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Chaka Khan
Written by Anders Ringman

Reprinted from La Musik (, #3 issue, March 2003
English translation by Anders Lundquist

Since the mid-70's Chaka Khan has been a colorful chameleon on- and offstage. She is widely known for her spontaneity and has constantly found new ways of expressing herself. This year Chaka Khan turns 50 and celebrates her 30th Anniversary as a recording artist.

It is a few minutes before midnight, Tuesday July 16, 2002. The night is hot and misty at the Stockholm Jazz Festival. Skeppsholmen (a small island in the center of the city) is rocking, almost exploding from fat bass grooves. On stage: a woman by the name of Chaka Khan. With a happy smile and an otherworldly voice she is giving it all she's got. A dancing sea of 9.500 people follows her every move and gesture.

On my way home from the show half an hour later, I hear raving comments all around. "Sure, I had high expectations but I didn't think she was gonna be THIS good!" I smile and think to myself that Chaka Khan did what I had hoped for - she took no prisoners. I already knew that she had the capacity but, I was also aware of the fact that she's an unpredictable artist, not the least live. Like most established international artists she has a very high lowest level, but we're not talking about a fabricated, carefully choreographed show la Madonna. I have seen Chaka Khan live three times, as well as watching numerous video recordings and official live releases, and I can tell you that the Stockholm show was fantastic. Heavyweight. Even then, Chaka wasn't at her very best, the voice holding up for 95 per cent of the show, but cracking a few times. There's a logical explanation for that. From mid-May until the end of June she did two performances a night at the "Signed, Sealed and Delivered" show, a Las Vegas tribute to Stevie Wonder. Without any break, she began three weeks of festival gigs in Europe. That kind of schedule can silent the most seasoned of vocal cords.

Or it may be this simple: this is the way Chaka Khan works live, being all about feel and intuition. Sometimes she decides on which note to hit one tenth of a second before she goes for it. Sometimes it works, others not. "I get bored quite easily. As soon as I've found a groove that I like it's time to change it", she has said.

Maybe this is the reason that she never, or at least only a few times, has reached a wider audience. She has always refused to do things she doesn't like and the mainstream audience has had a hard time following her stylistic changes. If Chaka Khan doesn't like something, she's not likely to try to hide her feelings. Even if her voice wasn't 100 per cent on this hot summer night in Stockholm she clearly was having fun, and that's why the show hit the bull's eye. She was joking with the audience and laughing with the band. And I prefer that side to hearing her singing perfectly while looking bored.
Chaka Khan herself remembers the show as having been one of the best of the tour.
- It was wonderful. It's been a while since I last performed in Sweden so it was great to play for my fans, she says to La Musik.

This year, Chaka Khan turns 50 and celebrates her 30th Anniversary as a recording artist. She was born Yvette Marie Stevens on March 23, 1953 in a suburb of Chicago, Illinois called Great Lakes. She started practicing singing more or less by free will at a very early age. Her father, Charles, was a photographer and her mother, Sandra, worked as an economy assistant. They loved music. As a matter of fact, Yvette was named after a song by the same name by legendary jazz drummer Max Roach. The Stevens family played records all the time. Operas like "Madame Butterfly", quite a few albums by King Curtis but most of all Billie Holiday's "Lady In Satin", to this date one of Chaka's favorite albums. It was her grandmother Maude Page that introduced little Yvette to the music of Billie Holiday. She was instantly hooked. And maybe it wasn't that strange. Listen to the first lines of "The End Of A Love Affair" from the "Lady In Satin" album: "So I walk a little too fast and I drive a little too fast and I'm reckless it's true..." Very few songs are this spot-on when it comes to describing the nature of Chaka Khan's personality. Chaka has even called herself Chaka "Overkill" Khan, referring to her own restless nature.

