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Rufus/Chaka Khan

Reviews on this page:

Rufus - Rags To Rufus - Rufusized - Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan - Ask Rufus - Street Player - Chaka - Masterjam - Naughty - Camouflage - What Cha Gonna Do For Me - Chaka Khan - Echoes Of An Era - Seal In Red - Stompin' At The Savoy - I Feel For You - Destiny - C. K. - The Woman I Am - Come 2 My House - Funk This

In the early 70s scramble to succeed Sly Stone at the top of the funk genre, Rufus appeared: a multiracial band armed with a batch of compelling tunes and a phenomenal lead singer, Chaka Khan - possibly the most capable singer in the history of the genre. Originally founded by refugees from the American Breed (of "Bend Me Shape Me" fame), and then led by soulless popster Ron Stockert, the first couple of Rufus records are mostly unfocused and unfunky. Thankfully, Stockert soon got out of the way, leaving the stage to Khan. In those days, Khan gave her all on stage (according to one story, she put so much force into her vocal delivery she once vomited into the crowd) and her unusual phrasing also brought out the emotion in slower numbers. Predictably enough, Khan went off on her own in the late 70s, leaving Rufus to languish. Her solo career has had real peaks and valleys: no one doubts her vocal talent, but since she rarely writes her own material, she's been at the mercy of her producers to find her good songs. Her latest release reverses that trend, and I hope she continues to control her own recordings in the future.

I saw Khan in concert in 1998, and reviewed the show on our page of concert reviews, which is the envy of all the nattering nabobs of online negativity. And her fine autobiography is reviewed on our book review page. (DBW)


Al Ciner, guitar; Kevin Murphy, keyboards; Lee Graziano, drums; Chuck Colbert, ?; Paulette McWilliams, vocals; Willie Weeks, bass; James Stella, vocals. Stella, Weeks, McWilliams, Graziano and Colbert all left by 1973, replaced by Dennis Belfield, bass; Chaka Khan, vocals; Ron Stockert, vocals, keyboards; Andre Fischer, drums. Stockert left 1974. Belfield left 1974, replaced by Bobby Watson. Ciner left 1974, replaced by Tony Maiden. David "Hawk" Wolinski joined 1977. Fischer left 1978, replaced by Richard "Moon" Calhoun. Calhoun left 1979, replaced by John Robinson.

Rufus (1973)
- At this point Rufus was mostly Ron Stockert's band; he wrote almost all the originals here, and sings a bunch of leads. As a performer and composer he's a third-rate Elton John - either "Your Song"-type ballads ("There's No Tellin'") or fake churchy rave-ups (the piano-led "Slip 'N Slide"). Fortunately, Chaka really cuts loose on her features, including a cover of Stevie Wonder's "Maybe Your Baby." Ciner overplays on that one - he has a nice guitar tone but no new ideas, just imitating Ray Parker's original solo. (DBW)
- Stockert is terrible - he's like someone of Leon Russell's caliber trying hard to rip off Elton, but falling back on standard American pop conventions instead. Khan's devastating vocal talent is quite apparent on the half-dozen songs she gets to her own, but Stockert hogs most of the original material (his painful ballad "Haulin' Coal"), leaving her to cover tunes by veterans like Steve Stills (a really miserable "Love The One You're With/Sit Yourself Down" medley), and Ashford & Simpson (a respectable "Keep It Comin'"). "Slip 'N Slide" has some wild-eyed, boogie-woogie camp value, and in a couple places they support Khan with some legitimate, entertaining funk (Ciner's "Feel Good") and soul (Allen Toussaint's "Whoever's Thrilling You (Is Killing Me)"), but there's just not a lot of value here. (JA)

Rags To Rufus (1974)
Pleased by Rufus' version of his song, Wonder wrote them their first hit single: the deliberate, funky "Tell Me Something Good." The other hit is "You Got The Love." Khan's voice is a marvel, but the backing band isn't quite up to scratch: at this point they spin out the backing tracks without much verve or enthusiasm. (DBW)

