Here is the press release issued by her label Alligator Records, earlier today:
Grammy Award-winning blues legend Koko Taylor, 80, died on June 3, 2009 in her hometown of Chicago, IL, as a result of complications following her May 19 surgery to correct a gastrointestinal bleed. On May 7, 2009, the critically acclaimed Taylor, known worldwide as the “Queen of the Blues,” won her 29th Blues Music Award (for Traditional Female Blues Artist Of The Year), making her the recipient of more Blues Music Awards than any other artist. In 2004 she received the NEA National Heritage Fellowship Award, which is among the highest honors given to an American artist. Her most recent CD, 2007’s Old School, was nominated for a Grammy (eight of her nine Alligator albums were Grammy-nominated). She won a Grammy in 1984 for her guest appearance on the compilation album Blues Explosion on Atlantic.
Born Cora Walton on a sharecropper’s farm just outside Memphis, TN, on September 28, 1928, Koko, nicknamed for her love of chocolate, fell in love with music at an early age. Inspired by gospel music and WDIA blues disc jockeys B.B. King and Rufus Thomas, Taylor began belting the blues with her five brothers and sisters, accompanying themselves on their homemade instruments. 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. One evening in 1962 Koko was approached by arranger/composer Willie Dixon. Overwhelmed by Koko’s performance, Dixon landed Koko a Chess Records recording contract, where he produced her several singles, two albums and penned her million-selling 1965 hit “Wang Dang Doodle,” which would become Taylor’s signature song.
After Chess Records was sold, Taylor found a home with the Chicago’s Alligator Records in 1975 and released the Grammy-nominated I Got What It Takes. She recorded eight more albums for Alligator between 1978 and 2007, received seven more Grammy nominations and made numerous guest appearances on various albums and tribute recordings. 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. She took her music from the tiny clubs of Chicago’s South Side to concert halls and major festivals all over the world. 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.
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.
Survivors include Taylor’s husband Hays Harris, daughter Joyce Threatt, son-in-law Lee Threatt, grandchildren Lee, Jr. and Wendy, and three great-grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements will be announced.
Koko Taylor is the great female blues singer of her generation. Raw vocal power and blustery swagger.”
– Rolling Stone
Koko Taylor is a national treasure…she packs firepower a lot of youngsters only wish they had.
– Chicago Tribune
Koko Taylor is the blues…a growling goddess of down-and-dirty. Sheer, unstoppable shouting power, full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes. There are many kings of the blues but only one queen. Koko’s voice is capable of pinning a listener to the back wall.
– Boston Globe
Raucous, gritty, good-time blues…Taylor belts out blues in a gravel voice with ferocious intensity. Foot-stomping music that’ rough, raw and wonderfully upbeat.
Chicago’s best blues singer…she has fire in her lungs.
Here is a rare, intimate audience with the Queen of the Blues that she gave me 15 years ago in her home to promote her then new album, “Force of Nature,” but which ended up becoming a reflection on a life in the blues, her Memphis roots, her migration to Chicago, and overall performing philosophy. This originally ran as a February, 1994 cover story of Spotlight, the entertainment section of the Press Publications chain of newspapers; Copyright 1994 Dennis Polkow. I found Koko Taylor to be one of the most fascinating and genuine artists and human beings that I ever met, and as a live performer, she was in a class by herself.
An Audience with the Queen: Koko Taylor keeps the blues torch burning brightly
By Dennis Polkow
Nail down the tables, Koko Taylor is back in town. “Don’t mess with Mother Nature,” she growls on the title track of her new Alligator album “Force of Nature,” ” ’cause you’ll be sorry if you do. /I’ll rain on your parade /and have to stomp all over you.”
That’s how the Grammy Award-winning Queen of the Blues has always delivered her blues gospel, down and dirty—with thunderbolts—and “Force of Nature” is no exception.
Yet talking to Koko while she’s relaxing in her south suburban living room, a very different, almost shy side of the artist is revealed. “I used to be very bashful,” she admits in a sweet, timid speaking voice that would never betray the stoking fire that burns within, released only when she is performing.
As if to blow the image completely, Koko is sitting on her plastic-covered bright red love seat, cuddling and cooing to her two-month old great-granddaughter, Raven Simone, named after the “Cosby” show character. “That little girl was always singing my song, ‘I’m a Woman,’ ” explains Koko. “It was hysterical.”
Hm. Looks like one blues singer who seems pretty happy to be singing the blues. “The blues ain’t about being sad,” corrects Koko. “A lot of people ask me about that. They think that because I sing the blues, I sing about my own everyday experience and things I have lived. It’s not like that at all. When I do songs, I’m doing songs purposely thinking about something that my fans and the people can listen to, dance to, or enjoy on an album. I do a tune because it’s a beautiful tune. You hear it and you like it because it’s a good song.”
