June 23, 2021

That Time I…

Hung Out With Chaka Khan (on Prince’s Purple Bus)

Carpe Diem! a Latin expression meaning “seize the day.” It was an unexpected moment. As the manager of Frank Fat’s Restaurant on L Street in Downtown Sacramento (just a block and a half from the State Capitol Building), I was always invited to the Southern Wine and Spirits Holiday Wine and Spirits Tasting at the Hyatt Hotel (directly across from the Capitol), which happened in the fall season of 1997 (though it could have been 1998).

As I was leaving the wine tasting event, one of the Hyatt concierge staff told me that the singer Chaka Khan was in the bar at Dawson’s Steakhouse, which was an upscale restaurant at the hotel. I had a close relationship with the entire Hyatt concierge staff, because at Fat’s, I invited the entire crew for a private dinner twice a year and rewarded staff members monthly for sending business down the street.

When I peeked into the bar, I saw her sitting there, next to another woman, while listening to the tinkling sounds of a blind piano player. I knew the piano player because I used to go in specifically to listen to him for his great left hand and voice, but I cannot remember his name now (maybe someone can help me with his name). He was an old white man who played standards and jazz with incredible soul.

My brother, Jeff, had attended the wine tasting with me, so we decided to have a drink at Dawson’s to check out Chaka Khan. Since the bar wasn’t crowded, the concierge seated me at the table directly next to Chaka (Jeff was on my right and her friend was at her left). Never shy about starting a conversation, I told her that I really liked her jazz album, Chaka Khan, especially “Be Bop Medley,” but I admitted that one of my favorite songs of all time was “Through the Fire,” from the I Feel for You album. She laughed and asked me if I would like for her to sing it to me, and completely stunned, I stuttered through a “Yeah!” reply.

After consulting for a half minute with the piano player, she turned back and sang that song as I sat, mesmerized, hardly believing what I was experiencing.

After the song, I told her she had made that day one of my best, and as we continued talking about music, she said she was working on a gospel album and asked if I would like to listen to some of the tracks. I welcomed the opportunity.

So after leaving the bar, Jeff and I followed her outside and past guards as we board a huge, idling, distinctly purple bus, parked in front of the Hyatt. On the bus, she asked us if we smoked. My brother did, and he made arrangements with my younger brother, Steve, to bring her something to smoke.

So Chaka and I went to some sort of console, and I first listened to what I remember was “Walk With Me Lord,” and perhaps seven other songs. I was thankful, and I invited her and Prince to come dinner at Frank Fat’s on the next night, but she explained to me that she didn’t eat big meals before concerts and why.

By the time Steve arrived, it was getting late, and I had a very young daughter, Natsumi, at home, so I thanked Chaka again and left her with my brothers.

Prince did make a cameo appearance at the door of the bus, but seeing the smoke, he went back up to his room in the hotel. During our conversation, Chaka said Prince was studying the Bible to become a Jehovah’s Witness with Larry Graham, and she said that she had studied the Bible with Larry as well.

During the time since, when reflecting on that night, I remembered Chaka as a kind and generous soul, completely addicted to music, while I understand that addiction.

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