Billie Holiday is one of Chaka's role models and in later years she has realized what a mentor the jazz icon has been to her. And maybe Billie was a soulmate on a deeper level that just a musical one. Billie Holiday was a young, black woman with a God given gift who was exploited by the business, leading to alcohol and drug abuse and an all too early death. For a few years Chaka Khan was also heading in the wrong direction, but since the early 90's she's clean and her only comment to the drug years is: "Yes, I did the same drugs as you did" (Interview, 1998).
Yvette grew up with four younger siblings; Yvonne (also called Bonnie), Tammy, Mark and Zaheva. They went to a catholic school on the outskirts of Chicago. Music played a significant role throughout their childhood. Yvette was only 11 years old when her great-grandmother Naomi - part Indian, part French - read her palm: "One day many, many people will know your name". Perhaps inspired by that, Yvette formed her first band The Crystalettes together with some friends, taking their name from the fact that they almost exclusively performed songs by The Crystals and Gladys Knight and The Pips. Appearing in cute little dresses they took part in local talent contests and very often little Yvette was called "Little Aretha".

During high school Yvette joined the Afro-Arts Theater, a music and theater company that toured with Motown star Mary Wells among others. Yvette also sang with the group Shades of Black, whose repertoire consisted of music heavily influenced by African rhythms, not unlike artists such as Miriam Makeba. It was also around this time of teenage rebellion she changed her name. Yvette was growing up and had become more and more aware of her African roots and history. She volunteered to work for the Black Panthers' breakfast program and came across an African Shaman. He gave her the name Chaka, which means "Woman of Fire" in a certain African dialect. Her sister Yvonne (b. October 8, 1954) was named Taka and has since released her own albums under the Taka Boom moniker, as well as working with the likes of Bootsy Collins, Southside Johnny and The Chemical Brothers. Chaka's full African name is Chaka Adunne Aduffe Yemoja Hodarhi Karifi. Her last name Khan had stuck after a short-lived marriage to a bass layer by the name of Hassan Khan when she was only 17 years old. In an interview in Essence Magazine in 1995 Chaka said, jokingly, that she only married him to get the perfect name for an artist. And who knows, ""Chaka Karafi" may not have been as powerful?

In spite of the fact that Chaka spent all her spare time singing she didn't see being an artist as her future career. She wanted to become a nurse, a peace voluntary or a nun. But Chaka could only stand the first year of high school and in 1969 she left school to focus on music. For a short while she sang with a group called Lyfe, followed by a stint with another popular Chicago outfit called The Babysitters, with local soul man Baby Huey as a front man. They were signed to Curtis Mayfield's own Curtom label. However, Chaka could still not make a living on music only. During office hours she filed documents at the University of Chicago, a job that her mother has helped her get. It was a period of transition for Chaka. She and Hassan shared an apartment with eight other people who all looked and acted just the way they wanted. Every night Chaka would be found behind the microphone in one of the local clubs and soon rumours started to spread about her talent. One night in 1971 when she was singing with the band Lock and Chain at The Poker Room at 71st Street in Chicago record producer Bob Monaco appeared. He was mightily impressed by what he saw - and heard. However, he didn't care much for the band but got the idea to introduce Chaka to the band Ask Rufus (originally called Smoke), also a Chicago group. Ask Rufus, who got their name from a column in the magazine Popular Mechanics, had risen from the ashes of The American Breed who had had a small success with the single "Bend Me, Shape Me" in 1969. Ask Rufus and Chaka Khan already knew of each other. A friend of Chaka's, Paulette McWilliams, had been the band's first lead singer and when she decided to leave Ask Rufus, Chaka was free to join them.
- Paulette had the biggest tits in the world, so I had a following already on her strength, Chaka stated in Rolling Stone Magazine in 1985.
Whether it was due to the breasts or the voice people came from far away to see the band, and luckily their popularity didn't cease when Chaka joined the band, who had by now shortened their name to Rufus and performed songs by Sly Stone and other Top 40 hits. The band loved their hometown, but Bob Monaco managed to convince them that the road to success was likely to be shorter if they moved to Los Angeles. This was in early 1972. At 18, Chaka Khan found herself in the world's spiciest cultural jambalaya, recording songs for what was to become the band's debut album. Curious fact: When Chaka went to Los Angeles with Rufus, Curtis Mayfield sued her for breach of contract. She later managed to untie her deal with The Babysitters and in 1975 they reached an out of court settlement.

