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Fighting to Reclaim Her Crown

Pop Beat: Chaka Khan's Forum concert might have been canceled but she's still eager to jump back into the music scene.

October 17, 1998|MARC WEINGARTEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Chaka Khan, whose fiery singing on such hits as "Tell Me Something Good" and "I Feel for You" have made her one of the legendary voices in R&B, is slouched in a chair backstage at the Great Western Forum, a pack of Merit Lights in her left hand. It's Thursday night, but Khan is hardly in a partying mood.

Less than an hour before she's scheduled to appear with co-headliners Larry Graham and Prince (a.k.a. the Artist) in front of a sold-out crowd, Khan has learned that the show has been canceled, due to a strained tendon suffered by Prince at a recent Atlantic City concert.

A listening party to celebrate the release of "Come 2 My House," the new album on NPG Records that she recorded with Prince, is in full swing in an adjacent room, but instead of serving as a prelude to her performance, it has now become the main event.

"That's really too bad," says the 45-year-old singer, who's clad in her stage wardrobe, a blue, hip-hugging pinstriped suit. "I was looking forward to this show. . . ."

And it's easy to see why.

"Come 2 My House" is the best album she's made in eons, and she wants to get the message out so she can reclaim her position as one of contemporary music's premier divas. This brief tour is a key part of that campaign--and the Forum show was especially important because of all the media attention it would attract.

"For a while there, my career felt like a grind and a drag," Khan says. "I wasn't motivated. Now, I've fallen in love again with my craft."

It's been exactly 25 years since Khan brought her distinct blend of soulful sensuality and gutsy, octave-swooping singing to R&B--first as lead singer with the band Rufus and then on her own. During this time, she has registered 14 Top 40 pop hits and won seven Grammys.

But things have been slow, commercially, for Khan over the last decade--as a new generation of singers, from Whitney Houston (who had a Top 10 hit in 1993 with a version of Khan's classic "I'm Every Woman") and Mariah Carey supplanted her on the nation's charts.

After slogging out the decade producing lackluster, uninspired music, Khan began her comeback--with a helping hand from a huge fan: Prince.

"Before he was famous, Prince somehow got my phone number [in the late '70s] and pretended he was Sly Stone, who was a friend of mine, and asked me if I would come down to the studio," Khan says. "So I did, and it was Prince! He just did that to meet me 'cause he was a fan."

The two kept in touch over the years--and Khan even had one of her biggest hits in 1984 with "I Feel for You," an obscure Prince composition from his self-titled debut album.

Still, the new album is their first formal studio collaboration.

"We had seen each other when we both did this [VH1 Honors taping] with Stevie Winwood in L.A. [in April of 1997]," she says. "We had always talked about formally working together, and he asked me to look him up when I got out of my [Warner Bros. Records] deal."

After subsequently severing her long-standing ties with the label, she immediately got in touch with Prince. When he agreed to make an album with her, Khan temporarily relocated from her home in New Jersey (she also has a place in London) to his expansive Paisley Park complex outside Minneapolis to record "Come 2 My House." Although the session lasted only three weeks, Prince tried to coax her into living there permanently.

"Prince wanted to build a home for me, but I couldn't do it," she says. "That's out in the middle of nowhere!"

Unlike previous albums, where Khan would write lyrics after the music had been completed, the Artist insisted that she write them beforehand, so as not to conform to someone else's musical template.

"He had me writing poetry, which is something I haven't done since high school," Khan says. "I would give him the poetry, and he would come in the next day with completed songs."

Khan performs a handful of those songs and a few popular favorites during her segment of the show, with an occasional duet with Prince thrown in for good measure. Alas, it is not to be on this night, but Khan says with a smile and a reassuring pat on the hand that they will tear it up in this venue sometime soon. (No new date has been scheduled for the Forum show. Refunds for Thursday's concert are available at point of purchase.)

"We'll be here," she says. "And I guarantee, you won't be disappointed."

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