Happy 40th Anniversary to Rufus featuring Chaka Khan’s Ask Rufus, originally released January 19, 1977.
In a prolific four-year period of humbling beginnings and miraculous triumphs, the multiracial, Chicago-based outfit Rufus arrived on the music scene with their singular hybrid of funk, jazz, soul, and rock dominating the airwaves and topping the charts. With their incredible run of classic albums that spanned from 1974’s Rags to Rufus to 1978’s Street Player and chart-busting singles like “Tell Me Something Good,” “You Got the Love,” and “Please Pardon Me (You Remind Me of a Friend),” the band casted a large shadow over the funk and soul generation.
Not to mention, the band’s young and vivacious lead singer, Yvette Marie Stevens (known universally as Chaka Khan), possessed a complex, yet powerhouse voice and indomitable elegance that catapulted her in a class of her own. Decidedly tough-as-nails, but undeniably graceful, free-spirited, yet assured, Khan ushered in a new era of female soul that reflected chic sensuality and bold-and-foxy dynamism in Black womanhood at the brink of the mid-1970s. She strutted, belted, and stunned in her feather-and-leather getups and trademark frizzy natural with uninhibited ferocity and funk power that could peel the paint from any wall. She held a viable leadership role and strong female image in the predominantly male-based band, where she exerted the freedom of co-writing and arranging songs for the band—a rarity for female musicians at that time.
At first, it seemed as if the band was relishing in the commercial fruits of their eponymous fourth release, 1975’s Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan, as its keyed quiet storm staple “Sweet Thing” became the definitive love-struck anthem that melted hearts and accelerated birth rates everywhere. However, the internal strife that resided in the band became increasingly tense behind-the-scenes. Just as Rufus’ popularity rose, so did Khan’s public profile, through which she was compared to several contemporaries like Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner as well as being touted as a sex symbol.
To complicate matters further, the band’s parent label, ABC Records, decided to capitalize on Khan’s image and popularity by making her the central focus of the group’s album art and promotional adverts, in which she flaunted her stunning beauty and glorious sensuality in photographs. In furthering the notion that Khan was the focal member of Rufus, the media took an even greater interest in her extravagant and sultry image by solely featuring her on covers and during interviews for renowned magazines such as JET, Soul, Right On!, and Ebony without the rest of the band. For the other members, who were uniquely gifted musicians in their own right, the pressure of having to portray themselves as Khan’s backing musicians had severe consequences in how they collaborated with Khan herself.
By 1976, Rufus was in a devastating funk. The array of rigorous touring, line-up changes, grueling feuds, tense romances, sex, wild parties, booze, drugs, and all of the other forces that come with the music business were pulling Khan and the band further apart from the tight collaborative unit they once were. However, their commanding funk power was still in high gear. Around the time it came to record their fifth studio album, Ask Rufus, throughout 1976 at Kendun Recorders Studio in Burbank, California, swarms of skepticism surrounded the collective over what the band would cook up next, and whether the pressures of their fame were actually overshadowing the vital element that drew them to the People in the first place: the music.
Titled after the Public Mechanics column that previously gave the band its name when it formed in 1970, 1977’s Ask Rufus arrived at a rather transitional period for not only Rufus & Chaka Khan, but for the Black pop landscape as well. By the mid-1970s, an amalgamation of sounds and artists of the soul and funk realms were gaining recognition in the marketplace as well as on disco dancefloors and radio airwaves. Many artists and bands that were known for their propulsive brand of earthy rhythms, heavy grooves, and free-form eclecticism employed an accessible edge to their musical approach, in an effort to slicken their sound to new heights. A sensuous blend of jazz flourishes, Philly soul-oriented orchestrations, and smooth funk grooves that signaled a huge sea change in soul music, quiet storm, was gaining attention from radio programmers and the music industry alike. This was also a crucial period in Black popular music when the LP became a medium that conveyed total artistic expression into song cycles and artistic statements. While the singles format still dominated the marketplace, albums that held a coherent focus or thematic vision were being pushed out at the forefront of the Black pop landscape, just as they had been populated in rock and pop.
As the band were mostly known for their killer string of gold and platinum singles, Rufus weren’t strangers to being an album-oriented unit, as their two predecessors, 1974’s Rufusized and 1975’s Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan, were coherent juggernauts that impressively captured the band showcasing their distinctive soul and funk chops. With Ask Rufus, the band carried on the momentum, by becoming sophisticated funk stylists, expanding their artistic palette forward and exploring every possibility in their musical vision.