When Rufus' first album, produced by Bob Monaco, was released by ABC Records in 1973, it passed pretty much unnoticed. However the album included a cover version of Stevie Wonder's "Maybe Your Baby" and he was so impressed by their version that offered the band a song specially written for their second album. "Rags To Rufus" was released in 1974 and contained the song "Tell Me Something Good", which became an instant hit all over the US. It reached the Billboard Top 5, helped the long-player reach gold and received a Grammy for best R&B performance. Later the same year the band, now renamed Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, released "Rufusized", including the hits "Once You Get Started", "Stop On By" and "I'm A Woman, I'm A Backbone", the latter of which was a fitting trademark for Chaka. Her characteristic way of singing, which had been her own right from the start, started to spread all over the country through radios and turntables. Regarding Chaka Khan's influence during that time, Anita Baker in 1996 said to Billboard Magazine: "We were all Chaka clones at that time. I mean, vocal cords all over America were torn apart by people trying to sing like her".

Yes, the voice. If there is one thing that has helped Chaka Khan remain a highly respected artist for 30 years, it is not that she has written the best songs or sold more records than anyone else. It's the voice. It has been described as the closest thing you can come to vocal perfection, like the saxophone sounded in the hands of John Coltrane, a trumpet played by Miles Davis, a guitar handled by Eddie Van Halen - or take your pick. Chaka's voice is a fascinating mix of tender caress and raw power. She lures you in with softness only to knock out with unexpected energy and hot spices. Over the years, she has sung every imaginable style of music - and then some - and it has also sounded right. In an interview with writer Isabel Wilkerson, published in Essence Magazine 1995, Chaka explained that singing to her is as natural as any other daily body function. And indeed, her way of treating a melody is impossible to describe, and even harder to imitate. Chaka is the kind of singer who would get standing ovations even if she sang straight out of the timetable for the local bus.

One example of vocal abilities from outer space appeared on August 21, 1999 during the tour "The Sisters Soulfest" with Patti LaBelle. At a packed The Theater by Madison Square Garden in NYC Chaka gives it everything she's got. During an improvisation she stays on a note in her upper range, stays there for a few seconds without losing in intensity and then takes the same note down in intensity until it's like a whisper. During what feels like an eternity she h i s s e s out the note. Then she starts over. Without stopping to catch her breath, she lets the note grow at a steady pace until she's back where she started. The audience screams of delight. This primitive power, which the singer herself is unaware of, is said to have ruined a few microphone membranes in recording studios around the world. New York Newsday once wrote: "Her voice refuses to acknowledge anything but sheer ecstasy".

In 1975 the self-titled "Rufus featuring Chaka Khan" was released, featuring the classic "Sweet Thing", still a live favorite. The following years turned Chaka and Rufus into one of the most influential pop, rock, funk and R&B acts, the most obvious reason being Chaka's fantastic vocal performances and energetic stage presence. Rumours of her explosive performances resulted in sold out concert halls and arenas across the nation.

- I guess my strength comes from some kind of green laser beam somewhere, she said in Interview in 1996. When onstage, I tap into some kind of energy source that totally surrounds me. Everything that feels like a religious experience to me happens during my two hours on stage. Then somebody taps me on my back and says: "The concert is over now".