Has Koko done songs that are autobiographical? “Every song has a meaning and tells a story, and that meaning is like a shoe: it fits somebody’s feet, but that don’t mean it has to be your feet or mine. But it fits somebody’s, somewhere.
“I have a song on the new album called ‘Don’t Put Your Hands On Me’ where I’m speaking for so many battered wives, mothers and women like that. It’s a message, and here I am delivering it. But I’m not singing from the experience of having been battered, I’m singing it because it’s a great song that has an important message.”
Indeed. Koko experienced one of the most exemplary marriages in show business, a 35-year marriage to Robert “Pops” Taylor, the man she describes as her “right arm.” “He was a wonderful person,” she says with a warm smile of remembrance. “He was my right arm all the way through and before my career. We was together through thick and thin, just like the vows we made: ‘until death do we part,’ and that’s just what we did. He died the 22nd of March, five years ago. And if he were still alive, he’d be right here in this house right now. We’d still be together.”
Koko is getting sentimental, and she catches herself. “But I have a beautiful family, believe you me, and we all live here together. When my husband passed away, I could’ve easily got me a condominium on the lakefront, but this is how I wanted it. We had this house built and me and my daughter, my son-in-law, and my two grandkids all live right here together. And my sister comes and stays on the weekends. In fact, the whole family is usually here: I’m the only one that’s a road runner. They call me a visitor around here. They say, ‘Grandma, you’ve decided to come visit us again,’ ’cause I’m gone all the time.”
The Queen of the Blues does keep up an extraordinary pace, a pace that would be the ruin of performers half her age. Even by Koko’s own conservative estimates, she is out on the road about nine months of the year. “Everybody says, ‘How do I do it?’ But it’s for the love that I have for the music, for my fans, and for my own enjoyment, because I love what I do. Being out there on stage and around people uplifts me. It keeps me energetic, it keeps me smiling, and really keeps me going. If I stop singing today or tomorrow, that means I’d be right here in this house doing the same thing every day. Making the bed, putting on the coffee pot, and I’d go crazy looking at this pink furniture every day.
“I could not hang in there like I’m doing if I didn’t love it because it’s not the easiest thing in the world to be away from home, family, friends, riding up and down the highway, sleeping in a different hotel bed every day, eating out of a different restaurant, stopping up and down the highway, running in and out. It ain’t easy.”
Yet Koko’s work is joyful, stereotypes of the blues aside. “Most people think of the blues as sad, drawn out, depressing music,” she says, “music to make you look down and feel bad about yourself. That’s not the issue at all, at least for myself and for my music.
“I’m not singing the blues because I’m sad or depressed, I sing the blues because I’m happy and have joy in what I’m doing. When I sing, I’m not satisfied to walk off a stage if I don’t feel that I have made other people out there happy and enjoy what I’m putting out while I’m on stage.
“I can always tell when people is really enjoying what I’m doing and having a great time. Even if there’s no dance floor, they’re applauding and standing. If they’re not enjoying it, they’ll just sit there and look at you.”
Does Koko consider her approach to the blues the exception or the rule? “Everybody is different and has their own style, but my style is designed to make people look up, get up, and pep up.
“I try to mix my tunes for a lot of moods for the listeners. There’s the blues fan that only wants to hear the traditional Mississippi Blues, and that’s fine. Somebody else may like the uptempo stuff that you can get up and dance to. Somebody else may like the soft, laid back ballads. If you notice, every album, every live show, has examples of each of these types of blues. I try to please every type of blues fan.”
These days, Koko is even doing “Hound Dog,” but hers is no watered-down cover version, but rather, a return of the song to its gut-bucket roots, done as only Koko Taylor could do it. “Well, why not?” she asks. “Big Mama Thorton did it before Elvis, and I thought it would be a nice tribute to both of them. The bottom line is it’s a good song.”
Like those artists, Koko was born and raised in Memphis, and grew up singing gospel. “My Daddy said that everybody in his house had to go to church whether they liked it or not, and that’s what we did. I started singing in a little gospel choir. Weekdays we would work in the field—I grew up on a sharecropper’s cotton farm—and it amounted to we’d sing gospel on Sunday, blues on Monday.
“Back in those days, it wasn’t all these electric guitars, bass, drums and all that. My Daddy had a rug board and also played the spoons. My oldest brother made him a guitar out of hay bell and wire by driving in some nails and setting six strings and it had a pretty nice sound. We couldn’t afford to buy nothin’.
“My second oldest brother made himself a harmonica out of a corncob, and I was the vocalist. I didn’t know what a microphone was, I just used my mouth and sang. We’d go behind the house and sing and jam and play for our own enjoyment.”
Koko got hooked on the blues from listening to Memphis deejay Rufus Thomas. “The first song that hooked me was called ‘Me and My Chauffeur Blues’ by Memphis Minnie: ‘You is one black rat /someday I’m gonna find your trail/ and when I do I’m gonna hide my shoes somewhere around your shirt tail,’ ” she laughs, recalling the verse. “That sung stuck to me, and I would sing that song behind the house with my brothers. I am a music freak and I like all music even today, but there was something about the blues that really stuck to my ribs, it was always something special to me. I could have been a different singer, doing soul or rock, or whatever. But blues is my choice and I love doing it.
