Soul Serenade - Rufus and Chaka KhanOnce upon the ’60s there was a band out of Chicago called the American Breed, and in 1968 they had a big hit with a song called “Bend Me, Shape Me.” Eventually two of the band’s members, Chuck Colbert and Lee Graziano, encountered a bar band called Circus, and added a couple of that band’s members to a lineup that also included two latter-day members of the American Breed. They called the new band Smoke.

By 1970, Smoke had new managers, and a new name … Ask Rufus, which eventually became just plain Rufus. Lineup changes included the departure of Colbert and the addition of Dennis Belfield on bass. The following year the band signed to Epic Records, and following the recording of one unreleased album departed Epic in 1972. That year Graziano left as well, and Rufus added a young singer by the name of Chaka Khan.

Vocalist, keyboard player, and songwriter Ron Stockert became the guiding light of the band following Graziano’s exit, and Rufus signed with ABC Records in 1973. They finally released their self-titled debut album that year, but it wasn’t a big seller. One of the songs on the album was a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Maybe Your Baby,” and Wonder was impressed enough with the Rufus version to give them another song, something called “Tell Me Something Good,” which appeared on the band’s second album, Rags to Rufus.

It was a Top 5 smash, and firmly established Khan as a star. She was a co-writer of the band’s follow-up R&B hit “You Got the Love.” When it became clear that funk was the way to go for Rufus, there were more lineup changes, including the departure of Stockert. A third album, Rufusized, produced the hits “Once You Get Started,” and “Please Pardon Me (You Remind Me of a Friend.”

Rufus and Chaka Khan

The band’s fourth album was released in 1975, and called Rufus with Chaka Khan. With that the singer’s ascension to stardom was complete. The album contained the smash hit “Sweet Thing.” Further lineup changes ensued, and another hit, “At Midnight (My Love Will Lift You Up)” was included on the 1977 album Ask Rufus. The following year, Street Player was released, and following that Chaka Khan began a solo career while remaining a member of Rufus.

She had a hit with “I’m Every Woman,” which was included on her debut solo album, while the band’s next album, recorded without her, stiffed. But in 1980, Chaka Khan was back with Rufus, and Quincy Jones was on board as producer, for Masterjam. The hit single “Do You Love What You Feel” came from the album, but Chaka Khan was not on the next Rufus album, Party Til’ You’re Broke. She returned once again for Camouflage in 1981, but by then Rufus’ fortunes were on the wane.

Seal in Red was another Khan-less bomb, produced by George Duke, but there was one last hurrah when she returned for Stompin’ at the Savoy in 1983. The album was made up of three sides of live recordings, and one side of studio recordings. One of those studio recordings was “Ain’t Nobody,” and it became the last #1 R&B hit for Rufus.

“Ain’t Nobody” was written by Rufus keyboard player Hawk Wolinski. The band was signed to Warner Bros. at the time, and the label wanted to release another song as the first single from the album. When Wolinski threatened to give the song to Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones for the Thriller album, Warners relented and issued it as the first single. In addition to topping the R&B chart, “Ain’t Nobody” reached #22 on the Billboard Hot 100. The record also won a Grammy Award, and was included in the soundtrack for the 1984 film Breakin’.

With that fitting farewell, Chaka Khan left Rufus for good, going on to become a superstar with her version of the Prince song “I Feel For You.”

About the Author

Ken Shane

Ken Shane lives in Narragansett, R.I. He is a freelance writer and far and away the oldest Popdose writer. In fact, he may be the oldest writer, period. He wants you to know that he generally does not share his colleagues' love for the music of the '80s, and he does not forgive them for loving it. (Ken passed away in November 2022. R.I.P. —Ed.)

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