Rufus produced a string of gold and platinum selling albums, "Ask Rufus" (1977), "Street Player" (1978) and "Masterjam" (1979). The six-piece band now consisted of its classic line-up; Chaka Khan (vocals), Tony Maiden (guitar/vocals), Kevin Murphy (keyboards), David "Hawk" Wolinski (keyboards), Bobby Watson (bass) and John "JR" Robinson (drums). The multi-racial outfit toured relentlessly, reassuring their place in the music history of the 70's.

But under the surface the other band members had issues with Chaka taking too much space on- and off-stage. This was not, they felt, what had been initially agreed on. Chaka didn't understand any of this. She had always enjoyed being in the band and had never imagined trying to spread her wings outside the safety of the band. However, the trouble within the group made her consider going solo and when she was offered a solo deal by Warner Brothers she didn't have to think twice. On October 13, 1978 her first solo album "Chaka" was released on Tattoo/Warner. The album spawned the mega hit "I'm Every Woman" and outsold later Rufus albums by far. Although it seemed inevitable that she would leave the band, she didn't actually leave until a few years later.

After "Masterjam", Rufus and Chaka took an extensive break from each other. Chaka recorded two more solo albums, "Naughty" (1980) and "What Cha' Gonna Do For Me" (1981). During this period she moved from Los Angeles to New York, toured with her own band and lived with Harlem based teacher Albert Sarasohn. The other members of Rufus recorded three albums, "Numbers" (1979), "Party 'Til You're Broke" (1980) and "Seal In Red" (1981). But without Chaka's vocals (and yes, the total absence of good songs) the albums didn't sell and in 1981 Chaka and Rufus reunited for the album "Camouflage". None of them was particularly pleased with the result, but at least they agreed on one thing: the Rufus saga was over. However, before hitting the exit door for good they were contractually obliged to deliver one more album. They brought in brass players, backing singers, percussion and one more guitarist for the classic live album "Stompin' At the Savoy" (1983), recorded at the legendary New York club The Savoy in February 1982. In addition to live versions of their most popular songs the album also contained four new studio cuts, one of which the Grammy nominated "Ain't Nobody" became Rufus' greatest hit and possibly the song that more than any other track explains Chaka's way of singing.

With Billie Holiday her love of jazz was born and now she was ready to pass on her idol's legacy. The song "And The Melody Still Lingers On" from "What 'Cha Gonna Do For Me" is a re-worked version of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker's "Night In Tunisia". Chaka wrote the lyrics:
A long time ago in the forties
Dizzy and Bird gave us this song
They called it a Night in Tunisia
And the melody still lingers on
They paved the way for generations
From Coltrane to Stevie
No one could stop the winds of change
Without them where would we be?

The song became her first affectionate tribute to jazz and its heroes. The old Dizzy Gillespie himself was immensely flattered and appeared on Chaka's version.
- Dizzy had an amazing talent and was a very kind man. We became good friends, Chaka remembers.
Encouraged by all of this, Chaka recorded the jazz album "Echoes Of An Era" (1982) together with Chick Corea (piano), Joe Henderson (tenor sax), Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Stanley Clarke (upright bass) and Lenny White (drums). Chaka has said that she likes the challenge of singing jazz. She likes the feeling of being a little lost and really having to think about what she's doing. While Rufus were enjoying the success of their farewell single "Ain't Nobody", Chaka prepared for what, good or bad, would be the biggest year of her solo career. The record company demanded a hit, which meant arguing with a star who didn't particularly feel like following the orders from the suits and ties at some fancy office. But at the end of the day the record business, like any business, is about making money and the dollars only keep coming in connection to the hits. Together with producer Arif Mardin, who also had produced Chaka's previous solo albums, the search for the perfect song started. Chaka had for a long time wanted to record Prince's song "I Feel For You", a song that the Pointer Sisters had also recorded a few years back.