Rufusized (1974)
Jesus, this is one solid record. New arrivals Maiden and Watson knew how to keep a solid groove while leaving the spotlight on Khan, where it belonged. The band gave up on corny pop-gospel, and figured out a new formula: slow, grinding funk and even slower ballads, with lots of clavinet and light horn touches - and there are a ton of really clever tunes. "Once You Get Started" and "I'm A Woman (I'm A Backbone)" are nasty funk; "Stop On By" is a lovely ballad, while "Pack'd My Bags" blends both elements, opening with an unaccompanied piano solo. The brassy instrumental title track is fun, and Khan's version of "Half Moon" invites comparisons with Janis Joplin. There are no throwaway tracks here; even the lesser material ("Your Smile," "Somebody's Watching You") has good hooks and interesting lyrics. (DBW)

Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan (1975)
Like the preceding record, this is packed with funk ("Ooh I Like Your Loving," "Dance Wit Me") and positive lyrics ("Everybody Has An Aura"). The band sounds better than ever, although the disappearance of the horn section makes the arrangements thin in places. Most fans will be thrilled with this one, but the previous record is better for the uninitiated. The hit was the ballad "Sweet Thing," which also became a hit two decades later for Mary J. Blige. (DBW)

Ask Rufus (1977)
With Wolinski on the scene, the sound is much more laid back, with plenty of ballads ("Hollywood," "Earth Song") and even an orchestrated instrumental ("Slow Screw Against The Wall"). The band is good at it, but if you're looking for funk you'll be disappointed, except for "Close The Door" and the funk-pop "At Midnight (My Love Will Lift You Up)." Khan's vocals are subdued and contemplative, quite a contrast from her earlier work, but still affecting. Ron Wood drops by and adds guitar on the brief, noisy "Ab Fry." (DBW)

Street Player (1978)
Richard "Moon" Calhoun, recently of The Gap Band, was the drummer du jour. The mellowness of the previous record goes out of control here, turning most of the record into mood music more worthy of Steely Dan than an R&B/funk band. The worst offenders are "Blue Love," "Best Of Your Heart" and "Stranger To Love"; the only truly funky cut, "Take Time," sounds out of place among so much dross. There's one excellent ballad, "Stay," and the jazzy, sinuous "Destiny," but overall this is a real disappointment, perhaps signalling Khan's imminent departure. (DBW)

Chaka (Khan: 1978)
Khan's solo debut was produced by Arif Mardin, and he went with a lush, fully orchestrated sound that's sometimes slow but never dull. The hit here was Ashford & Simpson's "I'm Every Woman" (recently covered by Whitney Houston), and it's just as transcendent as one of Simpson's own arrangements. There's also a duet with George Benson, "We Got The Love," but many of the album tracks are better: the soothing "Roll Me Through The Rushes, the funky "The Message In The Middle Of The Bottom," "Some Love" (Khan's only co-write on the record). There are only a couple of false notes: a cover of Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made To Love Him" is corny, and I find the uptempo hit "Life Is A Dance" bland. Players vary from track to track, but generally include Steve Ferrone (drums), Richard Tee (keys), Anthony Jackson or Will Lee (bass), Phil Upchurch and Hamish Stuart (guitar), plus the Brecker brothers (horns). Also this year, Chaka appeared on Quincy Jones' Sounds... And Stuff Like That!. (DBW)

Masterjam (1979)
By now Rufus was in Spinal Tap mode, replacing their drummer with every new LP - this time it was John Robinson. Quincy Jones was brought in to produce, and he gives everything a cool LA sheen that makes the whole album sound like background music. The credits say Rufus played all the instruments themselves (except the horns), but the backing tracks sound suspiciously close to contemporaneous records like Michael Jackson's Off The Wall. Khan's voice is mixed way back, so that even nice tunes like Wolinski's "Do You Love What You Feel" lack excitement. Only a few tunes are written by the band, and the most enjoyable track, "Heaven Bound" was written by a pack of outsiders. There are also two tracks by Rod Temperton: a dull ballad ("Live In Me"), and a duller dance track (title tune). For Rufus and/or Quincy Jones completists. (DBW)

Numbers (1979)
Without Khan; this was their first record in years to miss the Top 40. I just picked this up (real cheap) and will review it sooner or later. (DBW)

