Epiphany: The Best Of Volume 1 – Chaka Khan (Reprise 1996)
This is the third and final appearance of Chaka Khan on my Essential CD list and inevitably is a greatest hits compilation. My previous Chaka choices had been geared towards the commercial singles buying audience and proving she was a relevant artist. “I Feel For You” from 1989 mixed electro and hip-hop beats with the incredible Khan vocals and “Life Is A Dance: The Remix Project” was an explicit attempt (very successful in the UK) to introduce Chaka to a younger club-bound audience. This 1999 release feels somewhat different. It’s a much more sophisticated, adult-orientated affair which emphasises Chaka as a major recording artist who can transcend barriers of Soul, R&B, rock, pop, jazz and disco. Released on the Warner Brothers subsidiary Reprise, this was deemed, as suggested by the title a rebirth for Chaka the artist, who, maybe partially because of her disillusionment with the Warner Brothers label, had not had an album release of new material for four years since the not terribly inspiring “The Woman I Am” release. With the idea of rebirth in mind the label included five new tracks amongst this sixteen tracker to show the direction Chaka was going to be taking. Although this album was tagged Volume 1 there has never been a Volume 2 and it would be another two years before Chaka returned with a new album and this would be on Prince’s NPG label.
Having noted the more mature feel of this release the big commercial hits are obviously present including the perennial club favourite “Ain’t Nobody”, the vivacious power statement of “I’m Every Woman” and a couple of tracks from “I Feel For You”- the title track, one of the great number 1 UK singles of the 80’s and the sublime “Through The Fire” and there’s also “I Know You, I Live You” familiar from the “Remix Project” – although here in its unremixed form. So there’s a little overlap between the two previously recommended albums but there are eleven out of the 16 tracks that I have not so far discussed.
From the Rufus days we get the initial hit, the Stevie Wonder penned “Tell Me Something Good” here in a live version from the 1983 “Stompin’ At The Savoy” album. The Wonder influence here is strong in the structure and sound of the song with its vocoder effects underneath a snarling, sinuous funk groove and a great vocal from Chaka. It illustrates how great a live performer Chaka can be (although this could be a little erratic at various points of her career). When on form she is certainly amongst the best and it can all seem effortless. I’m a huge fan of the Gregg Diamond penned track “Papillon (Hot Butterfly)” produced by Arif Marden from 1980’s “Naughty” featuring a pre-superstardom Luther Vandross on backing vocals together with Cissy Houston. There’s a point here which shows the Khan voice as magnificent and takes away from the lightweight disco feel of the whole thing. At one point her vocal soars and a saxophone takes over and the sound is very similar. This is the essence of Chaka’s voice, unlike most pop stars it is a real instrument and is used as an instrument. The comparisons to a saxophone have been made throughout her career and that is why there has always been so much said as to how great a jazz singer she can be and if she had been born in an earlier era when the legendary female jazz vocalists were recording that her voice would be up there with the Ellas, Sarahs, Dinahs and Billies. It is at moments like this on a track which is fairly fluffy that this shows up.
“Love Me Still” is a less familiar track which featured on the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s 1995 film “Clockers” and is a collaboration between Chaka and Bruce Hornsby. Unsurprisingly, given Hornsby’s involvement this is a piano-led ballad which is performed beautifully and has the same sound as his classy “The Way It Is” hit from 1986. Released as a single but not a hit, this is just so classy and reminds me of “Angel” the standout track from her 2007 “Funk This” release but this is perhaps Chaka at her gentlest and most tender.
