Koko Taylor, “Queen of the Blues,” Dies at 80

by George Fish

African American blues artist Koko Taylor, given the sobriquet “Queen of the Blues” for her regal bearing and gritty, powerful voice, died June 3, 2009 at Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital of complications from surgery for gastro-intestinal bleeding on May 19. She was undoubtedly the leading female blues singer of the 1980s and 1990s, and winner of many awards for her artistry, including a Grammy, and holds the record for number of Blues Music Awards received. Her 1965 million-seller for Chess Records, “Wang Dang Doodle,” became her signature song, and has gone into blues history as an undoubted classic, although it was far from being her only notable recording.

She was born Cora Walton on September 28, 1928, in Shelby County, Tennessee, the daughter of sharecroppers. Her family gave her the nickname “Koko” because of her love of chocolate. She grew up hearing the gospel music of her church, and the blues from nearby Memphis radio, and chose the blues. She moved to Chicago in 1952 with her future husband Robert “Pops” Taylor, and found work as a domestic for a rich white family. She spoke of her life as a domestic with typical down-to-earth aplomb: “I spent a lot of time on my knees. And I don’t mean prayin’. I mean scrubbin’ people’s floors.”

In the late 1950s she started singing in the Chicago blues clubs, sitting in with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. She was heard by famed bluesman/Chess A&R man Willie Dixon, who signed her to Chess in 1962. He was struck by her unique, heavy voice, which not everyone appreciated. As she said to him at their first meeting, “I can sing but every time I go to somebody and sing, they tell me they don’t like this growl, that heavy part of her voice.” But it was precisely that heavy growl that gave her traditional blues styling a distinctive voice that stood out over an active career that went from the 1960s until her last performance at the Blues Music Awards on May 7, 2009, and that influenced younger blueswomen. Among them Bonnie Raitt, Janis Joplin, Shemekia Copeland, Shannon Curfman and Susan Tedeschi.

Her first Chess record was “I Got What It Takes” in 1964, a now-considered classic that featured Buddy Guy and Robert Nighthawk on guitars, and Big Walter Horton on harp. Taylor originally didn’t want to record her second Chess 45, “Wang Dang Doodle,” because she considered it risqué, but finally relented. “Wang Dang Doodle” was a Willie Dixon-penned number that had been a hit for Howlin’ Wolf a few years earlier, and is a truly memorable recording, with Dixon joining Taylor on the chorus, excellent guitar (probably by Hebert Sumlin), and a sax solo—truly blues that rocks and rock ‘n’ roll with a touch of the blues.

Although recording a number of singles and two albums for Chess, Koko Taylor came to the label just as its fortunes were turning, and “Wang Dang Doodle” was Chess’s last Top 10 R&B hit. Blues was changing at this time: no longer the favored pop music of African Americans, for many of whom it reminded of the “bad old days,” its appreciation by white people as an authentically roots art form was just beginning. At this time, the mid-1960s, electric music that sounded similar to rock ‘n’ roll was still looked down upon by the folk aficionados—after all, the success of “Wang Dang Doodle” came at the same time as the folkies’ furor over Bob Dylan’s folk-rock, with the Beatles consigned to the “teenagers’ music” artistic wastebasket.

But Koko Taylor toured extensively during the late 1960s and early1970s, building up her fan base, and her appearance at the 1972 Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival was recorded by Atlantic. She signed with Bruce Iglauer’s fledgling blues label, Alligator Records, in 1975, where she stayed till the end. She made nine albums for Alligator, eight of them Grammy-nominated, and received a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album in 1985. She won the Howlin’ Wolf Award in 1996, was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1997, received the Blues Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999, received a National Endowment of the Arts National Heritage Fellowship in 2004, and holds the record for the number of Blues Foundation’s annual Blues Music Awards received.

Other notable songs by Taylor include “I’m A Woman,” her re-write from an affirmative woman’s view of Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man.” Her also-penned “Gonna Buy Me A Mule” was named Blues Song of the Year by the Blues Foundation in 2007. “Don’t Put Your Hands On Me” was another one of her songs, a no-nonsense standing-up to an abusive man.

Another notable woman singer of the blues, Janiva Magness, sums up the importance of blueswomen like Koko Taylor:

Some say the “Blues ain’t nothin’ but a bad woman feeling good.” Those were words spoken about Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and a host of other hard living women. Folks today might call them Hussies. Bold and outspoken, controversial, brazen, rule breaking women who own their own ground.

Hussies. Women who won’t be bound by social conventions—not for long, anyway. Hussies. We laugh hard and cry harder. We love loud, weep and moan, rage and wail till the sun rises, never give up and after that just try again. Both feet in the river, the water rising, while the tide pulls and pushes us thru life. That makes me one. Hussy. Not afraid of my age, my sexuality, my truth. Most of my girlfriends are Hussies too. This… is dedicated to all the Hussies, young, old and in between. Here’s hoping you got at least one in your life, either living next door, down the street, in your own house… or maybe even inside.

That applies to the music of Koko Taylor just as it applies to all the other women of the blues; and that’s why blues artists such as Koko Taylor remain vital and positive for socialists and radicals of all colors, for African Americans, and for feminists. Magness says truly what it’s all about, what’s at the heart and core—we are (or should be) all Hussies now!

George Fish is a member of Solidarity in Indianapolis, IN. He also blogs for the BLOOMINGTON ALTERNATIVE.