Born: Cora Walton on Sep 28, 1928 in Memphis, TN
Died: Jun 3, 2009 in Chicago, IL
Styles: Electric Chicago Blues, Regional Blues, Modern Electric Chicago Blues, Chicago Blues
Accurately dubbed "the Queen of Chicago blues" (and sometimes just the blues in general), Koko Taylor helped keep the tradition of big-voiced, brassy female blues belters alive, recasting the spirits of early legends like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Big Mama Thornton, and Memphis Minnie for the modern age. Taylor's rough, raw vocals were perfect for the swaggering new electrified era of the blues, and her massive hit "Wang Dang Doodle" served notice that male dominance in the blues wasn't as exclusive as it seemed. After a productive initial stint on Chess, Taylor spent several decades on the prominent contemporary blues label Alligator, going on to win more W.C. Handy Awards than any other female performer in history, and establishing herself as far and away the greatest female blues singer of her time.
Koko was born Cora Walton on September 28, 1928, on a sharecropper's farm in Memphis, TN. Her mother died in 1939, and she and her siblings grew up helping their father in the fields; she got the nickname "Koko" because of her love of chocolate. Koko began singing gospel music in a local Baptist church; inspired by the music they heard on the radio, she and her siblings also played blues on makeshift instruments. In 1953, Koko married truck driver Robert "Pops" Taylor and moved with him to Chicago to look for work; settling on the South Side, Pops worked in a slaughterhouse and Koko got a job as a housemaid. The Taylors often played blues songs together at night, and frequented the bustling South Side blues clubs whenever they could; Pops encouraged Koko to sit in with some of the bands, and her singing - which reflected not only the classic female blues shouters, but contemporaries Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf - quickly made a name for her. In 1962, Taylor met legendary Chess Records songwriter/producer/bassist Willie Dixon, who was so impressed with her live performance that he took her under his wing. He produced her 1963 debut single, "Honky Tonky," for the small USA label, then secured her a recording contract with Chess.
Taylor made her recording debut for Chess in 1964 and hit it big the following year with the Dixon-penned "Wang Dang Doodle," which sold over a million copies and hit number four on the R&B charts. It became her signature song forever after, and it was also the last Chess single to hit the R&B Top Ten. Demand for Taylor's live act skyrocketed, even though none of her follow-ups sold as well, and as the blues audience began to shift from black to white, the relatively new Taylor became one of the first Chicago blues artists to command a following on the city's white-dominated North Side. Eventually, she and her husband were able to quit their day jobs, and he served as her manager; she also put together a backing band called the Blues Machine. With the release of two albums - 1969's Koko Taylor, which featured a number of her previous singles; and 1972's Basic Soul - Taylor's live gigs kept branching out further and further from Chicago, and when she played the 1972 Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival, the resulting live album on Atlantic helped bring her to a more national audience.
By the early '70s, Chess Records was floundering financially, and eventually went under in 1975. Taylor signed with a then-young Chicago-based label called Alligator, which grew into one of America's most prominent blues labels over the years. Taylor debuted for Alligator in 1975 with I Got What It Takes, an acclaimed effort that garnered her first Grammy nomination. Her 1978 follow-up, The Earthshaker, featured several tunes that became staples of her live show, including "I'm a Woman" and "Hey Bartender," and her popularity on the blues circuit just kept growing in spite of the music's commercial decline. In 1980, she won the first of an incredible string of W.C. Handy Awards (for Best Contemporary Female Artist), and over the next two decades, she would capture at least one more almost every year (save for 1989, 1997, and 1998). 1981 brought From the Heart of a Woman, and in 1984, Taylor won her first Grammy thanks to her appearance on Atlantic's various-artists compilation Blues Explosion, which was named Best Traditional Blues Album. She followed that success with the guest-laden Queen of the Blues in 1985, which won her a couple extra Handy Awards for Vocalist of the Year and Entertainer of the Year (no "female" qualifier attached). In 1987, she released her first domestic live album, Live in Chicago: An Audience With the Queen.
Tragedy struck in 1988. Taylor broke her shoulder, collarbone, and several ribs in a van accident while on tour, and her husband went into cardiac arrest; although Pops survived for the time being, his health was never the same, and he passed away some months later. After recuperating, Taylor made a comeback at the annual Chicago Blues Festival, and in 1990 she issued Jump for Joy, as well as making a cameo appearance in the typically bizarre David Lynch film Wild at Heart. Taylor followed it in 1993 with the aptly titled Force of Nature, after which she took a seven-year hiatus from recording; during that time, she remarried and continued to tour extensively, maintaining the stature she'd achieved with her '80s work as the living Queen of the Blues. In 2000, she finally returned with a new album, Royal Blue, which featured a plethora of guest stars: B.B. King, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Johnnie Johnson, and Keb' Mo'. Health issues forced another seven-year hiatus before she returned with the album Old School in 2007. Koko Taylor died in Chicago in June 2009 after experiencing complications from surgery for gastrointestinal bleeding. She was 80 years old.
