Born: September 28, 1928 in Bartlett TN
Died: June 3, 2009 in Chicago IL
The undisputed "Queen of the Blues" for better than thirty years, Koko Taylor may well be the last in a line of female blues shouters that began with Bessie Smith and runs through Big Mama Thornton. Possessing a powerful, raw, larger-than-life voice and enormous onstage charisma, Taylor ran up a string of blues and R&B hits during the 1960s and remained a popular live draw well into the new millennium. Taylor's style has become the blueprint for all other female (and more than a few male) blues singers to follow.
The Sharecropper's Daughter
Born Cora Walton on a sharecropper's farm outside of Memphis, Tennessee, her mother died when Taylor was just 11 years old. Taylor often worked in the fields with her father and five brothers and sisters, and received her nickname "Koko" because of her love of chocolate. Like many modern era blues singers, Taylor began by singing gospel music in the church, but picked up her love of the blues after hearing artists like Memphis Minnie and Bessie Smith on the radio.
When she was 18, Taylor married Robert "Pops" Taylor, who would be her manager and companion for 37 years. The pair moved to the South side of Chicago in 1954 with, in Taylor's words, nothing but "35 cents and a box of Ritz crackers." Koko took a job cleaning houses and Robert worked in a slaughterhouse, the two of them singing blues in area clubs at night and on weekends.
Queen Of The Blues
In Chicago, it wasn't long before Taylor began sitting in with the royalty of Chicago blues, performing onstage alongside popular artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Buddy Guy. After years of club work, Taylor was "discovered" in 1963 by the great bluesman Willie Dixon, who told her "my God, I never heard a woman sing the blues like you sing the blues. There are lots of men singing the blues today, but not enough women. That’s what the world needs today, a woman with a voice like yours to sing the blues."
Taylor's association with Dixon would prove to be fruitful for both artists; Dixon secured a deal for Taylor with Chess Records and produced a string of singles and a pair of albums for the singer. Taylor scored a major hit with Dixon's "Wang Dang Doodle," the single eventually selling over a million copies and rising to number four on the R&B charts in 1966. The song would become Taylor's signature tune.
The Alligator Years
Taylor became one of the first Chicago blues performer to cross over to a white audience, and as she moved further outside of the Chicago area to perform, her popularity grew even larger. An appearance at the 1972 Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival was captured by a live compilation album released by Atlantic Records, introducing a national audience to Taylor's talents.
With Chess on the ropes by the mid-1970s, Taylor signed with Bruce Iglauer's young Alligator Records imprint, knocking her label debut, I Got What It Takes, out of the ballpark and earning Taylor her first Grammy nomination. The association with Alligator has proven to be a successful one, Taylor recording eight more albums for the label, earning five more Grammy™ nominations and a win. Through the years, Taylor has also won more W.C. Handy/Blues Music Awards than any other artist.
Taylor overcame poverty, tragedy, and physical infirmity to become one of the most popular blues singers in the world, male or female. Her dynamic live performances and recordings have influenced countless young musicians, including artists like Bonnie Raitt, Shemekia Copeland, and Susan Tedeschi.
Recommended Albums: Alligator's Deluxe Edition offers 15 of Taylor's best performances for the label and includes guest appearances by B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Carey Bell, and others. For fans wanting to go deeper, What It Takes: The Chess Years is a fine collection of Taylor's 1960s-era singles and includes songs from the singer's two Willie Dixon-produced albums.