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Friday, June 22, 2012

That Chaka Moment

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.

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. You can post feedback below or to my Twitter account, @divasblogger. Sign up for alerts at or follow me on Twitter. Also you can hear the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link: That Chaka Moment


  1. I got on Chaka soooo late. I'm an 80s baby and I've always known who she was. I didn't get an appreciation for her artistry until I heard "Angel" on the radio while driving home one night. It was her first release in a long time and I fell in love with that song. I loved the lyrics and it just gave me a warm feeling inside. After that I bought her greatest hits album to refresh myself on her music. After Youtube-ing everything possible of her and her music, i soon realized she can do no wrong in my eyes. Her life story, the music that she has been able to make, and that voice.....she gives me LIFE! Whatever spirit she has in her, I want in myself, the confidence, the power, the humility, the femininity, the fire.....she's so inspiring.

  2. One of the most comprehensive and complimentary reviews I have ever seen of Chaka Khan. You are truly a fellow "Chakaholic".

  3. My Chaka Moment was way back in 1975 when I was stationed at Ft. Hood Tx. Chaka and Rufus were passing through Tx. and my unit and I went on a field trip and camped out to wait to see her.

    We weren't disappointed, when we saw that little fine woman step out on the stage with her Indian Gear on and step up to the mike, everyone got quiet and Chaka belted out a note that sent chills up our spines.

    We were like, that voice came out of this little girl? We were hypnotized the rest of the concert, back then only 2 women mattered in our lives and the other one was Donna Summer. Been a fan ever since, I guess you could say I'm one of her pioneer fans. You know the ones who knew the artist before they got huge.

    Throughout the years we felt Chaka's pain as she went through the trials and tribulations of life and we applauded when she got her dream Ranch, that's where she found her real peace, with her animals and nature.

    Can she still hit those high notes like back in the day? Heck no and nobody else can, but if you're a true fan you don't even notice that because you're just in awe of her raw talent and longevity.

    I hear a lot of talk about Diva's nowadays and the title has some negativity attached but the true test of a Diva has nothing to do with attitude and everything to do with what's on the inside. I've seen Chaka go on stage with a bad throat, the flu, a fever and a whole lot more but she loves her fans just as much as we love her.

    Chaka is a true star, a woman with a gift willing to share and at the same time be approachable, Chaka will never turn down a photo opp or not sign an autograph even though she may be exhausted from a show or not feeling well. So here's to you Chaka, one of your fans from the gate.

  4. I loved your post!! I have seen Chaka 3 times in concert..I actually got to meet her once..such a nice lady and very down to earth!
    I can recall in the 80's driving my friends crazy by playing "This is My Night" over and over while getting ready to go out and getting my drink on...such great memories.

  5. I Love your blog! We have the same appreciation for fine female voices, I think - it's always been a bit of a mystery to me why a woman in full voice makes my spine tingle the way very (VERY) few male vocalists can (and since I'm gay, it can't really be much about sex)! My friends have in the past accused me of liking "weird" voices, but I think it's more about a voice that can hold my interest for a whole album, perhaps even a whole career. To do that, the singer has to be willing to go out on a limb, and if that makes her "weird", then so be it. Like you, I have a reverence for Kate Bush that borders on the illogical, and there are moments in her music where her voice is just so achingly beautiful, it brings tears to my eyes, no matter how many times I hear it. I'm more than willing to let a "Heads We're Dancing / Will the Real Fred Flintstone Please Stand Up" moment of perhaps not-so-good vocal experimentation slip by because of the moments of genius and vocal beauty that make up for it.

    ... i've rambled, haven't I? About Chaka ... back in the 85 when I was at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario (about halfway between Toronto and Niagara Falls and the U.S. border), I was working the late-night shift as a neophyte DJ at the university's radio station, CFBU. The late shift gave me the freedom to play what I liked, and I almost never even looked at the "playlist" such as it was, given that it was college radio and they were pretty lenient about that. On night around midnight, by myself in the studio, then entire station completely deserted, and certain that nobody was listening to me, I played a set that included Chaka's "I Feel For You" (probably too mainstream for college radio, but I loved the song), and the phone rang in the studio, I picked it up and it was Chaka Khan! Seriously! She was on a tour bus going through the city after performing in Toronto and they had tuned into my show! I'm still not 100% certain how I mustered the sheer gall to ask her to swing by the studio for a quick interview, but she did, and I got a 10-minute on-air interview with Mizz Khan herself! A total surprise, not to mention quite a coup, for a little college radio station in the styx! She was such a wonderful person to talk to, down to earth and sweet, and with a bawdy sense of humour that made me an even bigger fan of her music.

