June 3, 2009 – Koko Taylor was born Cora Walton on September 28, 1928 on a farm near Memphis, Tennessee. Her daddy was a sharecropper. She lived with her parents and five brothers and sisters in a “shotgun shack” with neither electricity nor running water. Although never professional singers, her parents used to sing enthusiastically while working the cotton fields, and she began to sing gospel in church. She also soaked up the blues played on local radio, which she and her siblings would surreptitiously perform with improvised home-made instruments, despite their father’s opposition.
By the time she was 11, both her parents had died and she too was forced to work in the cotton fields. But growing up, she and her five brothers and sisters had amused themselves by singing the blues, accompanying themselves on homemade instruments. (Their father did not discourage them, although he would have rather they sang gospel music.)
In 1952, Taylor and her soon-to-be-husband, the late Robert “Pops” Taylor, traveled to Chicago with nothing but, in Koko’s words, “thirty-five cents and a box of Ritz Crackers.” In Chicago, “Pops” worked for a packing company, and Koko cleaned houses. Together they frequented the city’s blues clubs nightly. Encouraged by her husband, Koko began to sit in with the city’s top blues bands, and soon she was in demand as a guest artist. Until then she said she gave little thought to pursuing a career in music.
In 1962 Willie Dixon, an very influential behind-the-scenes presence in Chicago blues, heard one of her impromptu performances and said, as she later recalled, “I never heard a woman sing the blues like you sing the blues.”
“He walked up and said: ‘Who are you recording for?’ and I didn’t know the meaning of the word,” she told Roots magazine in an interview.
Dixon took her to Chess Records, where he was a talent scout and producer, and wrote a number of songs for her, most notably “Wang Dang Doodle,” which she recorded despite her initial trepidation about its raunchy lyrics. It made her a regional star, reaching number four on the R&B charts.
Her initial stardom did not reach far beyond the geographic confines of Chicago or the demographic confines of the African-American audience but heavy touring in the late 1960s and early 1970s slowly improved her fan base. Backed by a youthful Buddy Guy on guitar, and with a stage name comprised of her newly-acquired marital status and a nickname recalling her love of chocolate, she gave Chess their last big hit with Wang Dang Doodle. The song brought her to national attention, and she began performing in clubs across America, including New York’s Apollo Theatre, releasing her debut album Love You Like A Woman in 1968.
Koko Taylor made a celebrated appearance in the 1970 film The Blues Is Alive and Well in Chicago and featured at Switzerland’s Montreux Jazz Festival and at the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival in Michigan in the early 1970s.
Chess Records, however, had gone into decline following the death of its founder in 1969, and Koko was eventually dropped from the roster. Although still recording for small local labels, she no longer had her own band and was forced to return to cleaning until she was featured on an album recorded at the Ann Arbor Festival for Atlantic Records. and producer Bruce Iglauer signed her to his nascent Alligator label.
Her first album for him, I Got What It Takes, was nominated for a Grammy and with her new band, Blues Machine, now 47 year old Koko embarked on a hard gigging schedule, and her career took off once again. She recorded eight more albums for Alligator over the next three decades, picking up seven more Grammy nominations, winning one in 1984 for her performance on the compilation Blues Explosion (Atlantic). Koko appeared in the films Wild At Heart, Mercury Rising and Blues Brothers 2000. She performed on Late Night With David Letterman, Late Night With Conan O’Brien, CBS-TV’s This Morning, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, CBS-TV’s Early Edition, and numerous regional television programs.
Over the course of her 40-plus-year career, Taylor received every award the blues world has to offer. On March 3, 1993, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley honored Taylor with a “Legend Of The Year” Award and declared “Koko Taylor Day” throughout Chicago. In 1997, she was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame. A year later, Chicago Magazine named her “Chicagoan Of The Year” and, in 1999, Taylor received the Blues Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2009 Taylor performed in Washington, D.C. at The Kennedy Center Honors honoring Morgan Freeman.
Koko Taylor was one of very few women who found success in the male-dominated blues world. It was in Chicago in the years after World War II that transplanted Southerners like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf added electric instruments and pounding backbeats to the raw rural blues of their youth, forging an aggressive new sound and building a thriving local scene. That scene was dominated by male performers, but with her brash, forceful vocal style and her enthusiastic stage presence, Koko Taylor made sure that its upper echelon had room for at least one woman. She took her music from the tiny clubs of Chicago’s South Side to concert halls and major festivals all over the world. Ms. Taylor was one of several singers over the years to be billed as Queen of the Blues, a title first bestowed on Bessie Smith in the 1920s. While there have been other blues queens, Ms. Taylor was the undisputed queen of the Chicago variety.
She shared stages with every major blues star, including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy as well as rock icons Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.
Performing at an awards ceremony in New York in 2003, she declared, “I’m 74, but I feel like I’m 19.” Taylor had undergone surgery for gastrointestinal bleeding but recovered fully and was performing again by the following spring. She maintained a schedule of close to 70 concerts a year and continued performing until just days before being hospitalized in May of 2009. Her last studio album, “Old School,” was released in 2007.
Taylor’s final performance was on May 7, 2009 in Memphis at the Blues Music Awards, where she sang “Wang Dang Doodle” after receiving her award for Traditional Blues Female Artist Of The Year.
She died from complications from gastrointestinal surgery on June 3, 2009 at age 80.
“Raucous, gritty, good-time blues….Taylor belts out blues in a gravel voice with ferocious intensity. Foot-stomping music that’s rough, raw and wonderfully upbeat.”
“Chicago’s best blues singer…she has fire in her lungs.”
“This seemingly ageless wonder pours her heart out with fire and emotion. Her singing is full of raw growls and grunts, her voice often building in intensity until it explodes.”
“One of the greatest female singers in R&B history.”
“Searing power and a steely emotional tautness …she radiates a warmth that borders on the spiritual; few performers in any genre are as capable as she is of generating genuine intimacy out of fervid house-rocking moments….a living treasure.”
“Koko Taylor will kick your butt up and down the room…raw, rompin’, stompin’, barn-burnin’ blues. Contemporary blues just don’t get any better than this.”
“Mother Nature’s got nothing on blues legend Koko Taylor.”
—SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER-CHRONICLE
“Raucous, raunchy, good humored Chicago-styled blues…she unleashed like a hurricane. She attacks her material like a pitbull, ripping through the lyrics with a vengeance.”
“Her punchy, hard-driving blues can still send El Nino-sized shivers through the atmosphere …. There may be no living artist who more palpably embodies the jolting, live-wire feel of Chicago blues than Koko Taylor….she is indeed a force of nature, putting her bluesy, blistering vocal signature on everything she touches.”
“Koko Taylor is the blues, a sweaty, growling goddess of down-and-dirty. Sheer, unstoppable shouting power, full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes. Rocking, good-time blues…booming, earthy grit.”
“When Koko Taylor cuts loose, she rattles the walls.”
—SAN FRANCISCO BAY GUARDIAN“
A howl, a growl and a full-throated fury that forms deep in her abdomen and reaches a roar by the time it hits her mouth.”
—DETROIT FREE PRESS