Naughty (Khan: 1980)
A conventional late 70s R&B record - small band plus occasional horns, strings and synth - without the funkiness of Khan's work with Rufus or the jazz leanings of her later recordings. Though she doesn't take as many chances as usual, it's fun to hear her booming voice in such an uncomplicated mainstream context. Mardin produced again, and he dug up good songwriting from a number of different sources: Ashford & Simpson contributed the dramatic single "Clouds" and the mournful album closer "Our Love's In Danger"; session guitarist Dean Parks wrote "All Night's All Right"; and several numbers are by minor-league professional writers like Ellison Chase ("Get Ready, Get Set") and Deborah Ash ("Nothing's Gonna Take You Away"). Mardin's arrangements are functional but not distinctive, except for his use of tuba and French horn on a couple of numbers. Lots of big-name players like Richard Tee, Weeks, Anthony Jackson, Steve Ferrone, Michael and Randy Brecker, Sammy Figueroa. A very young Whitney Houston adds backing vocals on the Ashford & Simpson numbers; as usual, though, Khan does most of the backing vocals herself, and they're frequently the most enjoyable part of the record (Khan's own "What You Did"). (DBW)

Party 'Til You're Broke (1980)
Again, no Chaka. I have this and will review it the same time I review Numbers. (DBW)

What Cha' Gonna Do For Me (Khan: 1981)
Mardin produced again, and mostly continued the same conventional approach as the previous record, but without the same sharp songwriting. Starting with a cover of the Beatles' "We Can Work It Out" that's uncomfortably similar to Stevie Wonder's, there's just not much originality on display here, just a lot of familiar-sounding midtempo love songs ("Night Moods"). Compared with the later live version, the studio version of the title track is unforgivably restrained and by the numbers, both vocal and arrangement: what should be a demand sounds more like a half-hearted plea. The album's centerpiece is a version of Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night In Tunisia," which led to Khan's further dabblings in jazz, but it's diffuse, with a noodling synth solo (from Herbie Hancock, no less) in the middle and not enough focus on Khan. But despite all the problems, Khan's voice and Mardin's attention to detail make for a pleasant listen, particularly on the gently grooving "Any Old Sunday" and the transcendent, energetic "I Know You, I Live You." Aside from the main band of Larry Williams (keys), Anthony Jackson (bass), David Williams and Hamish Stuart (guitar) and Steve Ferrone (drums), there are guest appearances by Tee, Crusher Bennett, the Breckers, and Hiram Bullock, and "Tunisia" features David Foster, Paulinho Da Costa, Gillespie himself, and a "cut and paste" of a 35 year old Charlie Parker solo. (DBW)

Camouflage (1981)
Khan's on this one, but it still didn't sell. It's not as numbingly laid-back as Masterjam, but it has many of the same qualities: generic midtempo R&B, with no memorable hooks, overly subdued vocals, and almost no variation from track to track. Tony takes lead on several tunes, and they're uniformly lifeless ("Lilah"), but Chaka's features aren't much better ("Jigsaw," one of only two cuts she cowrote - presumably she was putting most of her energy into her solo career). Bobby Watson proteges René and Àngela added some keyboards and backing vocals, presumably on the two tunes they co-wrote: "Secret Friend" and "Highlight." Both songs are sweet, not far from Winbush's breakthrough sound in fact, but too pat. Other guests include Greg Phillinganes and Paulinho Da Costa. Produced by the band; listening to this dreck, it's hard to believe the band was just two years away from knocking out a blistering, career-capping live album. (DBW)

Chaka Khan (Khan: 1982)
This didn't generate any hits, but it's a lot of fun. Khan and Mardin were ready to experiment, coming up with energetic raveups ("Tearin' It Up" with a zillion Chaka backing vocal tracks), a terrific slow electronic funk number ("Slow Dancing" with guest vocals from Rick James), and a medley that reinterprets a bunch of bebop tunes as synth funk. That may sound appalling to jazz purists, but to me the versions here of Monk's "Epistrophy," Coltrane's "Giant Steps" and Parker's "Yardbird Suite" are a heck of a lot fresher and more engaging than the "real" jazz she ventured into on her next outing. Her singing here is phenomenal, enlivening the minor tracks like "Pass It On (A Sure Thing)"; a pleasant surprise and a fine introduction to Khan's solo work. (DBW)

