Salon: Sharps and Flats

Published December 21, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

Listening to Chaka Khan roar through her 1979 hit "I'm Every Woman"  a way funkier candidate for anthemhood than that position paper Helen Reddy recorded  you hear the very embodiment of the '70s: The swooping, gliding strings. The fat basswork. The bumptious arrangements. And that voice. That voice which typified the era  and more of the music of that era than maybe we remember.

More than Donna Summer, even more than Gloria Gaynor, Chaka Khan was the archetypal female singer for the boisterous, disco-ized 70's, as well as a vocalist with credentials that could stand up in any era. It was Betty Carter, no less, who said that Khan was the one female singer working outside the jazz idiom with real improvisational talent.

As lead singer of Rufus, one of the reigning funk bands of the period, Chaka Khan built an audience whose loyalty helped the group secure six gold and platinum albums between 1972 and 1978, when Khan left the group. As a solo artist, Khan proved herself a true musical chameleon, taking material by Prince, Stevie Wonder and Ashford & Simpson, among others, and investing it with a panache that made those songs her signature.

The voice that launched a thousand platform shoes onto dance floors hasn't been heard from much lately  not since 1992's "The Woman I Am." That fact makes her recently released best-of collection,"Epiphany," even more of a gift from the gods. A smart, well-rounded survey of her post-Rufus career, "Epiphany" touches on many facets of Khan's versatile style. It goes without saying that "I'm Every Woman" has to be here. This Nicholas Ashford-Valerie Simpson song, whose lyrics dovetailed perfectly with the headiest period of female self-empowerment in America, is one that Khan made very much her own.

She was to stake a similar claim on Stevie Wonder's "Tell Me Something Good" and Prince's "I Feel for You," two songs that further cemented her reputation as a dance-floor hellraiser. Indeed, songs that rise in hot-and-bothered emotional temperature are so thoroughly Khan's stock in trade that it's easy to overlook her versatility and emotional range. "Epiphany" captures much of that diversity, whether Khan moves into the torchy supperclub stylings of "The End of a Love Affair" (complete with Nelson Riddle-esque arrangement and George Benson's flourishes); testifies to love in "Love Me Still," a spare but powerful ballad; or revisits a jazz standard in "And the Melody Lingers On," a funk revamping of Dizzy Gillespie's "Night in Tunisia."

Greatest-hits collections often have
about them the faintest whiff of the
museum; "Epiphany," by contrast, feels
fresh and engaged. Here's hoping 
here's betting  her next greatest hits
collection is a brand-new album.

By Michael E. Ross

MORE FROM Michael E. Ross

Related Topics ------------------------------------------