Chaka Khan wants to rock you

Updated: January 23, 2012 4:39AM

Like Chicago itself, Chaka Khan is a mighty melody of colors. Khan — born Yvette Marie Stevens — has sung jazz, rock, funk, soul, disco and pop, most of which is rooted in her Hyde Park upbringing.

Khan remembers record-digging around the University of Chicago, where her mother worked at the National Opinion Research Center. Khan was forming her own sound opinions.

“The first 45 I bought was Stevie Wonder’s [1967 hit] ‘Hey Love,’ ” she said in a reflective conversation from her Los Angeles home. Wonder later would write “Tell Me Something Good,” her hit with the band Rufus.

“Then the first album I ever bought was Led Zeppelin’s first album in high school. I’m a big rock ’n’ roller. If you look at early Rufus, that’s what we were doing.

“So my roots spread wide and far.”

Khan, 58, is a nominee for 2012 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (along with peers including Donna Summer and Joan Jett). She appears in the first Thanksgiving Soul Jam fronting a five- piece band with three singers at 8 p.m. Nov. 26 at the UIC Pavilion. Motown smooth soul singer-songwriter Kem opens.

“I’m thrilled about the nomination. Any hall of fame is fabulous,” she said with a laugh. “To be honest, I thought I was already there [with Rufus] so I was pleasantly surprised. The fact that it is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame widens the genre of music I’ve covered. So it is a bit special.”

So special that Khan soon will be recording Led Zeppelin’s blues-rock ballad “Ramble On” with Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler (and Jason Bonham on drums) for her upcoming duets album. “There’s duets I’ve accumulated from all over the years,” she said. “I’ll release them with a couple of new cuts. Chicago. Barry White. Ray Charles [the smash ‘I’ll Be Good To You’]. Even Miles, I’m the only chick he ever played with. We did the Michael Jackson song ‘Human Nature.’ ”

She is truly every woman.

After winning a 1975 Grammy with Rufus for “Tell Me Something Good,” Khan went on to collaborate with Prince and Quincy Jones. Khan did not do the obligatory Garth Brooks-era crossover to country, although in 1979 she appeared on Ry Cooder’s “Bop Till You Drop.”

In 1984 Grandmaster Melle Mel gave her a shoutout on her hit “I Feel For You.”

And the music industry has not ignored Khan.

She has won 10 Grammy Awards, including two as a member of Rufus. Her nominated performances range from a jazz vocal (1983’s “Echoes of An Era”) to a movie song (her 1996 Bruce Hornsby collaboration “Love Me Still” from the “Clockers” soundtrack).

Khan was born in Great Lakes, Ill., where her father was in the Air Force. The family moved to Hyde Park when he was discharged.

“In my formative years I listened to a lot of jazz, a lot of horn players,” she said. “My dad was a jazz aficionado. He was a hustler of the best kind. He also taught philosophy at a Montessori school, and he was a great musician and singer. He had a lot of Charlie Parker and Miles, Dizzy [Gillespie]. In fact, my Christian name is after a Stan Getz song.

“I heard all the great singers, Ella, Sarah, Billie. Harry Belafonte. My grandmother used to play Brook Benton, the Barry White of that time. My mother played a lot of opera and woman jazz singers. When we went to family gatherings my cousins would come out with Aretha and Gladys [Knight]. We’d clean house on Saturday mornings and sing ‘I Remember You’ and ‘You Make Me Feel So Young’ from Frank Sinatra. I thought everybody did that.”

With her open ears and powerful, elastic voice, it is hardly surprising that Khan broke through the rock ’n’ soul Rush Street scene of the early 1970s.

When the underchampioned 350-pound Baby Huey (James Ramey) died in 1970, Khan replaced him in the Babysitters, an electric soul band that played Rush Street. This caught the attention of the American Breed, a successful South Side pop group that was starting to splinter.

The American Breed had 1967 national pop hits with “Bend Me, Shape Me” and “Step Out Of Your Mind.” Breed guitarist Al Ciner and keyboardist Kevin Murphy stepped out to form a new group called Ask Rufus.

“I never sang with the Breed,” Khan said, “but I don’t think [Ask Rufus] had been together a year when Paulette [McWilliams, the vocalist] quit and I got in the band. I was working the Rush Street circuit with the Babysitters, playing Nero’s Pit and Dante’s Inferno.”

They don’t name clubs like that anymore. Dante’s Inferno was a breakout club for jazz vocalist Frank D’Rone, and heavies like Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald would drop by to catch his set.

“Rufus was playing the Rush Up,” Khan said. “When I had a break I went to see Rufus, and when they had a break they’d come over to see me. We became fast friends before we worked together. Because they had been an established group before Rufus, they were getting better gigs and money, so yeah, I had no problem joining.”

Chicago saxophone player Bobby Baker was in the Babysitters for Khan’s audition in 1971. In an email he recalled, “She sat right next to me when she sang and after I heard her voice, I said to her, ‘You got it baby.’ These were the only words I ever said to Chaka Khan.”

He saw her another time when he sat in during a Rufus rehearsal. “Six months later,” he recalled, “Rufus and Chaka Khan were off to Hollywood becoming famous and rich.”

