On his 1986 single “Higher Love,” Steve Winwood enlisted Chaka Khan to repeat the song's chorus on an extended coda. Winwood was generally considered one of the best of the British white blues singers, but asking Chaka to follow him was a terrible idea: She cleaned his clock, making him sound reedy and shallow with her effortless power. I used to sit through that whole song just waiting for Chaka to blow that skinny white boy away. Nobody upstages Chaka Khan.
Chaka Khan was just 33 at that point, but she was a veteran of the R&B wars, having assumed the lead vocalist spot with Rufus in 1972 at the tender age of 18. Her first chart success with the band was the classic “Tell Me Something Good,” written and produced by Stevie Wonder, from 1973, and almost from that moment on, there was talk of Chaka going solo. The nomination under consideration today is for Chaka Khan alone, but clearly we are intended to include her body of work with Rufus (or Ask Rufus, as they were initially known, after the advice column in Mechanics Illustrated). Rufus was a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominee in 2011, but never got the big envelope.
Khan held on with Rufus through nine albums and 13 Top Forty hits (there were also three non-Khan Rufus albums, all of which stiffed), culminating in the dazzling farewell single “Ain’t Nobody,” from 1983, which set the template for ‘80s dance records. She then immediately hit big with “I Feel for You,” written and produced by Prince, with a harmonica solo from her old benefactor Stevie Wonder and an introductory rap from Melle Mel. The personnel listing alone confirms Chaka Khan as R&B royalty.
It concerns me that declaring I will not vote for a certain nominee might be taken as some sort of indictment of them, but I have nothing bad to say about Chaka Khan. Just think about that name, one of the great names in rock & roll: distinctive but not jokey, heavily rhythmic, exotic without being entirely foreign. These things matter. It’s not even completely made up, since the former Yvette Stevens adopted it upon marrying her first husband, bassist Hassan Khan. She wrote, too, co-composing Rufus' "Sweet Thing," a Top Five hit in 1976. And she’s easy on the eyes.
But we only get to vote for five out of 15 nominees, which means some worthies will not pass muster. If there’s a weakness to Chaka Khan’s candidacy, it’s that her resume is a bit thin; although Rufus spent most of the 1970s lingering around the bottom of the pop charts, the band only had three Top Ten hits, and Chaka solo had just “I Feel for You.” For a singles artist, that’s not an impressive showing. Compare her dossier to that of Gladys Knight, who was inducted with the Pips in 1996; Gladys had nine Top Tens, and seven Top Fives to Chaka's two. (They both even had a late-career all-star single, with Gladys’ “That’s What Friends Are For” balanced out by Chaka’s “I'll Be Good to You,” from 1990, credited to Quincy Jones and featuring Ray Charles as well.)
We have to draw the line somewhere, and I guess this one falls between Gladys Knight and Chaka Khan. It is with a twinge of regret that I vote NO for Chaka Khan.