Ephemera, 1975-1976

Sweet Thing

Prince doesn’t shy away from the song’s ostensibly feminine qualities; he accentuates them.

In his recent cover story for Rolling Stone, reporter Brian Hiatt writes about what would become his final visit to Prince’s Paisley Park complex, in January of 2014. At one point, he describes standing in front of a mural “where a painted image of Prince, arms spread, stands astride images of his influences and artists he, in turn, influenced” (Hiatt 2016). Among the “influences” depicted in the mural are the usual suspects from Prince’s Grand Central days–Sly and the Family Stone, Tower of Power, Grand Funk Railroad–as well as Chaka Khan.

Maya Washington shows off the Paisley Park mural at a 2014 live-streaming event; Chaka can be seen near the middle, to the left of Stevie Wonder. Photo stolen from bArON3121’s Twitter.

Indeed, Prince and Chaka go way back. As a teen, he’d been “a fan and a fanatic,” he told the Philadelphia Daily News in 1998. “I used to run home and see everything she was on” (Pendleton 1998). According to biographer Jon Bream, the apartment where Prince lived around the time of his signing to Warner Bros. had “45 rpm records nailed to the wall next to a poster of Chaka Khan” (Bream 1984). During the recording of his 1978 debut album For You, he would listen to records by Chaka and her group Rufus to get in the right mood for his vocal sessions; “He absolutely loved that girl,” assistant engineer Steve Fontano recalled to biographer Per Nilsen (Nilsen 1999 37). At one point, Prince even lured Chaka to the Record Plant by pretending to be Sly Stone over the phone. When she showed up, he later remembered, “I was so in awe of her I couldn’t speak, so she listened to me play for a little while, then she left” (Pendleton 1998).

I was so in awe of [Chaka] I couldn’t speak, so she listened to me play for a little while, then she left.

(The Artist Formerly Known as) Prince
Chaka Khan, circa 1976; photo stolen from Music and Wisdom.

Obviously, Chaka was a sex symbol; to be a Black teenager lusting after her in the mid-1970s was the rule, not the exception. But Prince’s fixation with her was much more complex and interesting than a simple crush: she was a genuine influence on his growth as a singer, as much as Carlos Santana was an influence on his growth as a guitarist. At the risk of overstating things, it’s important to acknowledge the context here. The pop music world, Black and White, has always been heavily stratified along gender lines, with unequivocally male artists firmly at the top of the hierarchy; for a heterosexual 17-year-old or 18-year-old boy to view a woman artist as a role model is, frankly, still an anomaly to this day. 40 years ago, it was evidence of an astonishingly bold artistic direction.

Prince’s 1976 recording of Rufus’ “Sweet Thing” demonstrates just how bold that direction was. He doesn’t shy away from the song’s ostensibly feminine qualities; he accentuates them. When Chaka sings “Sweet Thing” (see below), it is in its own way a subtle undermining of gender roles: her performance is strong and assured, providing the gospel-inspired “heat” and “fire” to complement her (male) band’s silky, demure musical backing. But when Prince sings it he takes on a more passive, plaintive role, the kind more typically associated with a woman: his falsetto is so delicate and fragile, one can almost imagine it blowing away like dandelions in the wind. And at the very moment in the song when Chaka’s vocals reach the peak of their power–the aforementioned “you are my heat, you are my fire” lines in the bridge–Prince just gets more vulnerable, softly harmonizing with another track of himself singing in an even higher register.

Chaka Khan and Rufus perform “Sweet Thing” in 1975.

This reversal of gendered expectations would, of course, become a hallmark of Prince’s artistic persona. One of his most significant contributions to the cultural history of pop music was his inversion of the hypermasculine, hairy-chested “soulman” archetype of contemporary R&B artists like Teddy Pendergrass, presenting himself instead with a softer, more coquettish (if equally hairy-chested) seductiveness. More than any other singer before him, he made himself both subject and object of what feminist psychoanalytic theorists term the gaze, upsetting the whole gendered imbalance of power in the process. And what’s most remarkable is that he was already well on his way to doing so when he was still a kid just out of high school, recording acoustic cover songs in his friend André Anderson’s basement.

