Born Yvette Marie Stevens on March 23, 1953, in Chicago, Illinois, Chaka Khan is known for her powerful voice, her great volume of curly hair, and her charismatic stage presence, Chaka Khan first exploded on to the music scene in the 1970s. She formed her first group, the Crystalettes, with her sister Yvonne when she was only eleven years old. Some of Khan’s early musical heroines included Billie Holiday and Gladys Knight. The sisters later became involved in the Affro-Arts Theater and started another musical group known as The Shades of Black.
In 1969, Khan became active in the black power movement, joining the Black Panther Party and working on the organization’s free breakfast program for children. Around this time, she took on a new name: Chaka Adunne Aduffe Yemoja Hodarhi Karifi. She also said good-bye to her formal education, dropping out from high school.
In the early 1970s, after performing with a few other groups, Khan joined the band Rufus, which had a strong R&B and funk sound. The world got its first taste of Khan’s powerhouse vocals when the group released its first self-titled album in 1973, which spawned such modest hits as “Whoever’s Thrilling You” and “Feel Good.” The follow-up album, Rags to Rufus (1974), was a smash commercially and critically. Stevie Wonder penned the hit single, “Tell Me Something Good,” for them, which sold more than a million copies. The group also scored a Grammy Award for best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus for the song in 1974.
Rufus, which was renamed Rufus featuring Chaka Khan and then Rufus & Chaka, continued to have a number of successes over the coming years. Khan helped write their number one hit, “Sweet Thing,” climbed to the top of the charts in 1975. Later hits included “Do You Love What You Feel” and “Ain’t Nobody.”
While she recorded with Rufus until the early 1980s, Chaka made an impressive debut as a solo artist in the late 1970s. In 1978, she released Chaka, which featured the hit “I’m Every Woman,” which was written by Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. In an odd twist of synchronicity, she won two Grammy Awards as a solo artist and one as a member of Rufus in 1983.
The next year, however, Chaka the solo artist reigned supreme. Covering a Prince song, she reached the top of the R&B, hip-hop, and dance charts with “I Feel for You.” Featuring one of the most famous rap cameos of all time by Mel Melle, the infectious track incorporated elements of rap, R&B, and electronic dance music. It also won her another Grammy Award in 1984. Other hits from the album included “This Is My Night” and “Through the Fire.”
Although she continued to make music, Khan saw her popularity decline in the late 1980s and 1990s. While her albums may not have been selling as much as they had previously, she was still producing critically acclaimed music. She won a Grammy Award in 1990 for her duet with the legendary Ray Charles on “I’ll Be Good to You” and another one in 1992 for “The Woman I Am.”
In a 2008 interview Khan said that she, unlike other artists, feels very optimistic about the current changes in the recording industry, including music downloading. “I’m glad things are shifting and artists - not labels - are having more control over their art. My previous big record company (Warner Music) has vaults of my recordings that haven’t seen the light of day that people need to hear. This includes Robert Palmer’s original recording to “Addicted to Love”, from which they took my vocals off! We are working on getting it (and other tracks) all back now.”
In that same candid interview with Elio Iannacci of the Toronto Star, Chaka Khan also revealed her future, stating: “After I finish with my run with The Color Purple, I have a world tour planned, a one-time reunion gig with Rufus for charity. And then I’ll be getting back into the studio to record another album.”