In fact, it was the closest Khan and the band came to a serious artistic statement. While there is no conceptual thread or meddling storyline that is linked to the musical and lyrical counterparts, Ask Rufus captured the profound reality of the dreamers, sleepers, lovers, hopeless romantics, and those weary fame seekers who crave ‘the big stakes’ in a little place called Hollywood. As if the album’s beautifully surrealistic photography, which captured Khan in all of her poignant and pensive allure, didn’t reveal something before one put the record on the turntable, there was something enticing about this phase in Rufus’ artistic prowess. They were grappling with territory that was far subtler from the love-starved pleas of “Sweet Thing” and far deeper than the throbbing eroticism of “Tell Me Something Good.” It’s not that any of these themes hadn’t been tackled before either. This time, it was the sharp maturity, sparseness, and mystique in their new funk bag that took everyone for a loop.
Ambitious and intricately textured all at once, Ask Rufus certainly marked a departure from the band’s signature hard-edged funk sound. A major entity that played a key role in providing the dramatic orchestral timbre to the band’s full artistic vision for Ask Rufus was the late great Clare Fischer, who also happened to be the uncle of the band’s former drummer, André Fischer. A master arranger and composer in the jazz, bossa nova and pop spheres, Fischer had already built an illustriously diverse résumé for himself in popular music before he started working with Rufus on their early albums. By the time he worked with them on Ask Rufus, his sweeping orchestral work became a defining motif in their all-encompassing sound. The funk may be very evident in Rufus’ grooves here, but it’s incredibly subdued, in favor of grand-scale chamber pop orchestrations and lush jazz arrangements, which anchors the overall musical presentation.
One must not be led astray, though—this is very much a musician’s record, in which all of the band’s members were given space to craft grooves and experiment with subtlety at their very peak. Never before had Bobby Watson’s basslines sounded so expertly profound, or Tony Maiden’s guitar chords possessed such fine detail. André Fischer’s complex jazz-inflected drumming was heavily pronounced, while the duo-keyboarding of Kevin Murphy and newcomer David “Hawk” Wolinski blended colors eloquently.
Furthermore, there is a deeper emphasis on moody and seductive balladry, which was already one of the band’s defining benchmarks that was greatly evidenced on fan favorites like the aforementioned “Sweet Thing,” “Smokin’ Room,” “In Love We Grow,” “Your Smile,” and “Little Boy Blue.” The music’s reserved quiet storm flair provided the band’s lead empress, Khan, with the center space she needed to flex her chameleonic vocal dexterity all over the compositions, as she was transitioning from a wild-child belter to a mature and versatile songstress, who possessed full control and personality in her voice.
The album opens with its lead single, “At Midnight (My Love Will Lift You Up),” which starts with a frantic prog-influenced synthesizer melody (courtesy of David “Hawk” Wolinkski) that explodes into its thrilling, dance-accorded funk groove, which was incredibly representative of Rufus’ original sound. Exuberant and energetic, Khan kicks the pulsating groove into high gear with her distinctive fierce vocal, pursuing her love interest in a late-night romantic rendezvous, even if she or he regrets it later. The song, which was written by guitarist Tony Maiden and famed background vocalist, Lalomie Washburn, spent two weeks at number one on Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles chart, while peaking at number thirty on the Hot 100 Singles chart.
The romantic aura continues with the ultra-sexy, “Close the Door,” which picks up thematically where “At Midnight” left off. With its slow-grind inducing groove, smooth jazz melody, and Clare Fischer’s string arrangement, Khan, who sings mostly in her low register, woos her flame into keeping their relationship alive by maintaining their trust in one another. As the tension of the sensual groove builds, Khan lets her wailing, double-tracked vocal crackle with passionate intensity you can’t help but to feel.
A classical instrumental written by Wolinkski, “Slow Screw Against the Wall/A Flat Fry” follows, taking the subtle eroticism that pervaded the album’s opening songs to another height. Clare Fischer’s penchant for creating an emotive atmosphere in his orchestral scores is greatly emphasized in this interlude, where the cellos, piano, and synthesizer build into a startling string ensemble in its grand finale. Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood delivers a soft solo near the instrumental’s finale as well.
