chaka khan & bday cake

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 studio: musical acumen aside, it’s Jones’s galvanizing warmth and gentle, yet persuasive communication skill  that makes him a great producer.

The best part of it all was that I wasn’t there to work.  I didn’t have to think about wheedling Chaka into dialogue.  All I had to do was sit, watch  and listen.  Which made what I overheard ‘round midnight all the more disheartening: Jones and Swedien were setting up another session for a later date.  Chaka, they figured, wasn’t going to make it.  Damn. I told myself to be grateful  for what I did experience that night, but self wasn’t going along with that notion.

Jones was in the middle of asking Ashford and Simpson, now back in the control booth, about their availability for coming week, when the control room door slowly opened.  The hair and those lips preceded all else. A tiny thing,  she was dressed head to toe in black, her soft human form concealing  a Godzilla-sized larynx able to stop time. The arrival of Chaka Khan felt like the fucking cavalry.

“I am SO sorry,” she offered through a meek smile. “We got lost.” A pleasant looking woman brought up her rear. Jones embraced Chaka and a weight lifted from the room.

Ashford and Simpson greeted her like a relative, for good reason. Chaka was just 19 in 1973, when she recorded an Ashford and Simpson title,  “Keep It Coming,” on  Rufus’ self titled album.  She’d sing another of their tunes, “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Maybe,” on the band’s second LP, “Rags To Rufus.”   And poetically, when Chaka left Rufus to go on her own, Ashford and Simpson would write her first and most enduring solo hit, the anthemic, “I’m Every Woman.”

Chaka took a seat and the engineer cranked up the  music.  She listened thoughtfully to the track. When it ended, she said, “Okay, let’s go.”   Out in the sound room with Ashford and Simpson, Chaka read over the lyric, asked a couple of questions. The three  donned headphones, gathered around the microphone and Simpson signaled for the track.

The event I’d waited for all evening happened so fast that it might have been uneventful if it weren’t Chaka.  At 1:50 into the track she  began ad libbing, and took the lead on the second bridge. Then, coming out of that crescendo after the instrumental break, Chaka went to work.  The soulful phrasings, a couple extended high screams—it was all  trademark Chaka Khan stuff.

The room was rocking.  I peeked up from the couch at a grinning, head- bobbing Jones.  By 4:57 into the track, he knew that if an earthquake had hit  Los Angeles that very moment, he had what he needed on tape.  But by 5:50 it was sounding a lot like ‘A&M Records, kiss my black ass.’

The track faded, and Ashford and Simpson  were beaming.  But not Chaka. “Can we do it again?” she asked, looking at Jones through the glass.

“For what?” said Jones, smiling. “We got it, sweetie. Come in and listen.”

Everyone settled in the control room and Swedien hit ‘Play.’  None of them allowed it onto their faces, but they all knew they were hearing  a  hit. I wondered what it must be like for the four of them to do this so many times in their careers—to listen to a playback after a session  and just know.

Jones had Swedien play the track yet again, during which Chaka reached for her tote bag of a leather purse, retrieving from it the biggest zip-lock bag of   privately owned marijuana I’d ever seen before or since. As the music grooved, she generously passed the bag around the control room.  Those who wanted to grabbed a few buds.

And then it was over.  Everyone said their goodbyes, with Jones seeing  them to the street exit the way  you’d see a visitor off from your home.  When he returned to the studio, he expressed his utter jubilance to the first person he came to–me.

Giving me a bear hug, he lifted me up off  the studio floor,  planting a big kiss on my cheek.  I’d never been kissed by a man before.  I figure when someone like Quincy Jones wants to kiss, you go with it.

Thanks hugely to Chaka’s contribution, in July of 1978, “Stuff LIke That” went number one on Billboard’s R&B singles chart  and  helped leverage Jones, just on the cusp of Michael Jackson mania,  into a major deal at Warner Brothers that included his own label.

I considered this story after learning that 2013 marks  the 40th anniversary of Chaka’s  career in entertainment.

It got me to wondering: what do you do after  coming “Through The Fire,” literally and surviving the  hardships that have taken so many others out in “Hollywood?”

Certainly, it’s a “Sweet Thing,” enjoying a legendary career that includes ten Grammys. It’s clear, Chaka, that “You Got The Love,” earning the respect of some of the greatest musicians and artists from all genres.  And “Ain’t Nobody” can tell me that you aren’t one of the three most influential female pop vocalists on the planet (the other two being Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston–think about it).

But seriously,  “Tell Me Something Good:” what do you do for an encore? Well, if you’re Chaka Khan, you turn 60. And you celebrate that bad boy all year long.  I know—“I Feel For You,” having to endure this  bit of corn.  But Happy Birthday, anyway.

Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love  (Simon & Schuster),  has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].

steven ivory

Steven Ivory