Echoes Of An Era (Khan: 1982)
Khan's acoustic bebop tribute album, featuring Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Chick Corea, Lenny White and Stanley Clarke. The liner notes by Khan and White (who produced) are painfully self-congratulatory, bragging that they cut the disc in just two days. Maybe if they'd spent another day or two they could've come up with a whole album's worth of tracks - as it is, there are two not-very-different takes of "All Of Me," as if this were a landmark Charlie Parker session or something. Anyway, the track selection is mostly standards ("I Love You Porgy," "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most" - also attempted by Rickie Lee Jones) with only a couple of unequivocal bebop tunes (Monk's "I Mean You"). They were going for a laid-back nightclub atmosphere, but to me it comes across as too subdued, like they're not really exerting themselves. Corea's piano playing is eye-opening if you've only been exposed to his cheesy elektric work, Hubbard and Henderson are their usual fine selves, and Khan does have that great voice, but overall this is a frustrating missed opportunity. (DBW)

Seal In Red (1983)
Khan had nothing to do with this project, and neither should you. Produced by George Duke, and he slaps synth washes, boring electronic percussion and corny slap-pop bass all over everything. There are a zillion studio musicians here - Paulinho da Costa, Michael Sembello, Jerry Hey, Duke - making you wonder how much the band actually had to do with the album. The band is credited with most of the tunes, though, all of which lack luster: the single "Take It To The Top" sounds like a hit only when compared to the other drab material. I think Tony's singing most of the leads, and though his voice is completely undistinctive, it's still the best thing about the record. (DBW)

Stompin' At The Savoy (1983)
A contract-fulfilling live double album by an all-but-defunct band sounds like a recipe for disaster, so how did it become Rufus's high point? Well, the professionalism of the group's late period complements the great tunes of the early days, as songs like "I'm A Woman (I'm A Backbone)" and "You Got The Love" benefit from loads of crafty riffs above a rock-solid pocket. The full horn section (led by Ernie Watts) adds a dimension lacking from some of the original recordings, while the live atmosphere and Khan's always emotional performance keeps the proceedings from getting too dry... the only drawback is that she can't sing her own backups. The set is mostly the group's greatest hits - a mix of high energy funk ("Dance Wit Me") and ballads ("Pack'd My Bags") - though there's a fun cover of Smokey Robinson's "Ain't That Peculiar" and Khan's solo hit "What Cha' Gonna Do For Me." There's also one side of new material, including the hit "Ain't Nobody" - electrofunk at its most subtle and sensuous - and "Try A Little Understanding," combining a wonderful Khan vocal with a wicked Maiden guitar hook. (DBW)

I Feel For You (Khan: 1984)
The title track was ultrahip, bringing together several different sides of early 80s black pop: a song by Prince, with harmonica by Stevie Wonder, plus a rap by Grandmaster Melle Mel, topped off by Chaka's vocals. Throughout, the album utilized state of the art technology, so much so that now much of it sounds dated ("My Love Is Alive" and "La Flamme" use stuttering vocal sampling to an irritating extent). But the effects are used carefully, and often with stunning results ("Eye To Eye"); and a lot of the songwriting is first rate ("This Is My Night," the electrofunk "Caught In The Act"). The lyrics aren't much and if you're an old school funkaholic you may hate all the gadgetry, but if you like 80s pop tunes this is top of the line. Tony Maiden is the only other Rufus alum here; other players include Reggie Griffin, Steve Lukather and Mike Landau. Produced by Arif Mardin and a host of others. (DBW)

In 1985, Khan recorded "(Krush Groove) Can't Stop The Street" for the Krush Groove soundtrack; it's a horrible attempt to clone "Feel For You" written by Dan Hartman and Charlie Midnight, with a rap by Nile Rodgers. (DBW)

Destiny (Khan: 1986)
Not as hard-edged as Khan's previous effort; the sound is slick and mechanical, which is a shame because many of the tunes are engaging ("Love Of A Lifetime," "I Can't Be Loved," Khan's own "My Destiny"). "Tight Fit" is slow and yearning, like many a Patrice Rushen tune. Khan explores her love of bebop on "Coltrane Dreams," but again the synthetic production spoils the track. Session players include Marcus Miller, Phil Collins and the Brecker brothers. (DBW)

