(November 22, 2021). Much has been written and said over the past few days about the apparently inebriated state that R&B legend Chaka Khan was in during last week’s Verzuz “competition” between her and fellow soul music legend Stephanie Mills, which was held at the Theater at Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday (November 18).
From slurring words or forgetting lyrics, to her famous side-to-side, stutter-step shimmy being reduced to an out-of-rhythm attempt at something that was at times even stiffer than an over-starched shirt, Twitter had a field day dissecting Ms. Khan’s sad performance—sad because it was done before a world stage with millions viewing (it was live-streamed on VerzuzTV and Triller, and is now available on YouTube where it’s already nearing a million additional views), and sad because the event was like watching a slow train-wreck unfolding right before your eyes. But mostly sad because it was allowed to happen in the first place (organizers had to know that she wasn’t fit to perform before air time).
The joint affair was, at times, so cringeworthy it had some people questioning whether Khan even knew she was performing live at the event, or that the evidence would forever exist on tape. It was only made sadder by the fact that it wasn’t the first time the icon has had an unfortunate live performance documented on the internet.
More positively, many people praised her “sister-friend” Stephanie Mills for holding Chaka up, more specifically hyping her up to the crowd, prompting her with soft-ball questions about song titles (one of which she had just sung but Chaka still didn’t take the prompt) meant to engender dialogue, and providing additional vocals on Chaka’s songs when the former Rufus lead singer clearly had forgotten them. One time I feared the train might completely go off the tracks, though, was when Mills—in her further attempts to hype her pal—shouted “how low can you go!” as Chaka did about four or five impromptu squats while performing “Ain’t Nobody” (at the 1:44 mark of the below video). I’m sure I wasn’t the only one watching who shuttered out of fear that she might do one squat too many and not be able to get up.
Still Stephanie deserved an “A” for the assist she gave to Chaka in what was clearly NOT a competition but an exercise of sisterly love as the two “queens” graced the stage, true to what Mills pointed out on Instagram before the event even began. “We [have] nothing to prove other than to show our young Black sisters we are enough and stronger together,” Mills wrote. “We’re all about the love of the music, positive vibes and a lot of harmony.”
As much as I hate to admit it, if there were winners and losers on that night’s stage, Chaka, the longer-established singer—one I have considered my all-time favorite female vocalist for decades—had very few rounds go her way while Ms. Mills shined from start to finish (even a technical glitch at the beginning didn’t derail her as she glided easily into an a capella version of “Ease On Down The Road—from her days in “The Wiz”—when her DJ’s equipment couldn’t cue up the song).
Mills was in command of her voice, her movements, and her all-around showmanship as she created banter like a true MC, causing more than a few folks to wonder where she’s been hiding all of these years.
But if there was one thing that Chaka did on that stage to further endear herself as this blogger’s favorite vocalist—besides merely surviving the 92-minute affair—it was something she continues to do each time I’ve seen her perform live or, in this case, live on TV.
For background, prior to the Verzuz live-stream event, I’d seen her three times live in concert: first as an eight-year-old kid in 1975 at a free event in Kentucky (with her former group Rufus), then again in April 2012 at Atlanta’s Cobb Energy Center, and finally in July 2018 during the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago.
And in each of those shows (all of which were without any of Thursday’s issues, btw), plus Thursday’s cringe-y Verzuz affair, she’s done something with her setlist that longtime fans like me have always appreciated: she includes obscure album tracks from long ago that most superstars would veer away from for the sake of pleasing the crowd with bigger hits.
Thursday night (and a few other well-documented clunkers) aside, Chaka is a consummate singer who can still hit the high notes and who knows which songs she likes to perform and which ones she doesn’t—if for no other reason than she’s tired of performing the same ol’ hits after five decades in the business.
I’ve always been a fan of deeper Chaka cuts (something I’m beginning to believe I have in common with the singer herself), particularly those obscurities from her Rufus days in the 1970s.
