“Feels Like Heaven” was a single from Peter Cetera’s vastly underrated World Falling Down album  that was a rare positive song in that generally downcast album, featuring a beautiful duet between Cetera and former Rufus singer Chaka Khan . The song had little impact on the Hot 100 but it was a very popular song on the Adult Contemporary charts, which is why I heard the song frequently when I was growing up, given my own radio listening habits both then and now being highly biased towards adult contemporary and adult-oriented music in general from my youth. It was, and remains, a pleasant thing to my ears to hear two such great singers speak of how heavenly they find love with the other, without there being any unpleasant racial politics getting in the way of the enjoyment the two find in each other. A powerful tenor and powerful contralto blend together beautifully in the song and even if the song was not a big hit, it remains a high point for both singers in their respective solo careers.
Today I would like to comment a bit about Chaka Khan’s relationship with white male singers and comment on her role as an artist who was comfortable as an equal partner in such singing relationships. From the beginning of her career in the mainstream, Chaka Khan was known for her interactions with other male singers, and I do not wish to minimize her importance as a duet partner for such performers as George Benson and Ray Charles, or her work with Rufus, or even her importance as an unwilling source of a Kanye West sample. It should be noted that a large part of Chaka Khan’s success came about because of her ability to work well with male musicians and to come off as an equal partner in those duets, a quality that is shared today by such singers and rappers as Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, and Camilla Cabello, all of whom have greatly helped their own status as singers by being able to sing duets with male vocalists and hold their own ground without destroying the chemistry the song is seeking to present.
In “Feels Like Heaven,” this chemistry is definitely present and palpable, and is demonstrated by the fact that both artists receive equal billing, even though the song itself came from a Peter Cetera album. It should be noted that this appears to be due to Peter Cetera’s characteristic generosity as a duet partner. After all, Cetera was long used to giving his female duet partners equal billing and to being able to have successful duets both commercially and artistically over the course of his career. A few examples should suffice, including “Feels Like Heaven” with Chaka Khan but also “Next Time I Fall In Love” with Amy Grant (long before she was famous), “After All” with Cher (during one of her comeback periods), and “Forever Tonight” with Crystal Bernard (most famous as an actress), as well as a collaboration with Ronna Reeves on a cover of ABBA’s “S.O.S.” It seems unlikely that Cetera and Chaka Khan would both be so well known for their collaborations with such a diverse array of singers without scandal or a bad reputation without being easy and pleasant to work with.
Chaka Khan herself certainly had quite a long history of working well with male artists, and particularly with white male artists. A short summary of this extensive working experience should suffice to prove the point . While still a member of Rufus and before going solo, Khan built up her resume as a backing vocalist for Chicago on Chicago XI, which featured the top 5 hit “Baby, What A Big Surprise.” This is probably where she and Cetera realized that they could work together successfully as vocalists for the first time. In addition, Khan sang backup vocals for Stephen Bishop (best known for his hits “On And On” and “It Might Be You”) as well as Robert Palmer, David Bowie, and Steve Winwood. Indeed, her work with Steve Winwood was particularly conspicuous in that she not only appeared in the music video for “Higher Love,” a #1 hit, but her vocals provided that song with enough authentic soul that it elevated the white soul efforts that Steve Winwood had been working on not only in that song but his entire career as a vocalist.
What did Chaka Khan’s ability to find a great deal of success as both a backup vocalist as well as a duet partner for notable and immensely successful male musicians mean? She was certainly able to create collaborative songs that were immensely successful from both an artistic and commercial standpoint, especially in adult contemporary and R&B, as well as pop formats. The fact that she was able to do this over the course of more than two decades while maintaining a good enough reputation as a collaborative artist that she has recently been reported to be working on a collaboration with Ariana Grande suggests that she was able to provide vocal power in a way that was not threatening to others and that brought out the best in the people she worked with. And isn’t that what musical collaboration is about anyway, seeking to bring the best out of those one is working with even while showcasing one’s own talents?