(The Artist Formerly Known as) Prince and Chaka Khan perform “Sweet Thing” in 1998.

Prince’s “Sweet Thing” cover also marked the prelude to a decades-long artistic kinship with Chaka Khan. Most obviously, Chaka made his 1979 song “I Feel for You” into a massive hit in 1984–albeit with a frenetic arrangement that borrowed more from New York’s emergent freestyle scene than from Prince’s “Minneapolis Sound.” But their mutual appreciation extended much further. Prince wrote, produced, and performed on “Sticky Wicked” for Chaka’s 1988 album CK; the same record also featured a version of Prince’s “Eternity” recorded without his input. 10 years later, she signed to Prince’s NPG Records, recording another album (Come 2 My House) and joining him onstage on several occasions, including the August 28, 1998 performance at London’s Café de Paris filmed for the U.K. television special/home video release Beautiful Strange (see above). “Sweet Thing” in particular remained a staple in Prince’s live repertoire all the way up to his final months: his last known performance of the song was on February 20, 2016 at the Sydney Opera House, the fifth date of his tragically truncated Piano & a Microphone Tour.

As for Ms. Khan, she publicly commemorated Prince with the following tweet on the day of his death, including a photo of the two of them together circa 1998:

We’ll be back on Friday afternoon with another song from 1976–this one actually written by Prince.

(Thanks to Randall in the comments for reminding me of Chaka Khan’s 1988 collaboration with Prince.)

“Sweet Thing”
(Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, 1975) 
Electric Fetus / Spotify / TIDAL

By Zachary Hoskins

Recovering academic. Music writing at Slant, Spectrum Culture, and elsewhere. I also do podcasts with my little sister as Dystopian Dance Party.

16 replies on “Sweet Thing”

How fitting! Grew up listening and loving those two artist. The day he died I waited to hear from two of his peers. Larry and Chaka. This whole thing is tragic beyond belief to me and a whole lotta folk. Wish I could make it go away…..

Good strategy! Everyone I know seems to have moved on…there are those awkward pauses in conversation like, “Oh, you’re still on that?” It’s been helpful to find others online who are still grieving this treasure of a human being.

Yes, say what you will about social media, but I love the way it’s been used as a kind of public forum for grieving this year, first with Bowie (who also hit me pretty hard) and then with Prince. I’m also not mad at the explosion of Prince outtakes that have been showing up on YouTube, etc., though I’m sure that will end soon now that the estate is being sorted out.

I was at that particular concert on that day and saw them singing together. I treasure the moments and returned to see him 6 times after during his tour. I’m still devastated… # RIPPurpleOne #TrulyAdoreYou

That’s amazing! I can’t tell you how much I regret not seeing him live more often when I still had the chance. Chaka sounded great in that performance, too…she’s still got it.

Every time I think about him being gone….I tear up. Loved this guy like he was my little brother…

Funny you should say that. I had just teared up. The Baltimore gig came to mind, and his overall big-heartedness for the underdog.

Excellent site. I’ve just caught up on all the posts, and I enjoy your writing. For this post, it might also be worth mentioning Prince’s contributions to Chaka’s 1988 album CK — he wrote, performed on, and produced “Sticky Wicked” (which also features Miles Davis), and she covered his song “Eternity” without his input.

Good catch! I will definitely be talking about “Sticky Wicked” in…well, I’d rather not contemplate how far away that will be, hahaha. But for the time being, you’re right, I should drop in a mention here. Making the edit now. (Thanks for reading!)

Thank you so much for referencing my article in this piece. This was my first visit to Paisley Park and the only one while Prince was still alive. I remember it in flashes but Paisley still feels like home to me visiting all these years later. Thanks for crediting me, it is so appreciated. – Tonya Pendleton

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