Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Ain't Nobody: The Case for Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan

Tell Me That You Like Me 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. (She had already been in the Black Panthers by that point, and gotten married.) 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 “Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan,” but clearly we are intended to include her own body of work as well as Rufus (or Ask Rufus, as they were initially known, after the advice column in Mechanics Illustrated).

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.

Chaka wrote Rufus’ “Sweet Thing” with guitarist Tony Maiden, taking it to the Top Five in 1975, then sang on Quincy Jones' "I'll Be Good to You," in 1989. All in all, her hitmaking career spanned nearly 25 years, and all the hits are indelible, holding up very well.  

Let Me Rock You, That's All I Want to Do When I was compiling my framework for how to think about each vote, I realized that in a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, coolness is the paramount virtue. Nobody was cooler than 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.

Chaka Khan and Rufus have been on the ballot before, and fallen short; I don’t know if there will be another go-round for either. The time to vote for her is now. I vote yes for Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan. 


  1. I know you are not a Chicago fan but you need to listen to her chant on the 2nd half of the song "Take Me Back to Chicago" from 1977's Chicago XI. It's a must listen

  2. "I realized that in a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, coolness is the paramount virtue."
    I think this is the distilled essence of the whole issue, right here.
    If the artist called you out by name during a show and announced, "There's my main man, right there!," would you be embarrassed, neutral, or in seventh heaven?
    This is not a trivial test.

  3. If Chaka did it? I'd probably embarrass myself by answering that question.