The Incomparable Chaka Khan

Chances are you know her name, you almost certainly know her voice - a voice the great Miles Davis once compared to his legendary horn. And where would she rate herself among the great singers of all time?

"Very good," Chaka Khan told CBS News correspondent Russ Mitchell.

Great? Excellent?

"Just really good."

She's the eight-time Grammy award winner whose 30-year career has inspired singers like Whitney Houston and Mary J. Blige. Now at the age of 54, Chaka Khan is back with a hot new album.

"And I'm listening to it, I'm thinking 'old school Chaka,'" Mitchell said. "Is that the idea?"

"Well, yeah that is the one thing, we were going to try to recapture the sound that made people fall in love with my voice in the first place," she said.

It's a love affair that began on the south side of Chicago. Today she's Chaka Khan, a star wherever she goes. But back then, she was Yvette Stevens.

She and her younger sister performed in talent shows around the city with the help of their mother, Sandra Coleman, who acted as costumer, chaperone and chauffeur.

"They did this song, and it was no music at all. She had to come out with just her voice. And it was so pure, and so beautiful, you know. Right then I said, 'My baby can sing!"

"We would sing at different talent shows and different competitions around Chicago," Khan said. "People started throwin' money on the stage and yelling, 'Little Aretha.'"

"How'd you like that?" Mitchell asked.

"I liked it. I was kind of taken aback, of course, at first, you know? I was like, 'What are they talking about?'"

They were talking about a voice that would one day be described as a "sensual, shiver-inducing siren wail." But as a young girl in Catholic school, Yvette Stevens never dreamed of a life in music.

"Yeah, I felt like I wanted to be a nun when I was a kid. And who knows? I could have easily become one."

But she was coming of age in the turbulent 1960s, an adolescent determined to make it on her own.

"She was very, very independent and very headstrong," her mother said. "And she didn't want to take any orders from anybody anymore, you know? And so she ran away from home, several times."

She ran away for good at 16, and joined the Black Panther party.

"They mostly had me, 'cause I was a young chick. I was in high school, so they didn't really bestow really heavy duty stuff on me. I could sell papers. I started a free breakfast for children program. I did that every morning, before I went to school. I usually missed my first class because of it!"

Back at her old school there is a room dedicated to her, which she would never have predicted. "I didn't think I'd make it through," dropping out of school and later deciding to take on an African name, Chaka. It means "woman of fire." And when she married bass player Hassan Khan, Chaka Khan was born.

"And the one thing that I knew I could do well at that point, and I could get paid at, would be singing."

She joined the funk band Rufus, and in 1974 they hit it big with a Stevie Wonder song, "Tell Me Something Good." They were so big they even appeared on a Bob Hope TV special.

But the idea of being famous scared Khan. "Because I'm kind of a private person. And I at the time, you know, I wanted to live my life and experience life."

But decked out in leather and feathers, and with a voice that was unmistakable, Chaka Khan couldn't escape the spotlight.

"I was in the hospital having a baby, in labor. And people are asking for my autograph. Hospital staff! And I thought, 'Dude, this is not cool.'"

"What do you do in those situations?" Mitchell asked.

"I just tell them, 'I'm trying to have a baby here!'"

After five gold albums and one platinum, Chaka Khan left Rufus and went solo, striking gold and platinum all on her own. And then, in 1984, came the biggest solo hit of her career, "I Feel For You."

"Somehow I knew that something would change, and it did. People started calling me 'Chaka Khan Chaka Khan,' instead of just saying my name once."

"Does it bother you still when people do that?"

"Well, now it's like a mosquito flying on my head. Before it was like a ton of bricks falling on me."

As her star continued to burn brighter, there were far more serious problems.

"Well, I was running away from a lot of stuff. I was, you know, self-medicating a lot.

"Is it easier for you to call it medicating?" Mitchell asked.

"Yeah. 'Cause that's what it is. That's what I was doing." But then a moment came when she knew she had to stop: "When I had help. And God came into my life. God touched me for the probably last time, with that finger."

"And as we speak today, no more drugs?"

"No. No more drugs. No drink. I don't do anything. I'm clear. I'm in present time. And it was boring as hell at first! Now, there's never a dull moment."

That's because Chaka Khan, mother of 2 and grandmother of 2, is performing on tour. In January, she'll star on Broadway in the Oprah Winfrey show, "The Color Purple."

"Every-woman" Chaka Khan has been "through the fire" and rediscovered a part of herself.
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