Graded on a Curve:
Rufus, Rags to Rufus

When it comes to great pipes, Chaka Khan is hard to beat. Songbirds, and I’m talking your top-notch mellifluous as all hell songbirds, fall suddenly silent when she walks into the room. Because they know they can’t compete. They’re beat. It’s time to go home, sit in front of the television with a fifth of vodka, and sulk.

Khan, as everybody in the universe knows, got her start with Rufus, a multi-racial funk band of extraordinary merit. She shared singing duties with Ron Stockert on the band’s eponymous 1973 debut, but by 1974’s Rags to Rufus she had, with some not so gentle nudging by ABC Records, more or less become the whole show, a move that led Stockert to up and split halfway through the sessions for From Rags to Rufus.

Khan was more or less a force of nature, and her singing and scanty attire won her favorable comparisons to both Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin (she was nicknamed “the wild child” and “Little Aretha”). She also had balls, as Stevie Wonder, who contributed the smash hit “Tell Me Something Good” to the band, found out when Khan, only 20 at the time, turned down another of his compositions for the band, “Come and Get This Stuff.”

Khan may have become the band’s chief draw, but it would be a tragic mistake to ignore the musical talents of Rufus, who produced some of the most vitamin-fortified funk of one very funkified era. It’s apparent from the opening of the first track of Rags to Rufus, “You Got the Love,” which was written by Khan and Ray Parker Jr. and features Al Finer playing some of the coolest chukka-chukka guitar you ever will hear, to the accompaniment of what I assume is one barbarically heavy bass riff. These guys sound like the Led Zeppelin of Funk on this one, and Khan comes on like a seductress, that is when Finer isn’t playing a very funked-up solo, peoples. “I Got the Right Street (But the Wrong Direction)” is a more playful and less bottom-heavy confection, but it’s sinuous as a snake thanks to Finer and one exceptional horn arrangement. As for Khan she’s her usual sultry self, and there isn’t a Boy Scout in this world who wouldn’t throw his every last merit badges into the trash to help Khan find her way.

“Walkin’ in the Sun” has an R&B feel, and is a mellow groove that opens with some modest but still flashy piano and perfectly placed guitar riffs. The orchestration is overly prominent, but it doesn’t hurt the song because Khan, who knows when to play it quiet and when to belt it out, does both to perfection. The instrumental “Rags to Rufus” gives the band the chance to strut its stuff, and features Finer back on the chukka-chukka guitar, a jazz-fusion vibe thanks to its keyboards, and a happening horn arrangement. I especially recommend the guitar solo and the spastic keyboard freak-out, which is guaranteed to blow your mind. And the second keyboard freak-out, which is guaranteed to do the same.

“Swing Down Chariot” is gospel-flavored (duh) and bears the only traces of Ron Stockert, who trades lead vocals with Khan. The tune opens with some good old Baptist church piano, of the sort to get your ass off the pew and clapping your hands. But this Baptist church believes the Lord also has an affinity for funk, and gives his heavenly seal of approval to the hand-clapping, organ-fueled, and saxophone-fired tune offered up by Rufus, which is one funky congregation. “Sideways” is a great instrumental, which opens with some funky rumbling, a few words by Khan, and one of the coolest grooves I’ve ever heard. Lots of cymbals, Ciner on guitar—this shit is THE SHIT, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why Rufus didn’t take the ball and run with it, instead of truncating the tune before the two-minute mark. I could listen to it for an hour, no kidding.

“Ain’t Nothing but a Maybe” is an Ashford-Simpson tune, and is a classy master’s thesis on how to meld lead and backing vocals to produce euphoria in the human brain. Finer plays some big-ass riffs, but the melody gains its power from the strings and the give-and-take between Khan, who goes nuclear, and some unnamed female backing vocalists. “Forget this hunger inside,” sings Khan, while the backing vocalists sing about letting the feeling flow. A great tune, brothers and sisters, that never got its fair due because it was overshadowed by “Tell Me Something Good,” its super-funky follow-up. Opening to the sound of one big, quacking guitar riff, Khan comes in singing, “You ain’t got no kind of feeling inside/I got somethin’ that’ll sho nuff set yo’ stuff on fire.” Which leads to some syncopated heavy breathing by the band, followed by the great chorus. Meanwhile the uncredited Tony Maiden comes in on the talk box, going, “Tell me, tell me, tell me,” while Ciner plays some fine licks on the guitar, and I don’t know who arranged this song but he or she could teach Brian Wilson a thing or two.

“Look Through My Eyes” sounds to my ears exactly like a late-era Steely Dan song, at least until Khan comes in, and is one happy-making number. This is funk pop of the most expensive vintage and like “Ain’t Nothing but a Maybe” should have made Top 40 radio, smooth and sunny as it is. I think what I’m trying to say is the song is irresistible, thanks in part to Khan and thanks in part to its jaunty, funk-lite melody. “In Love We Grow” doesn’t thrill me, not because Khan disappoints (she puts on a bravura performance) but because there’s nothing I hate more than an insipid ballad, and “In Love We Grow” is a treacle-heavy trip to Barry Manilow country. I want it to be gone, expunged, exiled, eradicated, and extinguished, but hey, there it is, and it isn’t going anywhere. It’s followed by LP closer “Smokin’ Room,” which is mellow but no ballad, and which leads me to wander, what the hell is a smoking room anyway? Hate to say I’m not wild about this one either, because it’s a bit tame and the strings go right over the top, up and out of the trenches and into the No-Man’s Land of Lame. That said I like it when it picks up speed, and Khan’s vocal performance is commanding as usual.

Rufus and Chaka Khan continued to collaborate after Rags to Rufus, but Khan’s burgeoning solo and successful solo career and numerous personal difficulties between band members slowly led to a severance between the band and their more famous singer. Oh well, that’s the way it goes. Khan, with her “wild child” image and sexy attire, had long been the focal point of the band, and her final split with Rufus led to the band’s dissolution, although Rufus and Khan would reunite for a brief tour in 2001. Another reunion is not in the cards, and that’s probably a good thing; almost everything you need from Rufus is right here, in Rags to Rufus, which if it doesn’t get your pulse racing and your ass in gear tells me you have a serious funk deficiency, and probably wear bow ties to work and listen to Neil Diamond’s Beautiful Noise on your commute there, you poor lame bastard you.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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