Bodacious, funky, sassy, spunky, bold, and exuberantly sexy.
Chaka Khan is indeed every woman!
This month, the iconic song that signaled her moonlighting break from the group Rufus and the beginning of an amazing solo career celebrates its 40th anniversary.
“I’m Every Woman,” Chaka Khan’s début solo single, was released in late September 1978. Produced by Arif Mardin and released on Warner Brothers Records, the song made its début on the national Billboard pop and soul charts dated October 7. By mid-November, it was the No. 1 soul song in America and on its way to a No. 21 pop chart peak.
Forty years later, it is still considered Chaka’s signature song, perhaps rivaled only by “Ain’t Nobody” and “I Feel For You,” two songs released five and six years, respectively, after “Woman.”
With a lush but ominous string arrangement and a soaring vocal that towered over anything her late-1970s peers could offer, Chaka’s arrival on the solo scene was part disco, part pop and all soul! The triumphant I-can-do-anything lyrics, penned by the talented Nick Ashford (of Ashford & Simpson), were soul music’s answer to Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” the pop music anthem for the women’s liberation movement some six years earlier.
It was ground that Chaka had also covered before with the band Rufus on “I’m A Woman (I’m A Backbone),” a track from their stellar 1974 Rufusized album, which Khan still occasionally includes in her live performances.
But “I’m Every Woman” was more pointed in its celebration of womanhood, with lyrics that spoke less of liberation and more about her ability to support and uplift her man. It didn’t demand respect outright in the way that Aretha’s classic “Respect” had eleven years earlier, so much as it demonstrated what this specific woman was capable of and why it was important to have her by the man’s side.
Consider these lyrics: “I can sense your needs, like rain onto the seeds. I can make a rhyme of confusion in your mind. And when it comes down to some good old-fashioned love, that’s what I’ve got.”
Considering that a man – Nick Ashford – wrote those words (Valerie Simpson wrote the music), it was no small feat that Chaka’s soaring interpretation made it the women’s anthem the song eventually became.
Of course, Chaka Khan knew first-hand about uplifting her fellow-man. Her promotion to front-woman status in the group Rufus is what elevated the otherwise all-male band from middling upstarts in 1973 to the R&B supergroup they became with their mid-to-late 1970s output. By the time “I’m Every Woman” came out in 1978, she had recorded six albums with Rufus (she would record three more with them after her solo début), many of which were certified gold.
“I’m Every Woman” was the only hit from Chaka Khan’s début album, simply titled Chaka, but it was a big one. It fittingly became part of a historic week for women when it topped the Billboard soul charts in November 1978.
The week that “I’m Every Woman” jumped into the No. 1 spot, women dominated all the major charts in Billboard. Women occupied the No. 1 slots on the soul singles chart (Khan), the country singles chart (Barbara Mandrell’s “Sleeping Single In A Double Bed”), the top two slots on the disco chart (“Donna Summer’s “Mac Arthur Park Suite” and Alicia Bridges’ “I Love The Nightlife”), the top two pop singles (Summer’s “MacArthur Park” and Anne Murray’s “You Needed Me”), and the top two albums (Summer’s Live and More and Linda Ronstadt’s Living In The U.S.A.), with Murray’s and Ronstadt’s entries having been No. 1 on their respective charts the week before.
Even the No. 2 country and soul songs were powered by women. At No. 2 on the country chart behind Mandrell’s hit was “Sweet Desire” by the father-daughter duo the Kendalls (with lead vocals by daughter Jeannie). And at No. 2 on the R&B chart behind Chaka Khan was Ashford & Simpson’s own “It Seems To Hang On,” with opening lyrics sung by Valerie Simpson.
That unprecedented chart dominance gave new context to being “Every Woman,” at least on the Billboard charts.
Of course, “I’m Every Woman” would go on to be given even newer meaning in future covers by other singers, most famously Whitney Houston in 1992 for The Bodyguard soundtrack. Not surprisingly, Houston’s version charted higher on the pop chart (No. 4 vs. No. 21 for Khan), while Chaka’s won on the soul list (No. 1 vs. No. 5 for Whitney).
The video for Houston’s updated dance-pop version famously celebrated her own womanhood (Whitney was visibly pregnant in it). It also paid tribute to the song’s originators, Chaka Khan and Valerie Simpson, as well as Houston’s own mother Cissy, who sang background on Khan’s original. All three appeared in the video, along with then-hot group TLC and fellow dance-music chanteuse Martha Wash.
In the decades since, people have argued that Whitney made “I’m Every Woman” her own, just as she had its immediate predecessor (“I Will Always Love You,” written and first recorded by Dolly Parton).
While Whitney’s was a respectable imitation and she certainly did the song justice (particularly with the “Chaka Khan” shout-outs at the fade), this writer files Chaka Khan’s more majestic and soulful version of “I’m Every Woman” in the category of nothing-beats-the-original.
Of course, you don’t need a blogger’s opinion to try to convince you. Let the five dancing Chakas in the video below tell it.
Happy 40th anniversary to Chaka Khan on a fabulous solo career and to “I’m Every Woman,” the song that started it for her!
Oh, by the way:
Chaka Khan has won ten Grammys (including two with Rufus). She is also an inductee in the Soul Music Hall of Fame and two-time nominee for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (once with Rufus and most recently as a solo artist). She’s had eight Number One hits on Billboard’s Soul chart, including five with Rufus and three solo.