CHAKA THE TERRIBLE HAS MATURED
Chaka Khan is certainly mellow these days. She has a gripe--a legitimate gripe, too--but was downplaying it. The Khan of old would have been complaining to anyone who would listen that she got a raw deal. Instead, over drinks recently, she was cautious and judicious when discussing the fate of her latest pop/R&B; Warner Bros. album, “Destiny.” She’s recorded some exceptional solo albums since leaving Rufus a few years ago, but this is her best. The vocals, songwriting, production and arrangements are all first-rate. Her last album, “I Feel for You,” sold over 2 million copies. The new one, a decidedly superior work, was expected to do even better. But it hasn’t. It’s not a flop, just a commercial disappointment.
The indifferent response to the first single, “Love of a Lifetime,” was a indication of impending problems. With its terrific high-tech arrangement, this seemed like a shoo-in for the Top 10. Not only is it Khan’s best single ever, it’s one of finest in pop music this year. Warner Bros. is trying to revive interest in the album with a new single, “Tight Fit.” But it may be too late. Salvaging an album after a failed first single is never easy.
The lukewarm reception to “Destiny” naturally disturbs her. But, that afternoon, instead of seething and spraying insults and blame, Khan was understanding. Figuring out the reasons for a lukewarm response to an album is often difficult. So many factors are involved--the quality of the record, the amount of airplay, record-company support--it’s tough to pinpoint the culprit.
“More airplay would have helped,” Khan observed. “But it’s hard to say why the album and single didn’t get the airplay they needed. I don’t want to blame anybody.”
But the word around the industry is that Warner Bros. blew it. The label support, according to reports, was neither strong enough nor shrewdly planned. No one can prove it, though. Record company executives, of course, deny it. Tom Draper, Warners’ vice president of black music marketing, doesn’t feel these charges deserve comment--and didn’t.
Whoever’s at fault, you won’t find out from talking to Khan. She’s not pointing the finger at any one. Chaka the Terrible has turned gracious.
A native of a Chicago suburb, Khan, famed for her flashy, fiery, unorthodox singing style, worked in several groups before joining Rufus in 1972. By the mid ‘70s, she was a star, adept at both R&B; and jazz. In 1978, she started making solo albums but stayed with Rufus until 1982.
Producer Arif Mardin, who’s masterminded all her solo albums, deserves much of the credit for their excellence. Khan will be the first to tell you that.
But now Mardin become her executive producer--overseeing the work of the legion of producers who do the basic studio work. Mardin, now in great demand, doesn’t have as much time for her, Khan charged.
“I’m jealous. I’m mad that he got so popular. Now everybody wants to work with him. All those great tracks he produced for me turned everybody on. For a long time, he had lots of time for me. He could do all the studio work. Now he’s too busy to spend that much time with me.
“I work so great with him. His wife once told me that I was his instrument, that he could play anything on me.”
As good as her current album is, Khan feels it could have been even better with Mardin giving her his undivided attention.
“On this album, I didn’t have him with me like I wanted him,” she said. “That had an effect on my singing. I didn’t feel right a lot of the time. He was around much more during the sessions for the last album.”
There is a possibility that Mardin won’t be working with her on her next album. “We may have to split up so he can do other projects,” she said. “But if that happens, I know we’ll wind up working together again. We were meant for each other. I really am his instrument. Nobody can play me like he does.”
Khan was in good spirits that afternoon, dwelling on recent successes, like a European tour and a guest spot on Joan Rivers’ talk show. She was about to begin filming an episode of TV’s “Hunter,” starring as a singer who kills her ex-husband.
Despite the perils of “Destiny,” Khan’s career is healthy. She’s a solid concert attraction both in America (her current tour includes a Saturday concert at the Universal Amphitheater) and in foreign countries--thanks largely to the efforts of her manager, Burt Zell.
But if her career were on the rocks, Khan, now confident and stable, seems like she could handle that kind of disaster now. Five or six years ago, such a disaster would have devastated her. Kicking the hard-drug habit is the big reason for the mellowing of Khan. True, she still drinks and smokes, but for her those vices are comparatively tame.
Drugs weren’t even mentioned that afternoon. Khan didn’t launch into one of those “I’m drug-free forever” spiels that former users are famous for.
She did, though, comment extensively on her mental health. It wasn’t boasting, just a bit of low-key self-praise.
“Things don’t throw me like they used to,” she said. “I’m not superwoman. I get hurt and upset and mad and down just like everybody else. But when bad things happen, it doesn’t seem like the end of the world anymore. I don’t run and hide as much as I used to. I try to cope, like a grown-up. I’m 33, not 13. I try to act like it, too.”
This change actually began a few years ago. The calmed-down Khan was emerging at the time of her last Calendar interview with me in March, 1983. The basis for the change is a dramatic shift in self-esteem.
“I hate to tell you what my self-esteem used to be like,” she said. “I used to feel so rotten about myself. But I got tired of that. It wasn’t getting me anywhere. My self-esteem has been on the upswing for a while. When I feel better about myself, I’m not as crazy and insecure.
“It’s funny that the average person doesn’t understand someone like me feeling bad about myself. They look at me and think I have fame and money and all this and all that. They should try being me for a minute. That would open their eyes.”
Recently she was tested by a trauma--the break-up of her six-year relationship with her live-in lover, New York schoolteacher Al Sarasohn. “I handled it,” she said proudly. “I’m here in one piece to prove it.”
Her next test will be surviving happily without a boyfriend. She has her luxurious penthouse on the Manhattan’s Upper West Side all to herself now most of the time. (Her two children from previous marriages spend a lot of time in Los Angeles.) There’s an obvious drawback.
“It’s very lonely,” she said.
Being in romantic relationships, she admitted, is bad for her in some ways: “When I’m with a man I get complacent. I get unhappy, too. The demands are great. Someone like me is hard to be with. There are guys lined up to get at me. That’s not bragging, that’s the truth. That’s the way it is for a chick singer who’s known.
“I belong to everything, to everybody. That’s what happens when you’re successful in this business. Your life isn’t your own. I need a guy who can deal with my success and my career and be secure and not think I’m going to bed with the whole world. The problem is that there are no guys like that.”
Khan, though, insisted she’s definitely not in the market for another husband: “I was married twice. Actually, it was three times. I wasn’t married to my last boyfriend but it was like a marriage. I don’t want to get married again.”
Isn’t a permanent relationship better than confronting the risks of casual dating?
“I’m not sure,” she replied. “In a permanent relationship, you have some guy depending on you. Like when I come home from a show, I don’t want some guy there waiting for me to perform with him. I’m tired, but he might not understand that.”
Some women who are ambivalent about relationships with men solve the problem by hanging out with their female buddies. Khan doesn’t do that. The problem is an absence of close female friends.
“I know mostly guys,” she said. “I don’t know a lot of chicks. Me and chicks don’t usually hit it off. They’re intimidated by me. It’s their problem, not mine. They think I’m gonna take something from them--like their men. They get freaked out by me.”
There’s another alternative. This one, she admitted, is rather unnerving: “I may be better off by myself. I’m not so cluttered and I can concentrate better. I can look at myself better and see what needs fixing.
“Being alone isn’t fun. It’s awful sometimes. But sometimes it’s a hell of a lot easier.”