“I listen to other music and listen to other bands, but it never tempts me to think, ‘I’m gonna leave the blues.’ My Daddy used to say, ‘Seek and ye shall find, stick with what you know, with what you believe in and what you love,’ and that’s what I’ve done.”
It wasn’t until Koko’s then Memphis boyfriend “Pops” Taylor decided to give up picking cotton and look for work “up North” that she entertained the idea of coming to Chicago. “We got on that Greyhound Bus and he had 35 cents in his pocket and I had a box of Ritz Crackers. That’s what we had all the way up to Chicago.
“When we got here, we didn’t know where we was gonna live, what we was gonna eat, what we was gonna do. He knew those two guys who helped get him a job at Wilson Packing Company and we went over to Indiana and got married right away, because I wasn’t intending to stay with him without being married.
“Then I got a job to with some rich white family up on the North Shore. They had kids and they would gave me a pile of clothes that they no longer wanted—people called ’em ‘hand me downs’—but to me, it seemed like I had just walked out of Marshall Field’s.”
On the weekends, Koko and Pops would go down to Chicago’s South Side blues clubs, “for our own enjoyment,” Koko explains. “A lot of the people we had heard on records—Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmo James, Magic Sam, were right here in Chicago. We loved it. Pops was a big talker and he’d say, ‘Yeah, man, my wife can sing. She’d love to sing.’ The guys got to know me and invited to come up and do a song. They would call me up and naturally, the more I’d get up there, the better I’d get. Then it got to where I wasn’t bashful no more. There was no money, no recording, nothing: just fun.”
One night when Koko was sitting in with the Howlin’ Wolf band, Willie Dixon came in and was bowled over by what she could do, claiming he had never heard a woman sing the blues like that.
“He asked me who I recorded for,” says Koko, “and I didn’t know what he was talking about. ‘Do you have a contract with anybody?’ ‘What is a contract?’ Finally, Pop took over and we went down to Chess Records the next day and did an audition for Leonard Chess who said, ‘Yeah, she’s got the voice that we’ve been looking for.’ ”
Dixon started to write songs for Koko right away, the first of which was “I Got What It Takes.” “Then he also taught me how to write songs, which I had never done,” Koko admits. “He told me to look around me at everyday life and that whatever I write about has to tell a story and the words have to rhyme. The only thing I knew was Pops, my husband, so I wrote about him.”
Soon Koko’s life was about to change in a big way. Dixon wrote her a song called “Wang Dang Doodle,” and insisted that she sing it, much to her protests. “I listened to it and thought, ‘Who’s all these people he’s taking about? It all sounded really silly to me, ‘Pistol-toddin’ Pete,’ but he kept sayin’, ‘Koke, this is gonna be a big song for you, I can feel it.’ He kept insisting I do it, and finally, I did. Well, I tell you: I’ve been trying to catch a fish that big ever since, and I still got my net out. In three weeks, it was the number one song across the country.”
Koko Taylor has been carrying the blues torch on a worldwide scale ever since, and hopes to continue on as she always as. “So many of the great ones are gone, now,” she laments, “it’s kind of scary. I feel sad when we lose Albert Collins, as we just did. And before that, Albert King. Not long before that, we lost Willie Dixon. It’s just back to back, so many of them passing away. Last week it was Johnny Littlejohn and Buddy Scott. And Valerie Wellington.
“I just keep doing the same thing, the same way, giving the whole of myself to the blues. I hope I’ll be around for a lot more years to keep it up because I’m enjoying every minute of it.”
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Author: Dennis Polkow
Dennis Polkow is an award-winning veteran journalist, critic, author, broadcaster and educator. He made his stage debut at age five, was a child art prodigy and began playing keyboards in clubs at the age of fourteen. He holds degrees in music theory, composition, religious studies and philosophy from DePaul University in Chicago. Polkow spent his early years performing and recording in rock and jazz bands while concertizing as a classical pianist, organist and harpsichordist and composing, arranging and producing for other artists. As a scholar, Polkow has published and lectured extensively and taught at several colleges and universities in various departments. As an actor, narrator and consultant, Polkow has been involved with numerous films, plays, broadcasts and documentaries. As a journalist, Polkow helped co-create the experiential Chicago Musicale and Spotlight, the award-winning tabloid arts and entertainment section of the Press Publications chain of newspapers, which he later edited. He also created and ran the nationally recognized journalism program at Oakton College and was faculty advisor to its award-winning student newspaper; many former students went on to major media careers, including Channel Awesome’s the Nostalgia Critic. Polkow’s research, interviews, features, reviews and commentaries have appeared across national and international media and he has corresponded from the Middle East, Asia and Africa for the Chicago Tribune. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org