Chaka Khan: “I found a way to support myself. Substance Abuse and Shit”

Yyou’re supposed to live an easier life when you reach your golden years, but apparently no one told Chaka Khan that. The 71-year-old singer is a restless tornado of activity as she tells us her life story, packs for her upcoming six-week European tour (which includes headline shows at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire and the Love Supreme festival in Sussex), and at at this very moment, building considerable muscle at one of the events she’s organizing this summer, touting her as the “Queen of Funk.”

“It is funny!” she snaps, carefully placing another fabulous piece of clothing into her suitcase at her home in Georgia. “I tried to give up this funk forever. For. WHENEVER! AND hate be in a box, you know?

Oh, we know. For the past half-century, Khan has followed her own North Star and bent funk, soul, disco, rock and jazz to her powerful will, outperforming and surpassing her peers and triumphing over drug addiction, alcoholism and the worst impulses of the lying recording industry. The only constant was This voice, uplifting timeless anthems like “I’m Every Woman,” “Ain’t Someone” and “I Feel for You,” as well as deeper songs like “Roll Me Through the Rushes,” “Sweet Thing” and her astonishing version of “Love Fell on Me.” Khan’s voice is an absolute force of nature and in those moments when, lost in emotion, she breaks away from the melody and reaches for the sublime, she feels…

“…I feel as if the wheels of the plane were leaving the runway – as if I was taking off into the air,” she says. “I feel like I am soaring” He pauses for a moment, then smiles. “Music balances me. Thanks to this, everything is fine. Thanks to this, I know I’m in the right place. This is where I fit in, where I live. This is what I live for.”

Music was always everything to Khan. Raised by bohemian parents in a house on Chicago’s South Side where records were always playing, she claims she “sang and danced as soon as I could walk.” In middle school, she joined her younger sister Bonnie and two friends in her first group, The Crystallettes. “We were my mother’s protégés – she sewed our dresses, did our hair and makeup, and we looked like porcelain dolls.”

“My journey was necessary – it had to happen so that I could emerge from this as I am today.” (Getty)

But it wasn’t until a visit to the Burning Spear nightclub – when a teenage Khan joined a house band to improvise an Aretha Franklin cover and the other patrons started throwing money on the stage – that she began to pursue music seriously. She started singing covers in clubs on Chicago’s touristy Rush Street, befriending the funk-rock band Ask Rufus who played across the street. When the group’s singer, Paulette McWilliams, grew tired of the grind, she suggested Khan take the job. The decision was obvious – Ask Rufus wrote its own material. Shortly after joining, the group signed to ABC Records (dropping “Ask” from their moniker); Khan says: “It was like fate.”

While success had its sweet time, Rufus didn’t mind. “We were all hippies, you know?” she is smiling. “There were seven of us living in the same apartment, we were all on benefits… We coped with it. We survived. We really enjoyed it.” Their eponymous 1973 debut album went largely unnoticed, save for a thrilling cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Maybe Your Baby,” which showcased Khan’s unquenchable vocals. Wonder himself stopped by the studio while the group was working on their next record, offering them his unrecorded song “Come and Get This Stuff.”

“And I told Stevie, ‘I don’t like this. What else do you have?’” says Khan. Wonder, the biggest soul star in 1973? Maybe the greatest pop genius, period? How often did she say Stevie heard, “I don’t like your song, what else do you have?”

“I don’t think he’s ever heard that,” he smiles. “But that’s not what I was thinking about. I tell the truth all the time and there’s nothing I can do about it. Sometimes it annoys people. But damn it, if the truth upsets you, I can’t help it. And Wonder wasn’t worried. “Stevie asked, ‘What’s your birth sign?’ Aries. “Oh, I have a song for you…” And then he started playing this “wakka-wakka” thing on the keyboard and – bam! – there was.”

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The “it” in question is “Tell Me Something Good”, the group’s first hit single written by Stevie, which reached Billboardin the top three in 1974. To capitalize on this momentum, Rufus moved to Los Angeles, but success brought with it the first of a series of rude awakenings. “The label changed its name to ‘Rufus and Chaka Khan,'” he sighs. “It made a huge difference in the team’s approach towards me. I was completely against it and made that clear. But on the label it said: “Accept it or forget it.” Of course, for everyone’s sake, I had to ride the pony. But it broke my heart because they felt… second-rate to me. We were all equal. But something beautiful died during that second album, Rags for Rufus, and people still can’t recover from what happened. I love these guys. But we can no longer talk straight like we used to.

This guy saying my name over and over… I thought, “Oh hell no.”

