Chaka Khan was born Yvette Marie Stevens on March 23, 1953, in Chicago, Illinois. Both parents worked for the University of Chicago, one as a photographer, the other as a research supervisor. Unlike other future R&B stars who cut their musical teeth in church gospel choirs, Khan was raised Roman Catholic but was exposed to jazz. She formed her first group, the Crystalettes, with her sister Yvonne when she was only 11 years old.
In the early 1970s, after performing with a few other groups, Khan joined the band Rufus, which had a strong R&B and funk sound. The world got its first taste of Khan’s powerhouse vocals when the group released its first self-titled album in 1973, which spawned such modest hits as “Whoever’s Thrilling You” and “Feel Good.”
The follow-up album, Rags to Rufus (1974), was a smash commercially and critically. Stevie Wonder penned the hit single, “Tell Me Something Good,” for them, which sold more than a million copies.
In the late 1960s, Khan and her sister formed the vocal group Shades of Black and joined the Black Panther Party after befriending fellow member, activist and Chicago native Fred Hampton in 1967.While a member, she was given a name change to Chaka Adunne Aduffe Hodarhi Karifi by an African shaman.
She married her on-and-off boyfriend Hassan Khan, changing her stage name to Chaka Khan. Khan had been married twice and had two children. Her daughter Milini was born in 1973 to first husband Hassan Khan and son Damien arrived in 1978 to second husband Richard Holland (she was in fact pregnant with Damien on the cover of her album Chaka).
Khan and Holland were not destined to last and divorced by 1980. In 1980 she had a cameo appearance as a church choir soloist in The Blues Brothers with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. Khan released two albums in 1981, the Rufus release, Camouflage and the solo album What Cha’ GonnaDo for Me.
The same year, Khan appeared on three tracks on Rick Wakeman’s concept album 1984. In 1982, Khan issued two more solo albums, the jazz-oriented Echoes of an Era and a more funk or pop-oriented self-titled album Chaka Khan.
The latter album’s track, the jazz-inflected “Bebop Medley”, won Khan a Grammy and earned praise from Betty Carter who loved Khan’s vocal scatting in the song.
In 2007, Khan made her first original recording in many years with the album Funk This. It debuted at number 15 in the US and became her highest chart position since her first solo album, which peaked at number 12 in 1978 proving that both her fans and critics still rated her highly.
In 1990, she won another Grammy for “I’ll Be Good to You,” a duet with Ray Charles. Come 2 My House, released on Prince’s independent label, appeared in 1998, years after Khan had a falling out with Warner Bros. On 27 September 2011, Khan and her former band Rufus were jointly nominated to enter the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame.
Khan’s career has spanned over three decades and despite personal and public strife, she has always managed to maintain an air of dignity which has earned her millions of loyal fans worldwide.