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THE CHAKA KHAN INTERVIEW (PART 2)


Read part 1 of Dyana Williams' interview with Chaka Khan here.

Chaka Khan is celebrating 50 years in music―just ahead of her 70th birthday―on March 23.

The extraordinary five-decade arc of the vocal genius and native Chicagoan born Yvette Marie Stevens includes 10 Grammy Awards (and 22 nominations); fame and huge hits with the group Rufus; a stratospheric solo career marked by such smashes as “I’m Every Woman,” “Ain’t Nobody” and “I Feel for You”; projects with Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, Arif Mardin, Jam & Lewis and countless other influential music-makers; acclaimed forays into jazz including 1982’s Echoes of an Era (with greats like Chick Corea, Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson); and countless other highlights, all the way up to her most recent single, “Woman Like Me,” which made its way into the Top 15, and a new collaborative project to be announced later this year. Khan, who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, was recently honored with a proclamation from New York City and hailed on a billboard in Times Square. You know, icon stuff.

Our friend Dyana Williams, herself celebrating a golden anniversary in the business and anticipating her 70th trip around the sun, began playing Khan’s music when she was an on-air personality at WHUR Washington, D.C., working under the moniker Ebony Moonbeams, and has been a devoted fan ever since.

“I’m Every Woman”—written by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson―is one of your biggest songs. It became that much more of a touchstone after Whitney Houston covered it. Did you ever imagine when you worked on it that it would become what it is today?
Of course not. I’ve done songs I just didn’t like and released them, and they were hits. And I was, like, “Wow, I was off the mark.” One of the first things you learn is that you cannot predict what the hell people are going to like or not like. You can guess at it, but I’m not good at predicting what will be or won’t be a hit.

But here we are all these years later and that song has become an anthem for women around the world.
Yeah, go figure.

Nick and Val are two of my favorite songwriters ever. What was that experience like, working on the song with them?
People envision us in the studio together, but it’s rare that the writers and the artist are collaborating. After “I’m Every Woman,” Nick and Val and I did more work together; we did “Clouds” together after that. They would send a CD with a rough mix with Nick or someone singing the vocal, but it would sound nothing like the finished product.

What about “I Feel for You,” the Prince song?
That’s just a cover of a song he did on his first record. “Eternity” is another Prince song I did—an amazing song. I really wanted to see that one go further.

Stevie Wonder, who played harmonica on “I Feel for You” and wrote Rufus’ “Tell Me Something Good” for you, is another of your big inspirations.
I love his songs. I covered “I Was Made to Love Her.” And “Hey Love”—that’s the first Stevie Wonder song I fell in love with. I was in high school, in love with a boy named Albert Donnelly. I’d think about him when that song came on and get butterflies and everything.

You worked closely with the legendary producer Arif Mardin.
Yes. He was everything to me. He still is, in a big way. He was like an uncle, father, everything. He helped me. He said in an interview that [imitating Mardin’s Turkish accent] “Chaka Khan’s voice, she has the instrument that I cannot play.” That was, like, whoo, great. Because he is no joke. Wherever he is right now [Mardin died in 2006], he’s still making great music.

Speaking of producers, tell me a bit about working with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on 2007’s Funk This.
Oh, beautiful men. I love them. We became so close. We’re family. They’re wonderful guys. Especially Terry—Terry puts in the social work. He’s a social worker [laughs]. They’re great, and their keyboardist who passed away…

Jimmy Wright.
Oh, God. Big Jim. There’s never been a spirit like him. You talk about one amazing talent. Keyboard player, writer and singer. And that was the last big project he did―mine.

Tell me about your love affair with Joni Mitchell.
Girl, let me tell you—she has saved my life on more than one occasion. I get it when somebody says the artist becomes this soundtrack to somebody else’s life because she definitely was the one to mine. I’d be on a tour bus after a show and frustrated as hell, because Rufus and I, offstage, had a rather turbulent relationship. They treated me like their little sister that they had to look after. I couldn’t have company; nobody could come to my hotel room after the show, ever. They would do checks, walkthroughs, all kind of stuff. It was not nice. It was not cool. I really felt like a prisoner.