Chaka's version was tougher and aimed directly for the dance floors. Through her version of the song a new generation of music lovers discovered Chaka Khan, and thanks to the classic rap by Grandmaster Melle Mel it sure was hard to avoid: "Chaka Khan, Chaka Khan, Chaka Khan let me rock you, let me rock you, Chaka Khan, let me feel for you..." Mardin had added the intro without Chaka's knowledge. The first time she heard it she blushed and didn't know where to go. However, she realized the strength of the rap and deep inside she may have felt that, even though the song wasn't representative of her career so far, it would likely be seen as a significant part of her career and life. The single "I Feel For You" was a huge hit, received two Grammy awards and became a true classic. But if you ever meet Chaka, think twice before approaching her while rapping "Chaka, Chaka, Chaka" or asking permission to "rock her"...

The album "I Feel For You" (1984) is without comparison Chaka Khan's biggest seller, but when she refused to follow the title track with a similar sounding single sales dived after a while. Her high profile was kept by singing on Steve Winwood's US No. 1 "Higher Love" in 1985, but her following two albums "Destiny" (1986) and "C.K." (1988) were big disappointments sales wise. After a few years in New York City Chaka had moved back to Hollywood. Even though Warner Bros. sometimes found Chaka difficult to work with they kept discussing new projects with her. Rarely did the two parts agree but the company wanted a new product on the market and without Chaka's knowledge they released the compilation "Life Is A Dance" (1989), which contained remix versions of her greatest hits. All of a sudden Chaka found herself having a hit in Great Britain with her solo breakthrough "I'm Every Woman", 11 years after its initial release. She was persuaded to make a new video for the remixed single. All of this gave her ongoing European tour an unexpected boost.

It was during this tour yours truly caught Chaka live for the first time, at Konserthuset in Stockholm, Sweden on November 3, 1989. I had heard "Destiny" at a friend's house a couple of years back and had fallen in love with the woman's voice. I had also bought "C.K." and thought it was fantastic. You can imagine my disappointment when she didn't perform a single song from any of these albums. And even though I hadn't seen any of her shows before I could that she wasn't in perfect shape.

After the six-week European tour, Chaka decided to leave the US and move to England. Together with her children Milini (b. 1974) and Damien (b. 1979) she moved to London. The family rented a townhouse on an ordinary street, albeit in one of the city's more fashionable areas.

- I needed a new environment and fresh surroundings, I needed to learn new things. I needed to get away from America and find myself again, she said in Jet Magazine in 1996. And here in England, people leave me alone. People do recognize me, but they don't intrude. If I go out for a walk in the USA I am followed by a fucking parade within minutes!

The harmony of living in England helped her to finally get over her drug addiction, after an all-time low in the mid-80's. While beginning work on the new album "The Woman I Am" (1992) she also bought a little house in the south of Germany, near the recording studio. In this little village, where wedding bells rang every fifteen minutes, Chaka could concentrate on what would be her most consistent album since "What Cha Gonna Do For Me" more than a decade earlier. "The Woman I Am" was released April 14, 1992 and earned Chaka a Grammy award for best R&B album, her seventh American Grammy. In all, she has been nominated for a Grammy 19 times and won her eighth and latest award in 2003.

Between 1992 and 1996 Chaka mainly lead a laid back life at home in England and Germany. In 1992, at the age of 39, she became a grandmother after Milini had given birth to Raeven (also called "Pookie"). Chaka's life entered a new phase. She did short tours now and then, when she felt like it, but did not release any new albums. Instead she lead a domestic life, taking care of her granddaughter and released any frustrations on her drum kit (yes, she's pretty decent!). Above all, she was feeling fine. During the spring of 1995 Chaka had one of the leading roles in the London production of the off-Broadway musical "Mama, I Want To Sing", for which she won the "London's Capital Radio Listener's Poll" for best actress in a musical. During a short period in the mid-90's she also had her own radio show in Los Angeles where she would take requests and answers questions from listeners.

