A couple of days before stepping onstage with Chaka Khan for the latest Verzuz episode — “A Night for the Queens!!” — Stephanie Mills explained on Instagram why their highly anticipated holiday-season pairing was not a battle but a celebration of music and sisterhood.
“We [have] nothing to prove other than to show our young Black sisters we are enough and stronger together,” Mills wrote. “We’re all about the love of the music, positive vibes and a lot of harmony.”
The beauty and strength of sisterhood — and a wellspring of musical memories —indeed reigned supreme last evening (Nov. 18) at The Theatre at Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. That’s an important takeaway to embrace, given that this was a difficult Verzuz session for many viewers to watch. That’s because beloved icon Khan was not at the top of her game vocally.
The first hour of the show, which kicked off about 10 minutes after the appointed time of 9 p.m. ET, began with a DJ battle. At the same time, frequent connection issues kept freezing the video feed, further irking viewers. Then following individual sets by the evening’s female DJs — DJ eQue for Mills, DJ Beverly Bond for Khan — and a welcome by a representative from sponsor Hallmark’s Mahogany division, the show got under way shortly after 10 p.m.
Dressed all in black and also sporting matching red bouffant ‘dos, Khan and Mills walked hand-in-hand onto a stage fit for two queens: two chandeliers holding court overhead, velvet chairs positioned at the sides of the two DJ platforms and roses (white for Mills, red for Khan) in vases stationed nearby. And while a technical glitch prevented the playing of Mills’ first song, the veteran trouper didn’t let that stop her from shifting quickly into an impromptu a cappella riff of “Ease on Down the Road,” harkening back to her ‘70s Broadway run in The Wiz.
Khan took it right back to her ‘70s Rufus roots with the jam “Once You Get Started” that had the in-house audience on its feet. But it soon became apparent that something was amiss vocally for the singer, who was joined by Mills during the latter part of that song clip. At various points throughout the 90-minute show, Mills’ sisterly bond and love for Khan kept the energy going, as the lively singer cheered both Khan and the audience on. Khan also frequently shared her own admiration for Mills through hugs and praise for her “beautiful singing.”
“We’re both Aries, both fire,” Mills declared at one point during the show.” To which Khan quickly replied, “We’re warriors.”
Here are five more takeaways driven by a robust 34-song set list encompassing the ladies’ biggest hits, fave album cuts and a few covers.
The Need For More R&B
After Khan’s performance of Rufus gem “Everlasting Love,” the two broke into a conversation about the music industry and the need for more R&B. “We’ve both done so much work in this hard business called show business,” said Mills, adding, “We have to take Black radio back and get them to play more R&B.” Khan clapped in agreement before Mills continued, “You don’t hear a lot of new artists’ songs the way we did back in the day, because they play the same songs over and over again.” Noted Khan, “We heard a treasure trove of great Black music then.” Later in the show, Khan told the audience, “I’m so honored and glad to be with people listening to real music. I don’t sing for Grammys; I sing for love, period.”
They may be Grammy-winning singers with enduring legacies, but they’re moms first. While performing the upbeat “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” Mills teamed with her 20-year-old son Farad, who has Down syndrome, to sing a bit of the song with her. “This is my baby,” said the proud mom. Nine songs later, Khan welcomed lookalike daughter Indira to join her on the No. 1 Rufus hit “Sweet Thing.” After riffing with her at the start of the song, Khan stepped aside to let Indira take a solo turn. “She totally left me … what?,” she said with a laugh before Mom joined her again on the final chorus.
Sisters For Life
After a run of selections that included two Prince jewels (Mills on “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?,” Khan on “I Feel for You”), Mills’ “Sweet Sensation” and Khan’s “Papillion,” the singers chatted about sisterhood. “There are not many sisters who can get together without [there being] competition,” said Khan. “This is sister love right here. And I couldn’t compete with you anyway because you have 10 Grammys,” Mills added with a laugh. “But if you mess with Chaka, you mess with me. We’ve got each other’s back.”
Like Mills, who said she was 17 when she performed in The Wiz, Khan recalled that she left home home at 16 to start “making my own money.” Dipping back and forth into her Rufus and solo bags, the singer curated a Verzuz set list that included “Tell Me Something Good,” “Angel,” “Stay,” “Ain’t Nobody” and closer “I’m Every Woman” that had Mills, Indira and the audience joining Khan. Interestingly there was no “Through the Fire” — but on “A Night in Tunisia,” Khan clicked onto the excerpt’s jazzy groove and showed the legend she still is.
Going “Home” Again
In the ramp-up to the singers’ Verzuz appearance, some social chatter believed that compared to Khan’s deep catalog achieved through her tenure with Rufus and as a solo artist that Mills didn’t have as much material. But the singer held her own, going back to a string of early hits like her first Billboard R&B Songs top 10 hit in 1979 with “What Cha Gonna Do With My Lovin’, her “Two Hearts” duet with Teddy Pendergrass, and her R&B No. 1s “I Feel Good All Over” and “(You’re Puttin’) A Rush on Me.”
But the one song the audience was waiting to hear was her signature “Home” from The Wiz, which had the audience singing along to Mills’ soaring vocals and capturing the moment on their phones as she closed out her portion of the show. The most poignant moment, though occurred when Mills sang the verse, “And the love that we share can never / Never, ever be taken away,” while pointing directly at Khan.