Chaka Khan

Rufus continued his string of strong albums and hits such as “Sweet Thing” and “Stay.” But then, in 1978, Khan released her solo debut, which turned out to be a hit, and Rufus recorded an album without Chaka, which it was not. Khan returned to Rufus for the Quincy Jones-produced film in 1979 Masterthen I quit again, then I came back, then I quit again, and then I came back to record one last live album, 1983 I’m stomping in the Savoy.

By this time, Khan was already an established solo star, although the role was not easy for her. “It was very hard for me, especially at the concert. I’m used to having (guitarist Tony Maiden) on one side and (bassist Bobby Watson) on the other. In Rufus she was just a voice. Now she was star, center. “Suddenly I was on my own. I had to step forward and be what was really happening. And I didn’t know how to do it. And the record company was fucking Rufus, they were fucking me – there was just a lot of fucking going on. And I was starting to lose love for what I loved to do. And that scared the hell out of me. Because if I lost it… I wouldn’t be here. I would have to go. Do you know what I’m saying? So I found ways to support myself. Substance abuse and shit.”

The bright spot in all this misery was her collaboration with legendary producer Arif Mardin, who directed her first six solo albums. “Arif really helped me with my self-esteem issues,” he says. “He brought me into his family and I loved them all – his wife Latife and his children. We were all very close to each other, living a block away from each other on New York’s Upper West Side. Having a family like this has made me stronger again.” Mardin pushed Khan outside of her comfort zone, urging her to reinterpret Dizzy Gillespie’s seminal jazz composition “A Night in Tunisia” as “And the Melody Still Lilingers On.” “He said (in a thick Turkish accent), ‘My dear, we’ll do this song, okay? No, no – you can do it! It made me focus on what was real. He challenged me all the time. And we argued in the studio. I was overdubbing my background vocals and he chimed in and said, “I’m looking at the sheet music and it’s not right!” I don’t have sheet music, I can’t read music. – But that’s not the case, my dear normal.’ Well, if that doesn’t sound good… – It does Beautiful! So what the hell are we talking about?? (pause) “Continue!”

Khan describes these arguments as “normal arguments,” though one disagreement was deeper than most: when, in 1984, she recorded what may be her greatest anthem, a cover of Prince’s “I Feel for You.” “I just liked the song and recorded it and went home,” she says. “That evening, Arif called the rapper (Melle Mel grandmaster). His move, not mine. I came the next day, heard the rapper’s performance and… I was devastated. This guy, constantly saying my name and what he wanted to do to me… I thought, “Oh, hell NO. – Don’t worry, honey, it’ll be a hit. Then I just shut up because, as I always told Arif, I can’t tell the difference between a hit and a miss – I love it All my songs – but he was trained for it. And this song did its job, thanks to it I was up to date. But I’ll never get used to a rapper saying my name over and over again.

“I sang and danced as soon as I could walk.” (Getty)

The song resulted in a number of fruitful collaborations and a long-lasting friendship with Prince. His death in 2016 still bothers her. “I lost so many people I loved,” she says. “I lost Whitney (Houston, a close friend since she provided backing vocals on Khan’s second album, Naughty). I lost Miles (Davis, who played horn on her 1988 album C.K). That’s why I bring together all my youth at my age.” Among these new friends is singer-songwriter and producer Sia, whose new single “Immortal Queen” is both a duet with Khan and a tribute to him. The pair have just finished working on Khan’s new album, which she hopes will be released before the end of the summer.

“This woman is amazing,” Khan smiles. “Do you know the song ‘Killing Me Softly’?” This is her, this is what she does to me. It’s in my head and heart, it says what I want to say. She’s been listening to me since she was a little girl, so she feels like she’s grown up with me. It’s like I’m waiting for him to grow up and come to me so we can do this. I was at her house a few weeks ago and Willow (Smith, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s daughter) came to dinner and I met her too. Great man, great writer, great singer. Maybe we will do something together in the future. So all these great things are coming to me now. It’s like a renaissance or something.”

Khan is in a sunny mood now, almost bubbling, but still grounded. About the years she spent struggling with drug addiction and alcoholism, she says: “My journey was necessary – it had to happen so that I could emerge from it as I am today. I wouldn’t have the depth of feeling that I have if I hadn’t gone through the same thing, you know? There are things I have done in my life that I will never do again. These were my life lessons. And I learned a lesson. This is the most important. AND I see. For now, I don’t care, what’s next, I’m not rolling in the mud.” She puts another dazzling outfit into her suitcase and closes it, ready for her next adventure. “And I don’t regret anything.”

Chaka Khan is on tour this summer, which includes shows at Blenheim Palace on June 13 ( and Love Supreme Jazz Festival on July 7 ( See for all dates. She is also the curator of this year’s Meltdown festival taking place from June 14-23.