Mates’ Crates, a series headed up by our friend Andrei Sandu, dives into the tales behind records and digs deeper into our connections to music. These are not reviews, they’re stories. This time, a guest post from a very close Crate Mate, Charles Vaughan. Producer of Worldwide FM’s Universal Sanctuary and recent Melodic Distraction Radio interviewee, Charles digs into the story of Chaka Khan’s classic ‘I’m Every Woman.’
Label: Warner Bros. | Year: 1978 | Discogs: Chaka Khan – I’m Every Woman
The year is 1978. You’re a young gay hedonist fighting for a space to survive in a world which is desperately trying to deny your existence. Or perhaps you’re one of millions of African Americans fighting the deeply rooted structural racism within America. Perhaps you’re a woman at the height of second wave feminism, desperately campaigning against the injustices of sexism. America has become a diverse melting pot of social change and activism but equally pain and strife.
At the close of one of the last swinging summers of the 1970s, Chaka Khan steps into the Atlantic Recording Studios in New York to put the finishing touches on the lead single from her debut album. Its inescapable power became a figurehead of empowerment and strength, not only to women but black and queer communities across the world.
Chaka Khan was born in Chicago in 1953 during a period of sweeping social change and exciting musical development. As the sound of Chicago moved from doo-wop to the burgeoning soul scene, a formidable rivalry of record labels emerged. The illustrious Mercury Records had formed alongside fierce competition in the RnB scene between powerhouses ‘Vee Jay’ and ‘Chess’. Communities were also being reshaped in the wake of WWII, with the population shrinking for the first time in decades and poorer neighbourhoods bulldozed to make way for large scale public housing.
By 1970, Chaka Khan would finally break through the chaos of the local soul scene after being enlisted by Chicago natives ‘Rufus’. Her unique style shone bright and scored hits with tracks such as ‘Do You Love What You Feel’ and ‘Ain’t Nobody’. However, by 1975 tensions within the band were emerging. ABC Records began to focus Rufus’ image more solely on Chaka, capitalising on her growing popularity. But ultimately, this would forge a resentment within the band that never left and soon Chaka Khan began her first solo venture that would lead to stardom.
Chaka’s now timeless anthem was created against the backdrop of historic social across America. In 1965, President Johnson passed a historic voting act that overcame many of the divisive legal barriers preventing African Americans from casting their ballot. That same year, Martin Luther King led the now iconic Selma Montgomery marches, laying the foundation for the civil rights improvements in the 70’s.
In 1966 the National Organization for Women was founded, which took on the difficult battle to push through Equal Rights Amendment. They ignited social change both through the Women’s Strike of 1970, when 50,000 feminists paraded down New York, and the National Women’s Conference of 1977, which brought together women from all walks of life to freely discuss the problems facing their lives.
It was also a transformative decade for LGBTQ rights. In 1969 the LGBTQ community suffered the tragic Stonewall Riots, leading to the formation of the Gay Liberation Rights group and, in a defiant act of remembrance, the creation of the first Pride. Queerness was now spilling into everyday culture, with overtly LGBTQ films such as ‘That Certain Summer’ and ‘Cabaret’ altering America’s understanding of LGBTQ life.
By 1978, nowhere was America’s diversity and growing integration more visible than New York. In Atlantic Studios, the songwriting duo Ashford & Simpson (who had previously worked at Motown after Holland-Dozier-Holland’s dramatic departure) were brought in for Chaka Khan’s debut solo album. As ‘I’m Every Woman’ began to take shape Ashford, a man, struggled to capture the incredible female empowerment at the song’s core. Chaka has the perfect advice for him; “put your hands on your hip and embrace your femininity”.
Soon the track was passed into the capable hands of Grammy award-winning Turkish producer Arif Mardin, who cut his teeth assisting Atlantic Records’ chief engineer in the late 1950s before a dazzling cross-genre career, producing for the likes of the Bee Gees, Average White Band, Diana Ross and more. This was a dream production team that poured their expertise and passion into a song that resonated deeply with both America’s changing social landscape and disco’s defiant popularity.
However, the song did not come without its difficulties and Chaka Khan commented that she struggled with the song for many years. “That’s one of the world’s great songs, but I had to grow into it. I felt embarrassed at the age I was singing it. I wasn’t old enough, I was about 30. I just felt how dare I say ‘I’m every woman, it’s all in me.’ It’s a song I feel comfortable singing now, but in the beginning it felt pompous.”
The anthem would receive a new lease of life decades later thanks to Whitney Houston, who had provided backing vocals for many of Chaka Khan’s tracks as a teenager. In 1993 she released her version as part of the Bodyguard soundtrack, which remains the bestselling soundtrack of all time at 42m copies. Whitney dedicated the song to Chaka, improvising the now iconic ‘Chaka Khan’ vocal stabs, taking the classic disco grooves to new electro-influenced heights and broadcasting Chaka’s message to a new generation of dancers.
Both Chaka Khan’s original and Whitney’s cover remain staples of many dancefloors, uniting dancers across continents and generations in empowerment and joy. The enduring words of ‘I’m Every Woman’ live on to this day, an iconic symbol of the power of disco not only as a vehicle for social change, but as a deliverance of true joy and love.