'Through the Fire'

In a new tell-all book, survivor Chaka Khan comes clean on 30 years of highs and lows in the music business

October 28, 2003|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

NEW YORK - So you're inside the dimly lighted bar of the Peninsula Hotel on a breezy afternoon in Manhattan, awaiting the arrival of Chaka Khan. As you sit in a deep, plush chair by the window, you take in the ornate gold, burgundy and mahogany decor, the crystal chandeliers, the snooty waiter. You can just smell the money in this joint.

You are here to chat with Chaka (yes, she's a first-name diva) about her just-published tell-all, Chaka!: Through the Fire. Thirty years have passed since the woman scored her first smash, "Tell Me Something Good," the Stevie Wonder-penned classic that snagged 2 million record buyers with its slow-grind funk and Chaka's volcanic pipes.

Back then, she was with Rufus, the airtight, multiracial band that backed her on many hits: "Once You Get Started," "Please Pardon Me (You Remind Me of a Friend)," "Stay," "Hollywood," "Sweet Thing" and others. Those were Chaka's infamous "Wild Child" days - the '70s, an adventurous period in pop music and the singer's life.

You saw her on Soul Train back in the day when Don Cornelius was the host. And there Chaka stood on stage with Rufus - a pint-sized dynamo in a buckskin midriff, bizarre platform shoes, her massive Afro adorned with feathers - sing-shouting: Love me right/What's the matter with you/Hold me tight/Why must I tell you what to do. She was an immediate sex symbol - tough and bawdy. She seemed so liberated. But according to her book, the longtime lover of poetry and philosophy felt trapped in the wild stage act, the leather, the feathers.

Booming, free, a marvel of style and technique, Chaka's voice is still an undeniable instrument, a truly original sound. Some of her solo hits have become anthems: "I'm Every Woman," "What Cha Gonna Do for Me," "I Feel for You." After Aretha Franklin, she is undoubtedly the most important and influential black female singer to emerge in the last century. Bette Midler calls Chaka "one of pop's greatest voices." Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, Rahsaan Patterson and Erykah Badu have covered the woman's music and copped a few of her signature vocal licks.

In the autobiography, the eight-time Grammy winner is refreshingly candid about her career, men, the industry and her abuse of all types of drugs: heroin, acid, weed, crack. It's amazing that the 50-year-old Chaka is still around and intact, circling the globe every year and thrilling millions with That Voice. These days, when she's not on the road, Chaka chills at her London pad or her Los Angeles home, enjoying herbal teas, old friends, her two granddaughters Raeven and Daija. You find out later that the fiery soul belter still wonders how and why she made it "through the fire."

`I've come a long way'

About half an hour late for your appointed time with her, Chaka steps off the elevator and enters the bar. You notice The Hair first: a thick shock of wine-colored curls framing an ageless face. Almond eyes and long fake lashes. High, blazing cheekbones. A sprinkling of freckles across the nose. Her full mouth instantly melts into a wide, girlish grin as she extends her hand with a bell-like, "Hello." She's a petite, busty woman - no more than 5 feet 2. Dressed in a smart black pantsuit and platform boots, Chaka is trailed by her entourage: the wardrobe girl, the makeup guy, the hair guy, her daughter Milini, her personal manager and baby sister Tammy, and, of course, a cool-faced bodyguard. The diva - oh, Chaka loathes that term - the "primal wailer," as she calls herself, is in the house.

As if on cue, Reggie the makeup guy stops the Chicago native before she sits.

"You need some lipstick," he says, digging into his bag. After a quick application of a bronzy shade, Chaka finally settles into an easy conversation about Through the Fire, her past, her artistry, her spirit.

"There was no, like, special landmark, age, occurrence or solar return that made this book happen," the singer says in her occasional faux Tina Turner-like British accent, which gives way to a 'round-the-way-homegirl tongue the more comfortable she gets.

"My sister Tammy and I had kicked the idea around about doing a book," Chaka says, "and I was like, `No, I don't wanna do a book.' My life, you know, is already a fish bowl. I wanna keep some things private. It seemed so [difficult], writing a book. But my sister talked me into it. She said, `There are some kids out there going through what you've been through. They may feel hopeless. You can help somebody. And that did it.' "

It took about a decade to get the book under way but just eight months to write it. Chaka did so much partying and drugging that she hardly remembered the '70s and '80s. She researched some things as she worked on issues that continued to haunt her, such as drugs, dead-end relationships, ragged management. Completing the book has brought her some peace. But the artist is still a "work in progress."

She tosses her hair. "I've come a long way. Yes, I would say I've been blessed."

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