C. K. (Khan: 1988)
Big-time guest stars here, from Stevie Wonder (on a cover of his "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)") to George Benson to Miles Davis (on Prince's "Sticky Wicked"). There's also a version of the jazz standard "The End Of A Love Affair." In a big change from the electronic wizardry of her previous two records, she goes for a subtler, more meditative sound. She's good at it, but you may be disappointed if you're looking for the unrestrained belting of her Rufus work. (DBW)

Life Is A Dance: The Remix Project (Khan: 1989)
Remixed hits from both Rufus and solo albums; I've never heard it. (DBW)

The Woman In Me (Khan: 1992)
A rather anonymous loud-pop production, much of it by Marcus Miller, with plenty of harsh keyboards, carefully-distorted guitar solos and in your face percussion - like a Paula Abdul record. With all the instruments fighting for your attention, it's hard to focus on Khan's singing, which features all her standard mannerisms. There are several nice tunes, including the uptempo "Everything Changes" (despite silly synth horns) and "Facts Of Love," the jazzy "I Want," and the fun title track - it's fine if you're already a fan, but people who want to know how she got to be so famous in the first place should start elsewhere.(DBW)

In 1994, Chaka contributed "My Funny Valentine" to the Waiting To Exhale soundtrack.

Dare You To Love Me (1995)
Rejected by her record company and still unreleased; most of these tracks have seen the light of day, either on movie soundtracks or the subsequent greatest hits release. Also in 1995, Khan appeared on the Mama I Want To Sing London cast album. (DBW)

Epiphany (Khan: 1996)
A collection of Khan's biggest solo hits, plus five unreleased tunes from the Dare You project. (DBW)

In 1997, Khan's "Pain" was released on the Living Single soundtrack.

Come 2 My House (Khan: 1998)
Co-produced and mostly co-written by and Khan, and it's as funky as you could hope for: fat bass, gutsy horns (by the Hornheadz), solid riffs that somehow never sound derivative ("I'll Never Be Another Fool"), crazy touches like the title track's heavy breathing-meets-jazz piano. Studio gadgets are used to add interest and excitement, not as crutches or ploys for commercial acceptance. (In short, the record is everything New Power Soul wasn't, but that's a story for another day.) Khan's voice is always given plenty of room, and several tracks feature that "Wall of Chakas" vocal section than which there is nothing better ("This Crazy Life Of Mine"). There are also several choice ballads: "Remember U," "Journey 2 The Center Of Your Heart," which for some reason has been lying in 's vault for years. Larry Graham drops by on a remake of his hit "Hair," but stays in the background so that the track is a statement about individualism instead of just a bass showcase. Weak links are a cluttered remake of Prince's "Don't Talk 2 Strangers," and "Reconsider (U Betta)," a soothing jazzy number spoiled by a distractingly prominent snare. Queen Latifah adds incidental rapping to "Pop My Clutch," and some members of the New Power Generation turn up here and there, but most instruments are by That Purple Guy. (DBW)

ClassiKhan (Khan: 2004)
Chaka backed by the London Symphony Orchestra, singing standards ("I'm In The Mood For Love"). (DBW)

Funk This (Khan: 2007)
Khan and producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and Big Jim Wright deftly recapture a live-sounding vibe - organ, gritty guitars, real drums - without sounding self-consciously retro ("Back In The Day"). So when the song material is good, the record is great ("Super Life"). When it's not ("Disrespectful," an underwritten duet with Mary J. Blige), it's still pretty okay. As you'd hope from the title, the backbone is funk ("Will You Love Me"; "Hail To The Wrong" with wonderful multi-tracked vocals), but there are also some fine ballads ("Angel"). There are a bunch of covers, but most of them - Prince's "Sign O' The Times"; Jimi Hendrix's "Castles Made Of Sand" - stick too close to the original recordings to be really interesting. That also goes for remakes of the Rufus hits "Pack'd My Bags" and "You Got The Love" with Tony Maiden: they sound wonderful, but add nothing to the Savoy versions. The one find is Joni Mitchell's "Ladies Man," which Khan blasts into another dimension. (DBW)

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