In 1996 Chaka recorded an album with producer David Gamson that still has to see the light of day. Once again, the strained relationship between Warner Brothers and Chaka prevented the album from being released. The record company didn't find the album contemporary enough. Some of these recordings, from the so-called "Dare You To Love Me"-sessions, have since appeared on soundtracks and as bonus tracks on different releases. Hardcore fans have attained bootlegs that are as sought-after as the rare bootleg live album "Patchwork" (1987), which was limited to a pressing of 500 copies, and London Symphony Orchestra's still unrelased album "Awakenings" (1997) which contained two songs that featured Chaka on vocals. However one of them, the soothing ballad "Lullaby", was recently released on the 9/11 album "Let's Roll: Together In Unity Faith & Hope" (2002).

Late 1996 saw the release of "Epiphany: The Best Of Chaka Khan, Volume One", a compromise between Warner and Chaka. In addition to the hits the album included four new songs and a wonderful cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Everywhere". The title suggested a Volume Two was on its way, but this never happened. After almost 20 years Chaka left the label in 1997, fed up with compromises and broken promises of artistic freedom. The latest full-length release from Chaka Khan, "Come 2 My House" (1998) was released by Prince's label NPG Records and was Chaka's first album on her own. The album was written and recorded in three weeks and reached sales of a million copies around the world without much marketing. Having total control of her business deals Chaka made more money from this one album than she ever made from her time at Warner Brothers. Quite a frightening thought.

It has now been five years since Chaka Khan released an album in her own name. Five years is longer than an eternity in the music business and now people are wondering when she is gonna make a comeback. A comeback? She never went away! She's continued doing 70-80 gigs a year - and performing live actually means more to her than recording:

- I love performing live. It's the interaction with the audience and their response that makes me want to sing, she says.

Reading between the lines, this probably means that Chaka, wise from previous experiences, will only make an album when SHE really feels like it. But rest assured, there will always be new releases with her singing. Over the years she has guested a lot of other people's albums. As a matter of fact, one of her biggest hits ever has appeared during these past five years; the funky "All Good?", a collaboration with De La Soul taken from their album "Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump" (2000). The same year also saw the release of the great DVD "The Jazz Channel Presents Chaka Khan", a concert including jazz material only. And here the circles are closing in a way. Jazz was and is Chaka's greatest love. She likes all kinds of music ranging from Joni Mitchell and Stevie Nicks via Blues Traveller to Led Zeppelin. From newer artists she likes Lewis Taylor, Mica Paris, Faith Evans and Mary J. Blige. But she keeps returning to jazz. During the last years she has performed more and more concerts exclusively containing jazz material. Personally, I had actually hoped for a jazz gig at the Stockholm Jazz Festival in 2002, but I certainly didn't complain, especially since she, apart from the expected hits, included some lesser known album tracks, like the wonderful "You Can Make The Story Right" from 1992.

Against all odds Chaka reunited with the classic Rufus lineup for a fall tour of 2001. Together with Earth, Wind & Fire they trekked across the States, delighting nostalgic fans.

- We had great fun and digged up a lot of memories together, Chaka says.

Apart from singing, Chaka keeps getting involved in charities, mainly through The Chaka Khan Foundation, helping abused women and children as well as women with drug- and alcohol problems and HIV. She has her own brand of chocolate, "Chakalates", that's being sold through mail order and the Internet. All profits go straight to the aforementioned foundation.

Chaka Khan is all-too seldom mentioned alongside other amazing voices like Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight. But this has of course nothing to do with lack of icon status or real vocal capacity. Probably, it's more a question of belonging to another generation. The aforementioned soul legends are all some ten years older than Chaka, and that is most likely the main reason to why "baby sister" Chaka is sometimes overlooked. But it is at the "Altar of Chaka" stars like Whitney, Mary J., CeCe Peniston, Faith Evans and Erykah Badu kneel. Swedish singers Viktoria Tolstoy and Malena Laszlo, among many others, also like to name Chaka Khan as a big source of inspiration.

