10 Questions for Koko Taylor
by Bob Putignano
Goldmine Magazine 04/15/05
Over the course of her almost 40+ year career, KokoTaylor has received just about every award the blues world has to offer and then some. She has won 19 (and counting) W.C. Handy Awards (more than any other female blues artist). She’s received Grammy nominations for six of her last seven Alligator albums, and won a Grammy in 1984. A major feather in her cap came on March 3, 1993, when Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley honored Taylor with a “Legend Of The Year” Award, and declared “Koko Taylor Day” throughout Chicago. In 1998, Chicago Magazine named her “Chicagoan Of The Year,” and in 1999, Taylor was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall Of Fame. Rolling Stone called her “the great female blues singer of her generation.”
Koko’s taken her music from the tiny clubs on the South Side of Chicago to giant festivals around the world. She’s appeared on national television numerous times and has even been the subject of a PBS documentary. Indeed, Koko Taylor is the preeminent blues woman in the world. And that’s why she is – and will remain – the undisputed Queen Of The Blues.
Bob P: Hi Koko. You are originally from Mississippi not far from Memphis right?
Koko: That is correc. I worked the cotton fields picking cotton, and pulling corn. Got most of my early experiences from singing in them cotton fields, and listening to BB King’s Memphis radio show. You know BB was very popular back then, both as regional performer and for his radio program, everybody around Memphis listened to his program!
Bob P: Were you a star in Memphis, and did you play much around there?
Koko: Just in the cotton fields, (laughs). I did not perform nor record in the south until several years later, when we moved north.
Bob P: When did you come to Chicago?
Koko: About fifty years ago. Took the Greyhound from Memphis to Chicago, my husband and I were tired of working the fields. Well let me tell you, I thought I died and went to heaven. Big lights, and a big city, I never saw anything like that, and we had running water and electricity, you know stuff we did not have in Mississippi. But it wasn’t that easy in the big city either, we did have to struggle.
Bob P: Did it take you long to get noticed as a singer in Chicago?
Koko: We went to go see Willie Dixon play on the South side, and some of friends told me to go up and sing with him, I was so shy! Willie called me up, and I will never forget the song I sang, it was a Tina Turner song called “I Idolize You”. Well everyone loved it, and Willie told me he wanted to record me. Being a country girl, I asked Willie what does record me mean? I had no idea! (Laughs). He just told me to meet him on South Michigan Ave at the Chess Studios, and you know the first song we did was Willie’s “Wang Dang Doodle” and it wound up being my only major hit single! A nice way to start for sure, but it wasn’t all roses thereafter, not until many years latter. Leonard Chess gave me a lot of encouragement though, told me that I had the voice they were looking for, and Willie was also very kind to me until the day he passed.
Bob P: Chicago was a hotbed for the blues when you arrived, that must have been something seeing all the greats like Muddy, Buddy, The Wolf, Magic Sam, Junior Wells and so many others performing around the South and West Sides of the windy city?
Koko: Oh yeah, we were one big happy family of friend’s, It was tough though, not easy to keep busy, and pay the bills. I hope you got to see the Wolf perform, he was really something, always loved him. We all worked hard though, and hung in there. You know I still think about those early days, and how it gave many of us a lot of strength to become something. I was very fortunate to be accepted by many fans on record and in performance, and got to travel the world sharing my music.
Bob P: You recorded for Chess, and for Alligator, did I miss any other labels?
Koko: Nope, just Chess and Alligator’s been it for me. I have been with Alligator for thirty-three years, and I am very happy. Besides should anything happen with me and Alligator, I know where Bruce Iglauer lives, it’s not far from my home, and I will just sit up on his front door until we work something out. (Laughs). Not that it looks like anything like that will happen, Bruce has been good for me, and I think he feels the same about me. So it’s going to be Koko and Alligator from now until the end of time!
Bob P: And what do you think of Alligator and its many stars who record for the label?
Koko: It’s a great label, afforded me to win a Grammy, and many other awards. Bruce really cares about the music, his artists, and the blues!
Bob P: There are quite a few great women singing and recording at Alligator these days.
Koko: Oh yeah, I love Shemekia Copeland, I wish there were more young folks like her recording and singing the blues, as we have to keep the young people involved. I enjoy all that Marcia Ball is doing too, and now I hear Bruce signed Mavis Staples, and the record is selling really, really strong! But you know, people like myself and Mavis (another Chicago resident) aren’t going to be around forever, and that is why Shemekia is so important! Alligator needed to re-tool and make some changes and that’s why I am so happy with the past successes with Shemekia and Marcia. It’s really a big shot in the arm to see Mavis taking off again and selling all of those CD’s for herself and Alligator! And please tell your radio listeners and Goldmine readers that I am planning to go back and record a new CD next year, so look out!
Bob P: Recently you had some physical setbacks, would you mind talking about them?
Koko: I was hospitalized for about four months, it was rough, but I am starting to feel real good now. So I am getting back out there, I did New York City in August, and actually I just played right here in Chicago last night, and it was big fun for me, felt real good too.
Bob P: Any last words Koko?
Koko: Well yeah, hmmmm………. My voice and the good fortunes I have had have truly been a blessing. I am so grateful for all that I have been able to do for my fans. It’s also a blessing to grow old enough to look back, reflect and still enjoy what I do. I still have a lot of will and desire to keep going, and I will!
Radio Host WFDU’s “Sounds of Blue”
President of the NY Blues and Jazz Society