By Mark Guarino
It’s not just her sledgehammer voice that earned Koko Taylor the title “Queen of the Blues,” it’s her stamina. Pick almost any weekend, and Taylor can be found performing as far as half way across the world, a long distance from her South suburban home, where she’d otherwise be playing with her grandkids.
“I come home two or three nights of getting rest and hey, I’m ready to do it again,” she laughs.
Taylor is 64 but she’s hardly slowing. She’ll roost awhile in her hometown this weekend, when headlining the Chicago Blues Festival Saturday night. Taylor has her first album in seven years to tout, “Royal Blue” (Alligator), but she is also in the midst of enjoying several career awards. Last year, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and just last month was given a W.C. Handy Award in Memphis for best traditional blues performer, an award she’s won 19 times. Then there’s her Grammy in 1984 and five subsequent nominations. She’s also in the midst of getting her club, “Koko Taylor’s Celebrity” off and running in the South Loop. And this week may be the oddest honor in her career: the Don Julio Gonzalez tequila company chose to donate $5,000 to the National Kidney Foundation in her honor.
It’s a far path for a former 18-year-old from the Memphis countryside who cleaned houses in Skokie and Wilmette for a living. Back then, Taylor had no interest in singing for a career. It was just something her two sisters and three brothers used to do far from their father’s earshot. He considered anything but gospel “devil’s music.” Her father was, to Taylor, “just a poor black man trying to raise six kids” on a sharecroppers farm. Their mother had died when they were young and he worked the plow, and chopped and picked cotton for a large farm. They had no electricity and no running water. Light came from gas lamps and bathtub water had to be pulled from a well and heated over a fire.
“It wasn’t an easy life but it was a good life,” she remembers. Her father’s favorite saying was “a little bit of something is better than a whole lot of nothing,” she remembers. “I always have been a great believer of that.”
Taylor, who was born Cora Walton, grew up listening to R&B singer Rufus Thomas spin records in Memphis and also B.B. King do the same across the river in Arkansas.
What the early century blues and soul recordings said to her at such an early age was simple: “this is a part of you,” she remembers. “It was my life.” In a way, Taylor says she discovered her own heritage, both as a black person from the South, and as a woman. The record that had the strongest impact was Memphis Minnie’s “Black Rat Blues.”
“That song stuck to my ribs,” she remembers. Sexy and confident, the song’s narrator tells her lover he’s a rat and she’s going to hunt him down and do some damage, a pretty strong statement for a woman at that time period and a perspective Taylor had never before heard.
“When I came to Chicago that’s all I could remember,” she says.
Taylor arrived in Chicago on a Greyhound bus in 1953, with her future husband, Robert “Pops” Taylor, who she wrote her first song for (“What Kind of Man Is This?”). She cleaned houses on the North Shore and on weekends, took part with the city’s then-thriving blues scene by visiting South and West Side clubs and hearing a wide array of performers including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Magic Sam.
She would sit in with some of the bands, but she also began writing songs, a talent that is overshadowed by her voice. “Royal Blue” includes four originals, all familiar blues themes, but written from the woman’s perspective.
Willie Dixon, who was a writer, arranger, bassist and independent producer for Chess Records, convinced her to write her own songs. His one criteria was clear: it should not be “about something stupid.” “You have to talk about things that are reality, everyday life,” Taylor remembers him saying.
Dixon hooked her up with Chess Records and ended up giving her what became her signature song, “Wang Dang Doodle” — after cleaning up the song’s racy language, of course.
Veteran Chess players backed her up, including Buddy Guy on guitar, and, in early 1965, it became a certifiable hit for the label that was nearing its end. Not that it mattered — Taylor soon became an early star for the new Alligator label in town and “Wang Dang Doodle” remains her signature song to this day.
Remarkably, Taylor also remains one of the few women in the mostly male-heavy blues world. “It’s no better today than it was then,” she says. Her songs detail life from a homemaker’s perspective, “but in a lively way,” she points out. New songs like “Hittin’ On Me” details spousal abuse and “Old Woman” offers the telling lyric, “I’m an old woman built on a young woman’s frame.”
No explanation is necessary. In concert, Taylor is a visual feast, a raucous performer whose voice is just as ferocious. Not many of her records capture can capture that in-person energy, although she tears up Melissa Etheridge’s “Bring Me Some Water” on “Royal Blue,” until it’s unrecognizable from the original.
Her husband, “Pops,” died in 1989 from injuries he sustained after a car accident. That was only one year after Taylor broke her collarbone when her tour bus ran off the road in Tennessee.
The experience haven’t necessarily stunted her energy, but she admits, there may be a time when she retires from such a road-weary schedule. She wants her new club, open six months already, to be a kind of home where she can encourage new singers who were just as naïve about their talent as she was. Then there’s her many grandchildren she’s like to spend more time with. Still remaining an original after 34 years can be tiring for sure, except for that precious time in front of an audience.
“Every time…I have a smile on my face,” she says. “Because I’m happy.”