Track of the Week: Chaka Khan, “Love With No Strings”
If there were any bit of a silver lining to Whitney Houston’s passing, to me it was seeing Chaka Khan on TV being interviewed. She looked terrific, she sounded great and she was really in control of the situations I saw her in on the teevee, which amongst the usual slavering media idiocy that week was like a cold Rolling Rock in the middle of the Gobi Desert.
Chaka Khan was one of those musicians who reached me through my little transistor radio in Coos Bay and showed me the power of vibrating molecules to produce this kind of cinematic euphoria. Such a powerful voice, with such extreme finesse and range in every way, it was like LeBron James dancing Swan Lake. So when Gary Haase got the call to produce a track for Chaka, and called me to co-produce it with him, it was quite a thrill, to say the least.
I had been working my way into the scene in New York starting to do very nice (for the time) demos for people like Randy Brecker and James Robinson, the great singer who replaced Luther in Change, but had never done anything at the level we were talking about here. The first tune we got to work on was something called “Be My Eyes”, a kind of a funk track with a lyric that Chaka liked. And Gary and I set about putting together a track with every good lick we could think of in it. It ended up being pretty well saturated with “every good lick we could thing of”, and she dug it, she sure sang the shit out of it, and that one earned us another tune called “Love With No Strings” to do for her.
Chaka is a complete singer in the old-school sense that she is really interested in telling the story of the tune. So she’s always on the hunt for tunes with a story that resonates with her; in this sense I think she could be a great country singer. She is, for example, a Joni Mitchell freak and loves to sing Joni tunes. And she really liked the lyric on “Love With No Strings”. Gary and I set about doing another track to this tune, which is much closer to a rock tune than a Rufus track. We programmed the whole thing, working around the idea that we were going to make it something of a feature for Anthony Jackson, the great bassist (or ContraBass Guitarist!) who was has always been a hero of Gary’s (Gary had taken over the bass chair in Chaka’s band when Anthony left). But first we were going to get Chaka on it.
We recorded her at Platinum Island, a studio just down the street from Tower Records in Manhattan. Gary wanted everything to be “just so” for her, so he bought a large bouquet of flowers and stuck it there in the studio. I remember being really nervous about meeting this idol of mine, but she showed up and she was great and gracious, though I got the sense right away that she was somebody who didn’t need, or want, to be “on” all the time. She went out into the studio and started kind of scatting a bit and warming up, sounding pretty hoarse at first (I would find out later that Chaka was The Iron Lady, and I ain’t talking about Margaret Thatcher, when it came to hanging all night). I was just mesmerized by the whole phenomenon; I think she was the first real colossus like that I’d worked with at that point. We were setting this and twisting that dial and doing all the things that are involved with getting a good sound on a singer, and then Doug DeAngelis, the engineer, said “OK, why don’t you give us something at full volume”. And that was it, she belted out a big high note and a run that shattered every pane of glass for a couple miles around; I remember Doug kind of diving for some faders to pull back and me and Gary looking at each other and just laughing.
Then commenced the kind of session that a really great singer does. She is somebody who doesn’t have to suffer over the track at all; we had a great lead vocal in pretty short order, and watching her do the backgrounds reminded me of that old Maxell ad with the guy in the easy chair and his hair sticking straight back. She was so fast, knew exactly what she was going to do, and we got her patented taste in background harmony on there. She nailed those soaring high notes, those ones where you can’t believe she’s hitting THAT one, and then she goes UP FROM THERE, and it was great.
Next came Anthony. I hadn’t worked with Anthony up until that point, but Anthony is a pretty particular person. He came in and had a kind of vision for the track that we would lay down a bass track, and then he’d double the whole thing an octave up, and then put a flanger (an effect that gives a sort of swirling resonance to a sound) on the whole thing. Anthony listened down once to what we had with Chaka on it, and then said “Play that again”. And then he announced: “I don’t hear ‘Love with No Strings’. All I hear is ‘Love with No Stain.'” Gary and I listened to it with that in mind, and yes, if you listen a certain way, you can hear it as “Love With No Stain”. None of us had noticed it, but to be honest if you’re going to have Love, it’s nice to have it with No Strings, but there are going to be situations where it’s more important to have No Stain, so we figured we were covered in any case. Anthony furrowed his brow but went to work.
Anthony is somebody for whom “incredibly great” isn’t good enough. If you’ve seen him play, it’s pretty obvious that you could record anything he does and be thrilled with it; he’s a really intense musician, and once he’s in the mode, he’s unusually focussed and powerful in a way that’s unique to him, and he’s truly an original musician. And on this session, he was determined to go for actual perfection. As he put it to us, brows furrowed again and without a trace of irony, “This will still be around long after we’re all dead”. He’d play a passage, we’d all analyze it for any imperfection, and punch in anything that wasn’t perfect. After a good while we had the basic track and it was time to double the whole thing, so we repeated the whole process an octave up, got the flanger on it, and by the end Anthony’s vision was realized and it is damned cool, very powerful and rocking and a great fit for the tune. We all went home. The next morning we came in and took a listen and somehow it sounded a little different than when we’d left it, but nobody could put their finger on it.
We took a shot at replacing our sampled drums on it with a live guy, but couldn’t really get it right in the time we had, so decided to keep what we’d programmed. We got Aaron Heick, a friend of ours with a unique ability to play great R & B saxophone but to really improvise something rather than just read from the S.O.P, and Aaron played some great arcs of alto on it that are still some of my favorite stuff on these cuts. And then there was the issue of the “guitar solo”; the tune kind of builds into a nice spot for a rocking guitar solo. I had played a sort of Van Halen/Alan Holdsworth distorted guitar solo in there for the demo on a synthesizer through a Scholz Rockman, and it was pretty cool. By the time we got down to replacing it, we were way out of budget, and the solo I’d put down sounded better and better the smaller and smaller the budget got, so in the end we kept my demo “guitar” solo.
We spent a very long day mixing the tune, got something we were happy with, Chaka liked it, and we thought we were done. Then Gary took the tune to Anthony.
Gary says Anthony listened down once, furrowed his brow, and said “Play that again”. And Gary played it again, and at the end, Anthony just said “There’s No Flanger On The Bass”. As it happens, as near as we could tell, the MAID had apparently come in and cleaned up after we’d left the night of the bass tracking, and had apparently PULLED OUT A PATCH CABLE WITH HER BROOMSTICK or who knows what, before we finished the mix and there was no flanger on the bass. Gary said he was practically in tears at this, but we called Platinum Island and worked something out, recalled the whole track, plugged that damned cable back in, and to this day there is still a flanger on the bass.
After we recorded Chaka on this track, we went “out for dinner”. 12 hours later we were still out, now “for breakfast”. At that time, at least, she had a lot of late night energy, and hanging with her I think I got at least a peek at why she’s so great. Like all musicians I consider to be up there with the best, she has quite a story to tell, and she’s been graced with a great instrument through which to tell it. For one thing, she’s a very powerful intellect who’s lived the most unusual life of a hugely popular icon travelling the world singing a great book of grooving music, and this and all of her experience goes in the hopper where she considers it the way a philosopher does. So her interpretations of the songs she chooses are filled with nuance and shading, and that drives the performances that still stick with me all these years later, that combination of power and sensitivity. I never put any of that together when I was a kid, I just knew that I was addicted to her singing. So it’s a unique pleasure in my life to get to make some of that music with Chaka Khan. And all of that is why it was so great to see her doing great 20 years later. So, without further ado, “Love With No Strings”:
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