going to the opening night of the season at the Hollywood Bowl which features one of my all-time favourite singers, Chaka Khan. To regular readers of my blog it may seem like I have an unfeasibly large collection of "favourite" female artists, surely I am either prone to hyperbole or a fairweather fan. To reassure you, I am neither of these things. I am very selective in my choice of favourite artists and in writing this blog I have chosen to venerate those whose music has had a meaningful impact on me. I could quite easily find singers to scorn, but the internet is full enough of trolls and trashers; I prefer to accentuate the positive.
Back to Chaka. She is a singer's singer; by that I mean that those who sing professionally worship her, because they know quality when they hear it. Everyone from Whitney to Mary J. has paid homage at Chaka's feet and I think I know why. I first got to hear Chaka sing live at the Hammersmith Odeon (as it then was) in the late 1980s and I was astonished by what I saw. Chaka's voice is extraordinary not only in its celestial tone and perfection of pitch, but in the way she can go from the lightest whisper to the most searing crescendo without, it appears, the slightest exertion. Quite simply she opens her mouth and heaven pours out.
Chaka's voice does things to me that would be illegal in many States. When she sings I am transported to a higher realm, the vibrations of her notes in my ears set off a chemical chain reaction in my brain that stimulates pleasure centres I never knew I had. In nearly every Chaka song I've heard, and I think I've heard them all, there is what I like to call "that Chaka moment", when she unleashes the magic element in her voice and sets my endorphins flooding. Now I'm sure there is a singer out there who has that same impact on you, and if not then you must start searching for your Chaka at once. You could start with some of the greatest Chaka moments to see whether she has the same impact on you she has on me. I've noted the exact minute and second that the magic kicks in. Enjoy!
Ain't Nobody (1983) - 3:15 "and a love so deep we cannot measure"
This was the song that introduced me to Chaka. I was mesmerised when I first heard it and it hasn't given up its hold on me yet. The way it starts with that slinky bassline twisting in the air, the beat kicking in, the rhythm hooking you, then that voice. This was Chaka's last hurrah with the legendary funk band Rufus who helped launch her career and it was a fitting finale for their rich catalogue.
Some of the best Chaka vocals can be found on Rufus tracks. On classics like Sweet Thing, At Midnight (My Love Will Lift You Up) and Tell Me Something Good, her voice sounds more raw, less produced and free to explore. That Chaka Moment (or TCM as I shall now refer to it) happens at the end of the bridge. Chaka is in full-on seduction mode, "first you put your arms around me, then you put your charms around me", lulling you before she erupts into that chorus. The sound that emanates from her throat when she powers up that voice is unique. If angels existed they'd sound like that. The best soul dance record of all time.
The End Of A Love Affair (1988) - 3:59 "but the ones where the trumpets blare"
It is a brave woman who takes on Billie Holliday, she was the original soul survivor and rightly revered. Chaka is wise in that she doesn't go for the edge of despair like Billie, she instead sings this great standard with a wry resignation. There is a hint of a smile in her voice, even if you know it's a painted one. The production is gorgeous, sumptuous strings and a super jazz-break from George Benson, this is high quality stuff. Chaka provides a masterclass in singing, perfectly interpreting every word; it is full of nuance and brave experiments. TCM occurs as Chaka's voice literally transforms into the instrument she's singing about (a trumpet). Having kept her cool throughout this tale of break-up, for this one moment she lets out her true heartache. It is riveting and a lesson in restraint and artistry that reality show oversingers should be forced to study. A timeless beauty.
I'm Every Woman (1978) - 2:33 "I've got it"
There are two songs that make me wish I was a woman so I could sing them without irony. The other is (You Make Me Feel) Like A Natural Woman of course. This was Chaka's first solo hit and it is one of those rare songs that persists and still feels as fresh and current as when it was first released. Part of the credit must obviously go to the superlative songwriters, Ashford & Simpson, but it is surely Chaka's showstopping vocal that has elevated it to this classic status. When she claims to be the paragon of her sex she does it with such assuredness and style, who are we to disagree? She ain't braggin', cos she's the one, you just ask her and it shall be done. Should you need further proof then prepare yourself for TCM. Yep, she's certainly got it. I imagine most other singers weep with envy when they hear her unleash at this point of the song. Me, I just weep with joy. Miraculous.
And The Melody Still Lingers On (Night In Tunisia) (1981) - 3:33 Vocal Scat
It's probably not generally known, but Chaka is a virtuoso jazz vocalist. In the early 80s she made a true jazz album, Echoes Of An Era, that featured the crème de la crème of jazz musicians and Chaka's take on some of the best loved jazz standards. If you love jazz it's well worth searching out. Chaka occasionally pops a jazz number on her pop albums too and this one is a real gem. It is an homage to the jazz greats of the Forties and to one of the all-time great jazz records, A Night In Tunisia. It was the brainchild of the genius producer, Arif Mardin, who worked with Chaka on updating the track. They featured Charlie Parker's original alto sax break and even managed to get Dizzy Gillespie himself to play on the track he had written forty years earlier. I should also mention the brilliant contribution of Herbie Hancock, all in all this is a pretty extraordinary track. Being a jazz record, Chaka of course scats like a pro, which provides this track's TCM. Arif noted that Chaka's high notes are not in the book. A rebirth of a classic.
This Is My Night (1984) - 3:49 "let it shine"
The peak of Chaka's commercial success came in 1984 when her album and single I Feel For You burned up the charts the world over. While I love the song, it is so busy that Chaka almost feels like a guest artist on her own track. I much prefer the second single from the album, the funky This Is My Night. If you thought kickass R&B was a 90s phenomenon, then you need to hear this track. It opens with a breathy come-on, before those oh-so-80s beats drop. Chaka is in full control, eyeing herself up in the mirror and confirming this is indeed her night. While certainly not a classic song, it is a brilliant pop moment and has a special place in my heart. This was when my interest in Chaka became devotion. Anyone of clubbing age in the mid-80s will no doubt have got dolled up listening to this. TCM is pure bliss, let it shine indeed.
So those are a few of the reasons why Chaka has a special place in my music collection. I hope this makes you want to explore her music further and discover your own TCMs. There just simply ain't nobody like Miss Chaka Khan.
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