Anyway, I’d get on the bus after a gig, and I’d be getting fucked up back there. I’d have all the windows open. The bus would be flying down the road, the wind blowing in the bus. I’d have Joni Mitchell blaring through the windows on the bus by myself back there. And she saved my life, on the Hejira album especially. When I listened to the words she was singing, they just spoke my life, what I was going through at the time. Like somebody really knew what I was going through. Because she was on the road, too. I got it. She did help to bring me through some hard times on the road, and I had some really hard times on the road. I thought about some drastic shit. So that’s where our relationship started. Now my daughter knows all her songs―she grew up listening to them. So Joni is a generational inspiration in my family.

And you’ve done multiple tributes to her.
I have a whole album of Joni Mitchell songs. I was going to release them this year, but it’s my 50th-year celebration this year so I have to wait. I’m doing another CD this year, but I’m gonna include a couple of the songs that I was gonna use for her tribute album. Down the road a bit, I’ll release the entire offering. This year I have to focus on my 50-year thingy.



Are you going back on the road?
I’m not gonna be roading it that much. I’m finna pull a Taylor Swift on this shit, put a lot of music out there. This will be like my farewell. I’ll do some dates this year, but it’s not gonna be a full-blown tour. It’ll be me doing some choice dates and preferably large, open-air concerts, some with Philharmonics, like Disney Hall, stuff like that. Maybe one or two gigs a month. I’m just coming down off two years of road tours. I’m 70 years old―I’ll be damned if I’m gonna kill myself out there doing this shit.

I had a conversation with Nancy Wilson when she made the decision to stop touring. She talked about how brutal it is.
Mm-hmm. It’s brutal as hell, girl. It’ll kill you. I was, like, fuck it, maybe I’m just gonna start flying private, you know? See how that works.

Well, you know what our girlfriend Aretha used to say about flying; she said, “Dyana, are you still flying? You need to try the bus life. I don’t deal with TSA. I don’t deal with anybody on my way to my bus. And I’m in heaven.”
Exactly, that’s how I feel. I would like to do a bus thing, but I’m not gonna be on the road like that. I’m not gonna even do that to myself. Fuck that! But I know exactly what I’m gonna be doing for the rest of my life.

What are you doing?
Being Nana. Being me. Watching movies, hanging out with these kids, letting them drive me crazy but loving every minute of it. They work me like no road could ever work somebody. They make up for all the lost time. They say, “Oh no, baby. You think you’re gonna come home and chill and read books? No, we gonna do some life.” They’re wonderful. I just love them to death.

You’ve sung a great deal about love and relationships…
Yeah, I do sometimes. But I’m not feeling that much ’cause ain’t much really going on. Like that Paul McCartney song: He’s sick of silly love songs. I’m sick of love songs, too. Especially unrequited love. I just won’t have it anymore. My boyfriend is my bed, and my husband is the TV set. Period. I don’t want nobody laying next to me farting, coughing, whining, leaving the toilet seat up. I don’t miss that shit at all. Fuck that shit. My last relationship was about 15, 20 years ago. I said, “Oh, I’m doooooooone.” I’m just happy that I know what I don’t want; I don’t know what I want, but I’ll give you a pretty good indication of what I do not want.

Nikki Giovanni wrote “Poem for Aretha” years ago [1971], talking about the struggles women artists go through on the road, being away from their children and their families, having a hard time finding a righteous man who’s going to love them. Because if we look at the history of our female artists―Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Gladys Knight… The list is long.
And Nina Simone. I really got to know her at the end of her life. And I saw firsthand and in a very raw way what life had done to her. She’s a brilliant, brilliant soul. But she was lost and in so much pain. It was so sad. And I saw another great, whose name I’d rather not mention, just before she passed. She could barely walk. But let me tell you what she said: “Don’t I have a gig?” Oh my God. This woman is, like, 90 years old, and all she can think of is, doesn’t she have a gig? I’ll be God-damned if that’s the last thing I have to talk about or think about. Sheee-it.

I’m so grateful to you for the abundance of gifts you’ve given. I pray that you feel the love. And I hope that as you sit down with your grandbabies and great-grands, you recognize that you are a treasure.
Thank you, darling. God bless you.

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