Chaka Khan. Chaka Khan. Ch-ch-ch-ch-Chaka Khan. Chaka Khan.
Nearly thirty years later, I bet that Chaka Khan is confronted by someone trying to be cool by quoting Grandmaster Melle Mel’s intro from her biggest solo hit, a cover of Prince’s 1979 album track “I Feel For You.”
Although she’s been a presence in pop culture for four decades (and, IMO, is the greatest female singer of all time,) “Feel” is Chaka’s only solo top 10 hit. The fact that Prince was hotter than hot in 1984 (the year of Purple Rain) certainly helped, but Arif Mardin’s distinctive production probably more. From Mel’s stuttering intro (he might have been the first guest rapper on an R&B song ever) to the samples of Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips Part 2” in the bridge, the sound of the song was totally inventive. Chaka and Arif not only sampled Stevie, they got the man himself to contribute a few harmonica fills. To top things off, there’s also Chaka’s ebullient vocal delivery and the video, which could have doubled as a scene in “Breakin'” or “Beat Street.”
“I Feel For You” turned out to be quite the cover choice for femme R&B stars in the early Eighties. The Pointer Sisters covered it on their So Excited album back in 1982 (two years before Chaka’s version was released) and only a week after Chaka’s version was released, Rebbie Jackson released a version of “I Feel For You” on her debut album, Centipede. Of course, Chaka’s rendition remains definitive; one of the few covers that’s better known than the original. Interestingly, it won Prince his first Grammy, for Best R&B song of 1984.
That cover also forged a friendship between Prince and Chaka that resulted in some great music, including Chaka’s underrated Come 2 My House album on Prince’s NPG records. The two have collaborated many times over the years, toured together, and when Prince receives some kind of lifetime achievement award, Chaka is usually one of the folks there to tribute him.
Strangely, out of the four people most commonly associated with “I Feel For You” (Prince, Chaka, Stevie, Melle Mel) Khan is the only one not enshrined in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. As someone who split rock and soul as well as anyone, I’d certainly say she deserves it.