Even if imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, Chaka remains in a league of her own. There is only on Chaka Khan. Her way of singing and her voice contains a power that defies several natural laws. And when her imitators believe that they have cracked her secret code, she has already moved on. Her fantastic voice has kept developing over the years. She has toned down her vibrato and with age her voice has gotten a rougher, deeper quality. Her range has actually increased, even if she seldom feels the urge to prove it in a recording studio any more. As opposed to ladies Aretha and Patti, who only seem to scream more nowadays, Chaka uses her experience and intuition to know when it's actually time to put the pedal to the metal - and when it's time to stay silent. Less is more.

Where she got her huge voice and energy, she doesn't even know herself.

- I don't think too much about it. It is what it is and it's part of me, is her humble comment on the subject.

Glenna Dailey, who's in charge of Chaka's bookings at her company Earth Songs Entertainment, goes even further:

- Music is a part of Chaka's DNA, it's in her blood, she says with conviction.

After having spent a few years in New Jersey, Chaka is now back in London. She also owns a property in Los Angeles, a city that she has expressed her antipathy towards several times. However, her production company is located there, as is her younger sister and longtime manager Tammy McCrary.

Being a musical chameleon, not even Chaka is likely to know what the future has in store for her. She has now reached the level where "lifetime achievement" awards start dropping in. During 2002 she was presented with both "The EATM Lifetime Achievement Award" and "The MOBO Lifetime Achievement Award". However, she has no plans for retirement. The only thing that's certain regarding future projects is that she will never stop surprising and re-inventing herself - and, in the process, her audience. I, for one, would love if her plans of recording a real jazz album would become a reality. Or why not a jazz concert at this year's Stockholm Jazz Festival?

- I'd really love to do a jazz tour all over Europe, Chaka says to La Musik. Anything is possible, we'll see what happens.

The jazz DVD is certainly enough proof that she's just as comfortable within this art form as most jazz singers that I can think of.

Who is Chaka Khan? A simple question - virtually impossible to answer. The fans like to give her all kinds of nicknames, some more fitting than others: "Primal Wailer", "Her Royal Wildness", "The Mother Of The Clan Of No Bad Notes" and so on. Sure, she may be "divalicious", but she sure doesn't want to be regarded as being a diva, a word that reminds her of some kind of prima ballerina.

- It's someone who's not very humble or kind, she says. The word diva has a negative connotation to me, and I really don't think of myself as such a person.

I don't personally know Chaka Khan, but the lasting impression from my short encounter with her in Oslo a few years ago is that of a shy suburban girl rather than a divalicious celebrity with a tunnel vision. She was warm, funny and nice, took time to listen and seemed genuinely interested in talking to an ordinary guy like me. Maybe her forthcoming autobiography "Through The Fire: The Life And Times, Ups And Downs, Arounds And Turnarounds Of A Wild Child", set to be published later this year, will bring us closer to the person Chaka Khan. If the book lives up to its title, it will likely be a very interesting read.

There is no way of placing Chaka Khan in a box, genre-wise. She's done a lot of funk, soul and R&B, but it's still far from the complete picture. Her vocal range and willingness to experiment has taken her on an eternal journey among all kinds of musical styles, from jazz to gospel, from classical to rock, from disco to rap.

One example of just how hard it is to categorize Chaka Khan is that she sang at Al Gore's AND George W. Bush's election conventions in 2000. (!)

But why even try to label the phenomenon known as Chaka Khan? I'm all-content knowing that she's unique - one of a kind. She has described her life as being "to hell and back in a limousine". At 50, she is sounding better than ever and she has never looked better either. She is what she does and she does what she does - when she wants to.

She is - nothing less, nothing more - Chaka Khan.

Source (except where otherwise noted): "The Soulful Divas" (Billboard Books) by David Nathan. The great chapter on Chaka Khan in this book helped me to keep my article chronologically accurate.