So when the DJ cued up tunes like “Magic In Your Eyes” from the band’s 1977 album Ask Rufus, instead of more crowd pleasing regulars like the oft-requested “Through The Fire,” I knew it was the Chicago native’s way of saying, “I’m gonna sing what I want to hear, or I’m damn sure gonna try.” Rarely does any artist so accomplished dig that deeply into the crates to bring out a sublime cut like “Magic,” which was never released as a single and probably has been nearly forgotten by anyone who isn’t me in the 45 years since it was released.
Chaka further satisfied my old-school Rufus palate with her band’s version of “Stop On By” from the 1974 Rufusized album, which is also a soul classic. Chaka had earlier kicked off Verzuz with that album’s biggest hit, “Once You Get Started,” a performance that was the first clue this night wasn’t going to be one of her best. She kept the Rufus theme going throughout the night with more songs from Ask Rufus, including the hit singles “Hollywood” and “Everlasting Love,” and threw in the classic “Stay” (from their followup album Street Player) to boot.
To me, this song selection was a partial redemption for the awkwardness of her performances, especially for those of us who appreciate hits like “Please Pardon Me” as much as we do “Sweet Thing” (the latter of which she did include by bringing out her daughter Indira to assist).
And Chaka Khan didn’t stop there with the Thursday throwbacks. Her two most commanding performances of the night, meaning those where she seemed to be in control of both her pace and the songs’ lyrics (without completely relying on the teleprompter in front of her), were two tunes I’d never seen her perform live previously, despite their sublime status and relative good standing in her considerable song catalog.
One was the classic dance chart hit “I Know You, I Live You” and the other was the jazz-infused beauty, “And The Melody Still Lingers On (A Night In Tunisia),” a cover of the 1940s Dizzy Gillespie standard. Both of those were from her third solo album, 1981’s What Cha’ Gonna Do For Me (the No. 1 title track of which was curiously omitted from the night’s affair, as was another No. 1, 1979’s “Do You Love What You Feel” by the group Rufus).
Both “I Know You” and “A Night In Tunisia” were sung with the kind of professionalism you’d expect from a singer of Chaka’s stature. They were clearly the most impressive performances from the 68-year-old legend on a night where gems were hard to find. That went especially for “Tunisia,” a song whose complexity would make it challenging for even a singer in a normal frame of mind to pull off.
Some people initially questioned the pairing of Chaka and Stephanie in Thursday’s Verzuz, stating that Mills’ catalog of hits didn’t measure up to Khan’s. In reality, that would only be true if you include Chaka’s time with Rufus. Otherwise, Stephanie actually had more hits as a solo artist, including five Billboard soul chart No. 1s (“I Have Learned to Respect The Power of Love,” “I Feel Good All Over,” “You’re Putting A Rush On Me,” “Something In The Way You Make Me Feel” and “Home”) vs. Chaka’s two (“I’m Every Woman” and “What Cha’ Gonna Do For Me”).
It’s not until you throw in Chaka’s decade-long string of classics with Rufus that her dominance becomes more apparent.
Thanks to Chaka’s penchant for changing up her set lists at different stages of her career to include the hits, the near-misses AND the obscurities, I’ve been able to see her perform many of the big ones, like the obligatory “I’m Every Woman” (Thursday night’s closer), “Ain’t Nobody” and “I Feel For You” (the Prince cover and her biggest hit), plus forgotten gems like “Pack’d My Bags” (also from Rufusized, sung at the 2018 Chicago festival), “Somebody’s Watching You” (Rufusized, in 2012 in Atlanta), and now “Magic In Your Eyes” Thursday night.
And it was that deeper catalog of songs—from her days with Rufus and her solo career—that will always endear me to Ms. Khan, warts, stumbles and all.
She just needs help with the apparent addiction issues that still plague her to this day. No one likes to see her in that state, no matter which songs she’s singing.
DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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