The evocative “Earth Song” continues the classical sweep of “A Flat Fry,” with a ferocious, tight-in-the-pocket funk groove opening the song, before it transitions into a gentle, cosmic spiritualist ode to Mother Nature. Written by Khan and Maiden, the song portrays allusions to God, in which Khan gives fond praise to nature and the supernatural world, while recognizing both entities as healing and spiritual forces in her life.
The delicate slow jam “Everlasting Love” details the thrills of burning desire, with its light jazz flourishes and Khan’s low-range sensuous voice giving the ballad an undeniable breezy edge. In direct contrast to romanticism, the album’s second single, “Hollywood,” is an infectious cautionary tale about the evil consequences that await stardom-seeking hopefuls who aspire to thrive on the boulevard of broken dreams. There has never been anything in music that epitomized the grim reality of late-1970s hedonism and excess with lines as honest as, “Fixed expressions / Smiles worn thin / Caught in the blink of neon of Hollywood / Bending battles, maneuvering schemes / False expressions, washed up dreams / Everybody makes believe in Hollywood.” Ironically, these lines still burn with so much truth and insight forty years later.
The majestic “Magic in Your Eyes” possesses a mellowed-out, Latin-influence groove with its insistent percussion interplaying with Kevin Murphy’s haunting Fender Rhodes piano work and Clare Fischer’s stunning string arrangements. “Better Days” is a jaunty funk ballad that finds a determined Khan lamenting on the demanding strides of a tense relationship, in hopes of building a better one.
Ask Rufus concludes on a glorious note with the esoterically grand “Egyptian Song,” which Khan revealed was one of her personal favorite compositions. With Clare Fischer’s emotive use of orchestral flourishes and intricate jazz sensibilities, Khan powerfully pays tribute to the pride and love of her African ancestry. As a former member of the Black Panther Party as well as a strong advocate for activism pertaining to equality, nourishment, and justice in the Black community, it’s monumental that Khan made a brave decision to end a pop-minded album of this stature with a politically heightened framework that points to the rich history and beauty of one’s identity and culture, during a crucial period in Black popular music when several artists and bands, especially Black women, rarely incorporated such messages in their art. What’s even more crucial to note is that with a sociopolitical anthem of this scope, she strived to encourage her fellow Black loyalists to discover and embrace their sense of Blackness by educating themselves deeper beyond what they learned or understood.
Ask Rufus topped Billboard’s Top Soul Albums chart at number one (their second to achieve the feat) and the Top US Albums chart at number twelve, eventually selling upwards of a million copies by the middle of 1977. It remains the band’s bestselling and popular work. The internal tensions that resided in Rufus didn’t get better after the success of Ask Rufus, as there were a plethora of feuds, line-up changes, and contractual fallouts that eventually culminated in the band’s critical and commercial decline after 1979.
The group churned out one last masterpiece with 1978’s Street Player, which was one of Khan’s final collaborations with the band until their Quincy Jones-produced reunion album, 1979’s Masterjam, 1981’s unfairly neglected Camouflage, and the 1983 live-and-studio farewell, Stompin’ at the Savoy. The group recorded three moderately successful albums without Khan—1979’s Numbers, 1981’s Party ‘Til You’re Broke, and 1983’s Seal in Red, which was produced by the late great George Duke. In 1978, Khan pursued a successful solo career, as she rose to become one of music’s hugely influential female vocalists. The rest was history.
Forty years after its release in January 1977, it’s still quite remarkable that an album of sheer beauty, unsurpassed vision, and undeniable class actually became an unqualified success for a massively-popular funk band that chose to take a detour from what they were conventionally known for. When reassessing the hell and strain that surrounded the band, it’s unsettling how beautifully serene Ask Rufus sounds. Additionally, it was released right at the period when disco was embraced in the mainstream circles and permeated heavily in the musical landscape. A huge risk that could’ve backfired horribly, but it didn’t.
The artistic and musical sophistication of Ask Rufus is definitive proof of what happens when classic art never lets you get comfortable with what it’s trying to convey. Each song presents itself like a chapter with intrinsic detail and vivid depth. It invites you to explore every one of its moods and grooves, even if it’s all confounding at first. When it finally hits you, it sticks forever.