- Steve Huey (All Music Guide)
Koko Taylor sometimes spelled KoKo Taylor (born Cora Walton, September 28, 1928 - June 3, 2009)
Like an earthquake, firestorm, hurricane or tidal wave, Koko Taylor, the undisputed "Queen of the Blues,"erupts with the force of nature. Her gritty and powerful singing style combined with her total dedication to her songs is the true definition of soul. With her exuberant, good-time approach and her tough-as-nails band, she can make the reluctant dance and the quiet shout. Her last Alligator album, the Grammy-nominated FORCE OF NATURE (AL 4817), proves again why Rolling Stone has referred to her as "a legendary performer. "
Koko Taylor was born and raised on a sharecropper's farm in Memphis, Tennessee. She developed her love for music from a mixture of songs she heard in church and songs she heard on B.B. King's radio show. Even though she was encouraged by her father to sing only gospel music, Koko and her siblings would sneak out back with their homemade instruments and play the blues. With one brother on a guitar made out of bailing wire and nails and one brother on a fife made out of a corncob, Koko began her career as a blueswoman.
As a youngster, Koko listened to as many blues artists as she could. Big Mama Thornton and Bessie Smith were particular influences, as were Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson. She would play their records over and over again. Although she loved to sing, she never dreamed of joining their ranks.
When she was 18, Koko and her soon-to-be husband, the late Robert "Pops"Taylor, moved to Chicago to look for work. The couple set up house on the city's South Side, the cradle of the rough-edged sound of Chicago blues. Taylor found work cleaning house for a wealthy couple in the ritzy northern suburbs. At night and on weekends, Koko and Pops would visit the various clubs, where they would hear singers like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Magic Sam, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. It wasn't long before Taylor was sitting in with the various bands on a regular basis.
Taylor's big break came in 1962. After a particularly fiery performance, arranger/composer Willie Dixon approached her. Much to Koko's astonishment, he 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. "Dixon got Koko a Chess recording contract and produced several singles for her, including the million-selling 1965 hit, "Wang Dang Doodle,"that firmly established Koko as the world's number one female blues talent.
In 1972, Koko formed her own band, The Blues Machine. In 1975, after Chess closed its doors, Koko found a home with the city's newest blues label, Alligator Records. She recorded I GOT WHAT IT TAKES (AL 4706), which earned her a Grammy nomination. Since 1975, Koko's recorded six more albums for Alligator. THE EARTHSHAKER (AL 4711), FROM THE HEART OF A WOMAN (AL 4724), QUEEN OF THE BLUES (AL 4740), LIVE FROM CHICAGO - AN AUDIENCE WITH THE QUEEN (AL 4754), JUMP FOR JOY (AL 4784) and FORCE OF NATURE (AL 4817). She also appears on BLUES DELUXE (XRT 9301), THE ALLIGATOR RECORDS 20TH ANNIVERSARY TOUR (AL 107/8) and THE ALLIGATOR RECORDS CHRISTMAS COLLECTION (XMAS 9201). Other albums featuring Koko include B.B. King's new MCA release BLUES SUMMIT, Grammy-winner BLUES EXPLOSION (Atlantic), Paul Shaffer's COAST TO COAST (Capitol), and BASIC SOUL and KOKO TAYLOR on the famed Chess label.
Over the course of her illustrious 30-year career, Taylor has received just about every award the blues world has to offer and then some. She recently won her 14th W.C. Handy Award (the Grammy of the blues community), more than any other female blues artist. She's received Grammy nominations for six of her last seven Alligator recordings, and won a Grammy in 1984. One of Koko's favorite honors came on March 3, 1993. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley honored Taylor with a "Legend of the Year"Award, and declared the day "Koko Taylor Day"throughout Chicago. "This,"according to Koko, "was something else that I was really honored to have happen to me. "
And the list of achievements continues. Taylor made her silver screen debut as a lounge singer in the David Lynch (Blue Velvet) film, Wild At Heart. She performed at a Presidential inaugural event which featured nearly two dozen of the world's most prominent blues and r&b artists. And she made an appearance in front of an audience of four million people on The David Letterman Show. She's also been featured on CBS-TV's This Morning and Nightwatch, National Public Radio's All Things Considered and Crossroads, as well as on the Associated Press and United Press International newswires and in People Magazine and Entertainment Weekly. Most recently, she made a TV appearance on the Fox-TV police drama, New York Undercover, playing herself.
Taylor continues to play over 200 concerts a year. In 1993, she toured the United States with B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Lonnie Brooks and Junior Wells. When the Chicago Tribune referred to her as "the hardest working lady in show business today,"they had it right on the money. Despite her international reputation, she still isn't ready to rest on her laurels. "Everything I got,"says Koko, "I worked for. And I still have a long ways to go. "FORCE OF NATURE is not only the title of Taylor's latest album, it is an apt description of the energy and power that is the "Queen of the Blues. "
It's not easy being a woman succeeding in the male-dominated blues world, but Koko Taylor has done just that. She'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. Through good times and personal hardships, Koko Taylor has remained a steady force in the blues. "It's a challenge,"she says. "It's tough being out here doing what I'm doing in what they call a man's world. It's not every woman that can hang in there and do what I am doing today. "Indeed, and that's why there is just one "Queen of the Blues. "