A little bit of introduction about the group
Rufus was a multi-racial American funk group who produced one of the most famous female singers in the era, Chaka Khan. The band founded its roots in Cicero, Illinois as The American Breed, who scored a rock single in 1967 “Bend Me, Shape Me”. After this, they underwent a change of name and personnel, having become “Circus”, “Smoke” and “Ask Rufus”. When Chaka Khan came along and replaced the original singer, her friend Paulette McWilliams, they finally became Rufus.
After scoring minor hits, the band gradually crept to prominence with their gold-selling album Rags To Rufusin 1974; it features “Tell Me Something Good”, a track written by Stevie Wonder, and “You Got the Love” which was written by Khan and musician-songwriter Ray Parker Jr. Khan’s increasing fame led the band to billed as Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan. Rufusized, their third studio album, also became a success, yielding the Top 10 pop single “Once You Get Started” – the album went to gold at that time.
The band would achieve successive albums that topped the R&B charts – Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan, Ask Rufus, and Street Player. Tensions within the band members as well as Khan’s emerging solo career had led to the band’s commercial decline and eventual break-up in the early 1980s. Some members of Rufus and Khan went on a brief reunion tour in 2001.
Formation and early days
Rufus, who was often billed as Rufus feat. Chaka Khan, had their origins in Chicago, Illinois. Starting out as a rock outfit The American Breed (who had a Top 10 hit in 1967 “Bend Me, Shape Me”) future Rufus members Al Ciner (guitars), Charles Colbert (bass), Lee Graziano (drums) and Kevin Murphy (keyboards) went on to form their own band. Together with Vern Pilder (from another band Circus), the new band was initially called Smoke. Later on, they hired vocalists Paulette McWilliams and James Stella in 1970. At this point the band changed their name again into Ask Rufus.
In 1972, Graziano left and was replaced by new drummer Andre Fischer, who happened also to be a former member of American Breed. Stella, meanwhile, also left and was replaced by new lead vocalist Ron Stocker, and Colbert was also replaced by Dennis Belfield.
Arrival of Chaka Khan and rise to commercial success
McWilliams had been friends with another singer Chaka Khan (born Yvette Marie Stevens in 1953). When McWilliams had to depart from the band, she asked Chaka if she was interested in taking her place in the band. McWilliams finally left to pursue a solo career, with Khan gradually jelling in with the band. At this point Ask Rufus was shortened to just Rufus.
Stocker was still leading Rufus but Khan was slowly taking over the band with her powerful voice and dynamic onstage presence. In 1973, Rufus released their self-titled debut album, led by their first charting single “Feel Good” (written by Ciner).
The album was a relative commercial failure, although star Stevie Wonder was impressed. He volunteered to write a track specifically for Khan’s voice. The resulting song was “Tell Me Something Good.”
Rufus’ sophomore LP Rags to Rufus released “Tell Me Something Good” as the first single. It reached #3 on both pop and R&B singles charts in 1974, and won a Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals. Most importantly, the hit single made Chaka Khan into a recording star.
The second single on the Rags to Rufus album, “You Got the Love,” was co-written by Khan and Ray Parker Jr. It was just shy of making it to the Top 10 on the pop chart, while it went to #1 on the R&B singles chart. Rags to Rufus became the band’s first gold album.
Rags to Rufus became the band’s first album to make it to the top 10 of the Billboard 200 album chart, an amazing turnaround from their first album. It went to #4 there, as well as gained a similar position on the R&B album chart.
The group released their third LP Rufusized later in 1974. It spawned Rufus’ second Top 10 pop single “Once You Get Started,” which also reached #4 on the R&B singles chart and #6 on the dance singles chart. The funk/soul group was gradually finding their own niche in the industry.
Due to Khan’s popularity becoming more magnified, the band would be later billed as Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan sometime in 1974 or 1975. In any case, this development only enhanced Khan’s star power.
In 1975, the group released their self-titled fourth album Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan, which went to #7 on the Billboard 200 and became their first chart-topping album on the R&B chart. It produced another Top 10 pop single “Sweet Thing,” which also lorded over the R&B singles chart. Another single “Dance Wit Me” (yes, it’s “wit” without “h”) became a Top 40 pop hit.
In 1975, the group released their self-titled fourth album Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan, which went to #7 on the Billboard 200 and became their first chart-topping album on the R&B chart. It produced another Top 10 pop single “Sweet Thing,” which also lorded over the R&B singles chart. Another single “Dance Wit Me” (yes, “wit” without the “h”) became a Top 40 pop hit.
With personnel shifts continuing to occur among the band members, Rufus also went on achieving one hit after the other. 1977’s LP Ask Rufus became the group’s first platinum-selling album, yielding its biggest hit “At Midnight (My Love Will Lift You Up)” (#30 pop, #1 R&B).
Chaka Khan’s move to solo career, and intermittent return to Rufus
Street Player was released in 1978 and managed to churn out a Top 40 pop hit “Stay.” Following the release of the album, Khan made the inevitable move to a solo career. Later that same year she achieved her first hit with “I’m Every Woman,” which was a crossover hit. However, Khan still remained officially as part of Rufus. But the group’s album Numbers (1979) was their first album without Khan; somewhat predictably, it flopped.
Khan returned to Rufus and together they recorded Masterjam, which was produced by Quincy Jones and released in 1979. Somehow the LP gained the band’s commercial momentum, reaching the top of the R&B album chart and #14 on the pop album chart. It was spurred by the Top 40 pop single “Do You Love What You Feel”. Masterjam would be Rufus’ last album to be certified gold.
Khan again departed before the band would record their next album Party ‘Til You’re Broke (1981) but returned for Camouflage (1981). Their last studio album was Seal in Read (1983 — without Khan again) which flopped.
Split and brief reunion
Khan returned for the last time, on the band’s live album Stompin’ at the Savoy – Live(1983), a double-record set which also carried some new material. One of these new songs on the album was “Ain’t Nobody” which reached #22 on the Hot 100 and topped the R&B singles chart. It also won a Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals, providing the band with a graceful exit.
Chaka Khan went on to her career fulltime, reaching the pinnacle of her career with a 1984 hit “I Feel for You,” written by Prince.
In 2001, Khan and some members of Rufus briefly reunited for a one-off tour. They continued to pursue their own projects. Khan was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2011; she and Rufus have yet to be inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (they’ve been eligible for the nomination since 1999).