    Keep up the great work, sir! I'll be a subscriber for life! :)
    Take care!

    1. Thanks Steve, so glad you like the blog. It sounds like we are kindred spirits! So envious of your Chaka encounter. She got in touch when I posted this blog and it really blew me away that she took the time. More blogs on the way... All the best, Bradley

  6. Wow! You and I think and feel similarly about Chaka Khan. Your descriptions appear as if they'd come from my pen. I'm a Chakaholic and Khannaseur, like you!...I was raised in Chicago in the late 60's through the mid-70's, so I was surrounded by the fantastic sounds of Chicago R & B and jazz of that era, from the Staple Singers and Curtis Mayfield, to Donny Hathaway and the early Earth, Wind & Fire, Ramsey Lewis and a host of other greats and not-so greats! Because an abundance of great music was everywhere on the streets and in the churches of Chicago, I assumed that everyone enjoyed and had a similar appreciation for the same simple pleasure. Unfortunately, I wasn't astute enough or able to keep up with the names of artists and groups, of which there were many at the time. All I know is, I heard so much great music. In the mid-70's, my parents converted to fundamentalist Christianity, after a short stint as recording artists. So, I was not allowed to listen to the radio at home. Needless to say, when I walked the streets or visited the homes of friends and family, I heard MUSIC. In the mid-70's, I fondly remember hearing songs like 'Love to Love You Baby' by Donna Summer, or 'Sophisticated Lady' by Natalie Cole, and falling in love with the songs. (BTW Natalie Cole was my first DIVA crush!). It wasn't until 1980, after moving to Atlanta and hearing the song 'Clouds' by Chaka Khan on the radio, that I began to shift my focus from Natalie Cole to Chaka Khan. I remember after hearing that song for the first time, that I asked 'who is that'. I was mesmerized by the arrangement and production values; the dynamic vocals and personality of the song, a fantastic fusion of disco, jazz, funk and rock. Of course, everyone looked at me like I was 'cray-cray'. That's Chaka, silly! Chaka who, I'd ask. Once I understood who Chaka Khan was, I ran out immediately to purchase my very first 45 single,'Clouds'. I played that record at least 10 times a day, for months. I didn't think about anything else. It was like a drug, for sure. I thought something was wrong with me. I just couldn't get enough and didn't know at the time that I was quickly becoming a 'Chakaholic'! Then, I went off and joined the Navy, and moved to San Diego in 1981. After Boot Camp in that summer, I turned on the radio to hear 'Whatcha' Gonna Do For Me' blaring. I knew that was Chaka Khan, but in a different frame. Her voice and the arrangement were very modern and sassy. I loved it! So, as soon as I could, I purchased my first cassette 'Whatcha Gonna Do...'. After a listen, I was mesmerized. I couldn't get past 'I Know You, I Live You', to finish the rest of the cassette. Then, I eventually reached 'Night in Tunisia'. OMG!!! The jazz and wails on that exuberant, yet smart arrangement, took me even higher. Several friends informed me that Chaka Khan had a career with a band called Rufus before 'Clouds', so it didn't take me long to get to a proper record store to find some of the old Rufus back catalog. Once I did, I was in deep-study of Chaka's voice for years. I simply couldn't get over that quality in her voice, its worldly, yet personal, very emotional and sassy and brassy; it's funky and jazzy, with a rock and roll sensibility, yet the overall effect at times is similar to the feeling I experience with exuberant gospel or tribal music that penetrates your psyche to its core. My life has been so enriched by the massive endorphin flows created by and experienced through listening to Chaka Khan music. Every song she sings has at least one such moment, where bliss exists! More often than not, there are many such moments in each song. Some are more dynamic than others or more popular than others, but they're always there! What a gift she has, and Thank GOD we've had the privilege to hear it!!!