The jazz influence hits home on a couple of the track selections “The End Of A Love Affair” predates the type of material she will do on 2004’s “Classickhan” album. The song from 1988’s “CK” album is dedicated to Ella Fitzgerald is most associated with Billie Holiday and after a fairly faithful rendition launches into a George Benson guitar section with George scatting along. This mix of Benson and Khan is a good one, both Warner Brothers artists who both could have benefited from more collaborations, especially as both worked with Quincy Jones. The jazz becomes more be-bop in “And The Melody Still Lingers On (A Night In Tunisia) from Chaka’s 1981 release “Whatcha Gonna Do For Me” in which producer Arif Mardin uses a sample of the alto sax of jazz legend Charlie Parker and enlists the help of another jazz legend on trumpet, Dizzy Gillespie who also wrote “A Night In Tunisia” which is the basis of this developed by Khan and Mardin into a new track. From the same album comes the title track co-written by Scottish supergroup Average White Band’s Hamish Stuart alongside Ned Doheny. It’s a good solid song from 1981 with disco influences but is unlikely to be too many people’s favourite Chaka track. This is the track which leads into the new material.
First off is a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Everywhere” given a gentle reggae flavour with the odd playing around with vocals from producers David Gamson and Andre Betts. This feels very much like a mid 90’s track and plays it a little safe. “Never Miss The Water” was a small UK hit and sees Chaka collaborating with singer, rapper and bass guitarist Me’Shell Ndegeocello, for whom big things were predicted around the time the CD was released and whose name seems to take me forever to type correctly. It brings the Chaka sound firmly into the mid 90’s and with Me’Shell’s rapping flirts with the Neo-Soul movement. Two years prior to this Chaka had scored her last to date UK Top 40 hit with collaboration with Jazz-rapper Guru on “Watch What You Say” (#28) and there has always been the desire to experiment with newer sounds throughout her career. The sinuous funk of “Something Deep” produced by Keith Crouch also has these undertones of neo-soul, hip-hop and jazz especially in the sax solo and horn arrangements by Derrick Edmondson. Long-time producer Arif Mardin takes the helm for “Your Love Is All I Know”, a Whitney-ish R&B ballad which shows off the Khan vocals beautifully, even if the song is a little Disney-ish, but if anyone could build up to the big power chorus it is certainly Chaka. Album closer “Every Little Thing”, another slab of contemporary sounding R&B is the third of the new tracks produced by David Gamson and once again clearly illustrates the direction the Warner Brothers group would see Chaka going in.
The studio albums which come after this are all interesting if not essential. In 1998 Chaka worked with Prince and appeared on his NPG label with “Come 2 My House”- a solid album . A superb version of “My Funny Valentine” had appeared on the soundtrack for the 1995 Whitney Houston vehicle “Waiting To Exhale” and it was clear that this could be a direction that could reap benefits. It was 2004 when she took on the whole of the London Symphony Orchestra for “Classickhan” a set of standards including “The Best Is Yet To Come”, “Is That All There Is” and three tracks associated with Shirley Bassey, a direct challenge if ever there was one. The power is certainly racked up in “Goldfinger”, “Diamonds Are Forever” and “Hey Big Spender”. 2007’s “Funk This” saw a return to more earthy roots, contains the lovely track “Angel” and scooped a couple of Grammys including Best R&B album. This brought her total of Grammys to date up to 10. It also reached number 15 in the US album charts – her highest placing in this chart since her 1978 debut got to number 12. In 2015 she took part in and was the first celebrity eliminated in “Dancing With The Stars” (the US version of “Strictly Come Dancing”) and earlier in 2016 she announced she was entering rehab as she was addicted to the same painkillers that were part of the early demise of her friend Prince.
In a career which has lasted forty-two years since the first hit with Rufus there is little doubt that we will be hearing from Chaka Khan again until we do this hits+ new tracks compilation will certainly go some way to filling the gap. I couldn’t choose from two videos so have gone for the all-time classic “Ain’t Nobody” and because I cannot resist a 70’s Soul Train clip here is Rufus featuring Chaka Khan with their first hit from 1974
Epiphany: The Best Of Volume 1 is Life Is A Dance: The Remix Project is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £5.99, used from £1.47 and as a download for £3.49. In the US it is currently $9.86 new, used from $0.01 and download for $9.49.