Soul Retrospective: Rufus featuring Chaka Khan

Rufus_with_Chaka_Khan_circa_late_1970sRufus featuring Chaka Khan were one of the coolest, most talented bands of the ’70s and ’80s. Early on they proved themselves to be innovators with singles like “Tell Me Something Good,” “You Got the Love,” and “Sweet Thing.” Unlike a lot of their contemporaries, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan offered fully realized, non-compromising work filled with panache and professionalism—despite the distractions, exits, and changing lineups.

Rufus came from a group called the American Breed, who had the AM radio favorite, “Bend Me, Shape Me.” The early Rufus lineup (which included lead singer Paulette McWilliams) released two non-charting singles for Epic Records. In the early ‘70s, McWilliams left and tapped her friend Chaka Khan to be her replacement. The group was signed to ABC Records in 1972. The Rufus lineup at this time included Kevin Murphy (keyboards), Al Ciner (guitar), Dennis Belfield (bass), Ron Stockert (keyboards and vocals), Andre Fischer (drums), and Chaka Khan (vocals).

Khan was barely out of her teens when the Rufus sessions started in 1972. Rufus wasn’t a big seller but featured key songs, like the band’s covers of Stevie Wonder’s  “Maybe Your Baby” and Valerie Simpson’s “Keep It Comin’.” Rufus was produced by Bob Monaco, who was behind the boards for the band’s first three albums. While the band certainly was impressive, it was Khan who earned the raves for her maturity, range, and her singular voice and persona.

In 1974, Rufus released Rags to Rufus, which featured the first single, Stevie Wonder’s “Tell Me Something Good,” the #1 R&B single “You Got the Love,” and Ashford and Simpson’s “Ain’t Nothing But a Maybe.” By this point Rufus had developed a more commercial sound. “Tell Me Something Good” was the big pop hit and caused the band to get appearances on Soul Train and The Midnight Special, and the band even made an appearance on the Bob Hope Show. By the time of the publicity swing, Al Ciner, Dennis Belfield, and Ron Stockert had all left the band. The exited members were replaced by Tony Maiden (guitar), Bobby Watson (bass), and Nate Morgan (keyboards). “Tell Me Something Good” received a Grammy for Best R&B song in 1975.

Rufusized, a more polished and refined album due to the lineup change, was released in late 1974. The first single, “Once You Get Started,” is one of the much loved songs on which Khan shares vocals with Tony Maiden. Rufusized was typified by enigmatic and strongly produced songs like “Your Smile” and “Pack’d My Bags,”  “(Please Pardon Me) You Look Like a Friend,” and Bobby Womack’s “You’re Welcome, Stop On By.”

Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan found the band expounding on the sound and styles explored on  Rufusized. The first single, the #1 R&B single “Sweet Thing” was spare and delicate and sounded like nothing on the radio at the time. Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan also boasted much- loved gems like the atmospheric “Fool’s Paradise,” and easy groove-centered songs like “Everybody Has an Aura” and “Circles.” In many respects, Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan solidified the band’s success and their singular greatness. Khan’s eccentricities, sexuality and stage presence gained the band notoriety, but she was always was acclaimed as a singer first and foremost.

1977’s Ask Rufus was a work that seemed to be at once a more ambitious yet more subdued effort. The first single was the sexy and danceable R&B #1 hit “(At Midnight) My Love Will Lift You Up.” Ask Rufus featured one sensual song after the other, including “Everlasting Love,” “Magic In His Eyes,” “Close the Door,” and “Hollywood.” By the time the album was released, Andre Fischer had left the group (he was gone by the LP promos and TV appearances) and was replaced by Richard “Moon” Calhoun. Ask Rufus was also keyboardist David “Hawk” Wolinski’s first album with the band.

In 1978, Khan signed a solo contract with Warner Bros. Reportedly, Khan was planning to exit the band but she still owed two albums on her contract. Her first solo album, Chaka Khan, spun off the hits “I’m Every Woman” and “Clouds.” Rufus and Chaka Khan offered Street Player which had the hit “Stay,” and strong album tracks like “Blue Love” and “Best of Your Heart.”

In early 1979, Rufus released Numbers without Khan and it resulted in dismal sales. After ABC went out of business, Rufus and Chaka’s contracts went to MCA Records. Later that year they all reunited for Masterjam, an album credited to Rufus and Chaka. The album was produced by Quincy Jones and featured the hit song “Do You Love What You Feel,” and album classics like “Live in Me” and “Heaven Bound.” This album also saw another personnel shift as drummer Moon Calhoun was replaced by John Robinson. Rufus members Bobby Watson, David “Hawk” Wolinski ,and John Robinson also became a big part of Quincy Jones’ productions of the time and appeared on albums like Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and Thriller and The Brothers Johnson’s Light Up the Night .

Masterjam was MCA’s first new project with the band. “Do You Love What You Feel” and “Masterjam” received stylish and minimal videos, and Masterjam became the band’s first platinum LP since Ask Rufus. For better or worse, Chaka Khan’s solo album was unstoppable and she notched more classics like Chaka, Naughty, and Whatcha Gonna Do For Me. In 1981, Rufus released Party Til’ You’re Broke. Although Khan didn’t appear on the sessions, the album did modestly well; the single “Tonight We Love” hit the R&B top 20 and the band appeared on Solid Gold. In late 1981, Khan again reunited with the band for Camouflage. Although the album wasn’t a dismal failure, the material certainly wasn’t there and neither was the band camaraderie.

Rufus signed to Warner Bros. in 1983 and released Seal In Red. Later in 1983, Warner Bros. released Stompin’ at the Savoy, a double album that commemorated Rufus and Khan’s 1982 reunion at the famed Savoy Theatre. Three of the Stompin’ at the Savoy’s sides were live and featured versions of “Once You Get Started” and “Pack’d My Bags,” as well as later work like “Do You Love What You Feel.” The studio side included David “Hawk” Wolinski’s “Ain’t Nobody,” a track that  hit #1 on the R&B chart and also appeared on the Breakin’ soundtrack. Stompin’ at the Savoy went gold and “Ain’t Nobody” won a Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals. The band broke up in 1983.

To its credit, MCA rarely let the ABC work fall out of print. Albums like Rufusized, Featuring Chaka Khan, and Ask Rufus were often available as budget reissues or old ABC stock later marked as MCA. In 1982, MCA also released The Very Best of Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan. Rags to Rufus, Rufusized, Street Player and all went gold. Ask Rufus and Masterjam went platinum.

Thirty years after the breakup, Chaka Khan reunited with the 1979-1983 lineup for a small tour. In the intervening years, members of Rufus have worked and toured together; Tony Maiden and Chaka Khan reunited for Khan’s 2007 album Funk This with a medley of “Pack’d My Bags/You Got the Love.” Rufus featuring Chaka Khan’s work is one of undeniable craft and has remained unique and timeless.

—Jason Elias

Jason Elias is a pop culture historian and a music journalist.

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