Her first name means "fire," and anyone who has ever heard Chaka Khan lift her voice in song knows how apt that is. On stage, hers is an astonishing instrument, full of brilliant colors and vibrant intensity, taking command of the music with the sort of unquestioned authority few singers ever manage.
Her flame isn't always on full, however. Speaking with her over the phone early one July afternoon, it seems at times as if she barely has the pilot light going, so soft is her whisper. Granted, some of that is the connection, which makes her Long Island hotel room seem farther away than it is, and some to the fact that she only just woke up.
Mostly, though, it's simply a reflection of the fact that Chaka Khan was born to sing. Period. "I'm just comfortable singing," she says. "It doesn't matter, really, what I'm singing. I just love to sing."
She laughs, and adds, "I don't think about it, you know? I just open my mouth, and it's there."
Perhaps that's why she has been able to cut such a wide swath through the pop world over the years. She made her first album, as a member of Rufus, in 1973, and a year later was in the Top Five with "Tell Me Something Good." Since then, she has recorded with everyone from Steve Winwood to Stevie Wonder, including such disparate talents as jazz great Dizzy Gillespie, rocker David Bowie and rapper Melle Mel. Overall, she's sung in almost about every style imaginable, short of country or opera.
That's not to say she doesn't have her preferences. "Jazz is my first love, and it's the music I respect and appreciate the most of all music," she says. "It's sort of like opera or classical music. I really have a high of respect for these musics, because they require a lot of thought and expertise.
"And I've always had a jazz streak in me, so that's natural for me."
But she's open to anything, and not being much for advance planning -- "I pretty much live my life blow-by-blow, you know what I mean?" she says -- she tries to expose herself to a variety of musical opportunities.
"The world is a wealthy place for ideas," she says. "Sometimes you have to chase them down. But they're still there."
To that end, Khan now lives in Europe, dividing her time between Britain and Germany. "I'd been saying I'm going to go for years, and just finally got the nerve up and went," she admits. "I've been traveling to Europe for going on 16 years now, and I just took the big chance and said, 'I'm going to go now.' "
Khan even recorded some of her new album, "The Woman I Am," in Mannheim, Germany, using local musicians and producers. And if Germany doesn't seem like a particularly appropriate place for a singer as funky as she, that's only because you don't know the modern German music scene.
"They've got some funk there," says Khan, appreciatively. "Like my guitar player -- his name is Peter Weihe. He's the best guitar player I've ever seen. He's the most well-rounded dude I know on guitar. And that really threw me for a loop.
"I was really jazzed by the whole scene."
Khan adds that she hopes to cut some of her next album in London. "I'll check out London's assets," she says. "I know it has quite a major funk market, too. You know, older funk -- which I like even better."
Older funk fans have similar feelings for Khan. In fact, it would be easy to argue that she is as much a defining voice for '70s funk fans as Aretha Franklin is to '60s soulsters. So why is it that the '70s sound still doesn't command the kind of respect '60s soul does?
"Well, you know, sometimes you need to give things a lot more time," muses Khan. "Which is funny," she adds, laughing, "because here it is, like, 20 years later, but . . .
"Sometimes it catches on a long, long, long time afterward," she says. "I mean, we may all be dead, and it may all of a sudden catch on. You never know.
"But I don't have any bitterness or anything about that. That's just how life is. So, what can you do? I'm definitely not going to trip on that. I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing."