Steven Ivory: Chaka Khan: An Icon turns 60

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Chaka Khan and her amazingly gorgeous 60th birthday cake

*Quincy Jones was growing concerned. It wasn’t easy to see, but I could tell. Sitting in a wheeled swivel chair behind the control board at Hollywood’s Cherokee Studio late one Sunday evening in 1978,  with Bruce Swedien, his loyal engineer at his side, Jones wasn’t as talkative as he had been a couple hours earlier.

Out in the sound booth, his longtime friends Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson stood behind a microphone and music stand, headphones on, singing in unison to a mildly funky instrumental track   whose vocal refrain went, “What makes you feel like doin’ stuff like that….”

After a couple of takes, Simpson motioned for  Swedien stop the track.   Ashford scribbled on the  paper in front of them,  changing a word here, a line there, conferring with his wife.  One of the greatest songwriting teams in popular music—creators of such classics as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand”), among others—were writing right there on the spot.  Everything seemed to be going well.

Except, there was no Chaka Khan.

Jones had reached out to Khan to perform on this, his latest A&M Records album, not simply  because he was a  fan;  he needed her.  Despite  more than a decade at A&M, despite the hit album Body Heat in 1974,  Mellow Madness a year later, and two platinum-selling Jones-produced A&M albums by protégé act the Brothers Johnson–despite the fact that Jones and Herb Alpert, the A in A&M were friends, for Christ’s sake–the label had intimated to Jones that for the association to continue, his next project needed not just  respectable sales, but a home run.  So, Jones called Chaka Khan.

By the mid ‘70s, pop artists making guest appearances on the recordings of other artists was the trend.  I for one, would  pick up an album and scour the production credits for the line, “So and So appears courtesy of” the particular label to which said artist was signed.  Stevie Wonder was the king of  guest appearances on the albums of others in the ‘70s, what singer Michael McDonald was  to the ‘80s.

Chaka, who’d become a star with the band Rufus via the hits, “You Got The Love,” “Once You Get Started,” “Sweet Thing” and “Hollywood,”  was pop/R&B’s go-to voice.  She’d  developed  a reputation for being moody and unpredictable. However,  her brilliance and popularity as a vocalist  was worth it.

No one among the handful at Jones’s session—maybe ten of us, tops–could have been more worried that Chaka  might not  show than myself.   A writer for Soul Newspaper, I’d been invited, along with partner-in-crime, Soul photographer Bobby Holland, by our buddy Ed Eckstein, who ran Quincy Jones Productions, to come and simply hang.

Alternately sitting on the requisite leather control room couch  and leaning on the wall behind the control board,  I was quietly having an absolute ball.  Observing Jones’s every movement and spoken direction, I discovered his secret in the …read more  

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