Watch Out Donna: Chaka Khan Isn't Just Singin' in the Rain
She struts with the funky flash of Tina Turner and the moxie of Bette Midler; she churns her curves as hard as Charo, and she can sing ballads as softly as Anne Murray. At 27, Chaka Khan has already taken her group, Rufus, to five platinum and two gold LPs, including the current Masterjam. If Chaka (pronounced Shocka) isn't yet the next Aretha, Diana or Donna, it's not because she doesn't push her stage act to its lusty limits. "There's nothing like singing for all those people," coos Khan. "It's like makin' love to each and everyone of them. And, ooooooh, does that feel good."
Male fans constantly break through concert security to grab her, and at least one less-adoring female in the audience has slugged her. Chaka is not given to walking away from challenges. She even performed just before giving birth to her first child, Milini, now 6, from an unwed liaison with Chicago Opera stagehand Rahsaan Morris. "I thought I had heartburn. They took me to the hospital. It was labor."
Despite a 1978 solo gold LP, Chaka's trip to the top of R&B has hardly been painless. "I didn't ask for any of this," she snarls. "This life drives me crazy. But if I stopped, that would drive me crazy too." Home has not exactly been a refuge. She and her second husband of two years, real estate agent Richard Holland, are divorcing. "I still love him very much," says Chaka, who has custody of their year-old son, Damien. "But we're not compatible. I think we both have high blood sugar." Sassy answers aside, Chaka admits to graver obstacles. For one, Total Womanhood at her former Malibu ranch was "lonely. I was too young for that." Another was their mixed marriage. "I got nasty letters. It bothered Richard, not me. I'm a colorless entity."
Single parenthood and a flock of clinging relatives haven't eased her life, either. "I'd rather not have all this money," she gripes. "Too many people have come to depend on me. And they don't do too much because they don't have to."
Chaka has long depended on herself. Born Yvette Marie Stevens, the eldest of three kids, she grew up on an Air Force base near Chicago, where her father was an enlisted man. He and her mom, once a researcher for the National Opinion Research Center who now runs Chaka's fan club, split when she was 13. About that time she was kicked out of Catholic school for asking "a priest what he did with the nuns. We wore uniforms, the whole sick trip." That year she also took her new first name from a Yoruba African holy man (it means red, fire and war). By 15, she had left home and secured her first full-time Chicago club gig. "I was doing four shows a night before I was grown up," she recalls. "I'd take uppers for the shows, downers to sleep, then drink peppermint schnapps till I'd pass out." (She now admits to having "done many drugs, just about every kind. In my business people are always sticking them in your face.")
At 17, Chaka briefly married a local bassist, Assan Khan. "I was traveling and never saw him. Anyway I didn't like him." So she teamed with a bubble-gum-funk band, American Breed, when its lead singer quit in 1971. "They always joked that I had a better voice but she had bigger tits." They renamed themselves after the "Ask Rufus" column in Mechanix Illustrated, and, with Chaka, had bigger hits, including their 1974 breakthrough, Tell Me Something Good. That Stevie Wonder tune turned their second LP, Rags to Rufus, into a million-seller, and earned the integrated six-member band a Grammy.
Despite consistent success over six years, Chaka still sniffs that "it's harder than ever just to feel good." She rarely dates, and doesn't enjoy one-night stands on the road or consider it fair to bring men home to the Beverly Hills duplex she shares with her grandmother and two kids. "I see them way too little, but they bring me the most happiness now. It's totally realistic feedback. They don't lie."
With a second solo LP, Naughty, and talk shows and concert gigs all lined up this spring, she is also full of plans beyond music. "I want to go digging in Iraq, study the stars and the earth and be an actress—you just gotta do it all." But Khan claims she won't drop Rufus the way Diana Ross jettisoned the Supremes. Says Chaka: "I really love those guys."