Saturday, June 29, 2024

Baby Me by Chaka Khan - One Track Mind

More musings on music have been requested (apparently weekly playlists and poems are not enough) so I'm inaugurating an occasional series I'm calling One Track Mind. I'll pick a song, nothing too obvious, and see where the discussion leads.

Baby me by Chaka Khan is my first pick.

Chaka Khan CK 1988

Chaka Khan announces herself. May God preserve her. Her musical chops are undeniable, she's every singer's favorite singer (Ask Joni). She was recently (finally! belatedly!) inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She doesn't need more flowers and yet I come to sing her praises.

Beyond that voice, that immaculate voice, that awesome weapon, there's that unerring sense of funk. You've seen those videos of her drumming, right?

Chaka Khan also has impeccable taste. The story goes that she told Stevie Wonder that she wasn't feeling the song he'd written for her and that he should go back and try better. (This was 1974-vintage Stevie, the greatest songwriter in his prime period)

Of course he then wrote Tell me Something Good

The point being that Chaka Khan has exceedingly high standards.

By this stage in her career - 1988, she had nothing to prove to anyone. Every project she took on was an all-star affair, akin to a Minnie Riperton album - an event, and everyone scrambles to get in on it. The voice and talent are so compelling that you want to throw your hand in.

The sessions for the C.K. album were no different. The A-side is an embarrasment of riches.

First, a cover of Stevie Wonder's Signed Sealed Delivered featuring the man himself on harmonica reprising his guest appearance on I Feel For You

Soul Talkin' is next, written by the peerless Brenda Russell who also supplies background vocals. Bobby McFerrin joins in the fun, channeling the sound of a saxophone with his own vocals.

It's my Party brings the joyous sounds of Womack & Womack to the table. This was the first single of the album.

And then Prince supplies Sticky Wicked (featuring Miles Davis, Eric Leeds and Atlanta Bliss) a nouveau funk affair, and then offers Eternity one of his effortless ballads (Chaka and David Frank produce the latter)

On the B-side, she continues her jazz explorations paying homage to Billie Holiday with The End of a Love Affair and I'll Be Around again bringing in inspired collaborators: George Benson, Marcus Miller, Dave Grusin, Steve Ferrone and Miles Davis again.

Chris Jasper of the Isley Brothers also crafts a tune, Make it Last. Frankly we are spoilt for choice.

And yet Baby Me, the third single, is what we should focus on. Let's have a listen (also on spotify)

A few preliminaries to save you to trip to Wikipedia or Discogs. The legendary Russ Titelman is the producer, Rob Mounsey arranges and plays keyboards. Holly Knight, Billy Steinberg are the songwriters. Chaka Khan, of course, does all the vocal arrangements

Russ Titelman was trying to capture the magic he'd witnessed when he had her and Rufus in the studio during the sessions for the Stompin' at the Savoy album in 1983, especially the performance on Ain't Nobody. You can read some of his memories of the time

Baby me is a deceptively simple love song. The lyrics are of longing, tenderness and vulnerability. After all, who doesn't want to be babied and treated with care? "The world is crazy and sometimes cruel / So baby me and I'll baby you"

(Incidentally, I fully believe in the power of misheard lyrics so I'm serving notice that I'll ignore any stickler who might bring up that "sometimes cruel" is probably not how the line goes. That's what I heard and I'm sticking to it)

It's a keyboard driven song, much like Ain't Nobody, the hit that capped her reunion with Rufus in 1983, and which serves as a kind of blueprint.

It's a fairly restrained affair to start with, bouncing between the keyboards and her voice, and punctuated by Paul Pesco's guitar fills. The lyric in the refrain goes "When you touch me, I come undone", and then carries on asking "Do you do this to every one?"

Then the excitement builds. "Take me in your arms / Rock me tonight"

Observe the way she sells the "Rock me tonight" line.

Then the chorus changes as if to emphasize the mounting infatuation:

"When you touch me I come undone / You better not do that to everyone".

Is this the pleasure principle speaking or resignation at being lost in love?

Then to the bridge, the bridge that un-mans me. For she goes in flight with a little scatting - her voice is an instrument, and then the saxophone comes in. The scatting is cathartic, duelling almost with the saxophone. You realize just how striking her voice is.

"Touch me" she sings. And then she makes you wait - a model of restraint, it's fully 3 minutes 10 seconds in before when she finally winds up and starts wailing. It's a release of the built-up tension. And you, the listener, want to join in.

The genius of this part is that she doesn't keep going, she stays in the pocket. Sure she lets loose, there's a release, but then she retreats. This part confounds me because once you start, you always want to keep it up.

I know that once I've started on my own wailing on Baby Me (in the shower or, as my household have caught me on many occasions), I can't help but adding my adlibs. I just want to sing at the top of my voice. And keep singing.

Patti Labelle or Aretha Franklin would have decimated the end of the song. I fully envision histrionics if Patti were let loose on this song, and perhaps if Chaka ever performed this live, she would go wild. But it works here; she's almost inviting the listener to fill things in.

Chaka Khan, known for her vocal pyrotechnics, is well aware that she could belt this out; but she chooses to be restrained in the arrangement, restrained even when she lets loose. She stays in the cut, in the pocket, in service of the song. And that is her knowing artistry at work.

There are a few remixes that highlight the craft and thought that went into finalizing the song. Rob Mounsey's arrangements were on the mark.

The Big Baby Extended mix emphasizes the keyboards showing how tight the mix is in the released version and the importance of the guitar licks and Warren Hill's saxophone

Compare also to Come 2 my House a decade later, the title track of her album length collaboration with Prince.

The 3cks and a baby remix highlights the scatting and adds a few more improvisations and wailing at the end, hinting at the kind of arrangements that could have been used in the final mix

Soul Talkin' follows a similar formula with Bobby McFerrin supplying the vocal solo in lieu of the saxophone. (My long overdue Brenda Russell appreciation piece will be forthcoming).

Here's some more Chaka Khan drumming (you're welcome). Again, she stays in the pocket instead of being flashy

The Babysitting mix of Baby me is a more stripped down affair, a little too sparse to my ears

I'll also throw in Eternity which bears the fingerprints of Prince.

Spotify doesn't have the remixes but the essential is there

I suppose this is fodder for my contention that 1988 was one of the greatest years in recorded music. But I'll flesh out that provocation another time...

What can I say, the song moves me, the arrangements, the voice - everything about it. I'll leave you with 4:06 minutes of soul perfection:
Baby me by Chaka Khan
Let me know what you think.

See also: Janet Jackson and the importance of bubblegum and Tony Toni Tone - Weary Sons of Soul which I retrospectively nominate for this series

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Writing log: May 3, 2024

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