Baker called Khan a “rock” singer, and Khan remembered rockers REO Speedwagon and Joe Cocker playing the Rush Street circuit.

American Breed/Ask Rufus guitarist Al Ciner said, “Rotary Connection [with Minnie Riperton] played Rush Street. The Exceptions. That’s where Pete Cetera came from. He was the bass player before he went with CTA [which became Chicago]. We were more of a rock and R&B thing. The original Rufus really changed when Chaka came. We went from playing loungy type originals to hipper stuff. Chaka did some vocal gymnastics that other people weren’t doing. She has influences like Aretha and Stevie Wonder. She sang her ass off. Unfortunately, some of the best stuff she ever sang nobody ever heard. It would be 3 in the morning in some bar with 10 people around and most of them were wasted.”

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Chaka Khan did not waste any time absorbing the political messages in Chicago soul of the late 1960s and ’70s.

Baby Huey’s only album, the now hard-to-find “Baby Huey & the Babysitters,” was recorded for Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label. John Legend and the Roots’ latest “Wake Up!” record leads off with Baby Huey and the Babysitters’ “Hard Times.” The late Donny Hathaway, a Curtom arranger, saw Baby Huey at the Thumbs Up club on Rush Street. He brought Mayfield the next night.

“I did my Pan-African thing,” Khan said. “And my self-realization. And part of that was definitely going to the Afro-Arts Theater, which was a jazz-based experience.”

The Bronzeville collective was founded by Sun Ra trumpet player Philip Cohran. “There,” Khan said, “I sang African songs in [the vocal group] Shades of Black with my sister and two friends. I must have been 15. It was like a cultural center. Every weekend we would put on shows. I was a Black Panther at that time. I went to a lot of rallies, did a lot of social work but mostly sold newspapers all over Chicago.”

While she was in the Black Panthers, an African shaman changed Yvette Marie Stevens’ name to Chaka Adunne Aduffe Hodarhi Karifi.

“The religion I joined was Yoruba, like Judaism,” she continued. “It became a way of life for me. I used to bake my own bread. Ate no meat. Wore no makeup. Made my own clothes, garb thrown on me. I wore headwraps, a lot like Erykah Badu. I attended classes. I worked with the Pharaohs,” a free-jazz-funk band that emerged from the Afro-Arts Theater.

She added, “Each name in my name is the name of a guardian spirit, where all through my life I should try to encompass and become. Chaka is the feminine pronunciation of Shaka Zulu the warrior. It denotes war, the color red, the planet Mars.

“So I’m a warrior, a fighter for a cause.”

The teenage transition empowered Khan and informed her art even today.

“A lot of my fundamental views on life are from those teachings I learned at that time,” she said. “I still practice. I’m not a member of any organized religion. I was baptized Catholic and went to Catholic schools. The world is my church.”

By 1969 Khan left the Black Panthers and married Staple Singers bassist Hassan Khan.

“Everyone knew everybody in that period,” she continued. “A lot of Baby Huey’s music was popular amongst my contemporaries growing up in Hyde Park. I’d see him walking down the street and saying, ‘Wow!’ Before I could even to to clubs I remember wishing how I could go see him. He died and his first trumpeteer Turk [Littles] took over the band. They needed a singer. I was singing with the Barbecue Church Band. I was also in a group called Lyfe [headed up by Hassan Khan].”

Khan said her style emerged as a kaleidoscope of Chicago popular music.

This is not lost on “The Rosie Show” music director and former ”Saturday Night Live” keyboardist Katreese Barnes, who has collaborated with Khan. Barnes co-wrote and co-produced “Give Me All” on Khan’s Grammy-winning 1993 album “Woman I Am.”

“People like Chaka, Aretha and Ella Fitzgerald are so influential to so many singers,” Barnes said from Chicago’s Harpo Studios. “The rest are talented. She did ‘Give Me All’ in one take, which is what I expected. Actually the take on the record is the first take.”

In the mid-1980s, Khan piano player Bernard Wright told Barnes that Khan was a fan. Wright was in the studio with Barnes and her brother as the R&B duo Juicy.

“He said she loved our [1986] single ‘Sugar Free,’ ” Barnes recalled. “I did not believe it. He said, ‘If you don’t believe it, come with me to her house.’ We went to her house and she told me she played ‘Sugar Free’ every night before she went on stage. We had that sibling connection from day one.”

Of her style Khan explained, “It is definitely a Chicago sound and it wasn’t primarily blues. Blues was a part of it, but like any big city there are blues of one type or another. I used to sit in at a lot of blues clubs because that was Chicago’s thing and it was a big moneymaker for the city. I sat in with people like Scotty and the Rib Tips [a fave of late soul singer Tyrone Davis] before I joined any group just to get my chops going. A lot of blues clubs were downtown or the outskirts of downtown.

“At that time I was married to the bass player with the Staple Singers. I never saw the Staple Singers downtown, but my husband took me to a gig. My dad used to take me to see the [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians jazz collective] all the time. I tried to take in everything.”

Of all colors.