unCOVERed: “Sweet Thing” Featuring Rufus featuring Chaka Khan VS. Mary J. Blige
by Matthew Allen
A confectionary swirl of guitar, with some feathery Rhodes chords floating over it, begins one of the most gorgeous and ageless love songs of all time, “Sweet Thing.” Not as slow as your typical bedroom slow jam but not quite fast enough to move to on a dance floor, the cut was a prototype midtempo jam that fit any occasion. “Sweet Thing” is a woman’s plea to her would-be lover who needs some coaxing. With a strong melody and lyrics of delicious yearning, like, “Don’t you hear me talking baby?/Love me now or I’ll go crazy,” the song has been a classic for millions across several decades. It’s longevity is attributed to different versions of the song hitting with the public nearly twenty years apart; the original version by Rufus featuring Chaka Khan and the cover version by Mary J. Blige.
Which version is the best? With soulhead, the topic will be unCOVERed.
Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, 1975
By the mid-1970s, Chicago R&B outfit Rufus featuring Chaka Khan had slowly but surely seeped out of the soul shackles and into the pastures of pop acceptance. The band’s deep devotion to funk was elevated by the otherworldly vocal ability of one Ms. Yvette Stevens, aka Chaka Khan. Tracks like “Tell Me Something Good,” “Once You Get Started” and “You Got the Love” had helped them get notoriety and Grammy Awards alike all over the country. Their fourth, self-titled, album was lifted by their its first single, “Sweet Thing.” Written by Chaka and Rufus guitarist and vocalists Tony Maiden, the World got a dose of the thick, seductive groove acumen they had outside of making dance floor anthems. The full range of her voice was radically on display, going from sultry and soft to booming and passionate. The song became Rufus’ second R&B chart topper and third Billboard 100 top 10 single.
Mary J. Blige, 1992
A girl from Yonkers, NY, named Mary J. Blige caught the ear of Uptown Records. In particularly, a young intern named Sean “Puffy” Combs. Her voice was rough, untamed and immediately singular. In the right hands and the right songs, she could, and would, be the voice of a generation that was becoming defined by hip-hop. In 1992, What’s the 411? dropped. Combining her big vocals with an evolved, heavier incarnation of New Jack Swing, MJB was dubbed the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, thanks to hits like”Reminisce,” “Real Love” and “You Remind Me.” One of the songs that helped propel her rising stardom is a cover of “Sweet Thing.” Produced by Corey Rooney and Prince Markie Dee, it was a slick update of the Rufus classic, with a fatter emphasis on the back beat, without deviating too far from the original melody. Blige embodied the spirit of Chaka at the beginning, but put her own stamp on it, adding a haunting edge to it with her powerful rasp. “Sweet Thing” charted at number 11 on the Billboard R&B charts, aiding in What’s the 411? selling three million copies.
Anytime you hear someone singing “Sweet Thing” at a karaoke or an open mic night, nine times out of ten, that singer is channeling Mary J. Blige and her version. So, inspiration is on her side. However, the brooding determination of MJB’s voice notwithstanding, the sheer effortlessness of Chaka’s delivery and the supple instrumentation of Rufus is just too irresistible. Therefore, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan wins!
Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based music journalist and television producer. In addition to soulhead, his work can be found on EBONY, JET and Wax Poetics Magazines. To keep up with his work, follow him on Twitter and visit his blog, The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict. Check out some of his work for soulhead.