QUEEN OF THE BLUES:
KOKO TAYLOR TALKS ABOUT HER SUBJECTS
by James Plath
first published in Clockwatch Review (a journal of the arts) 9: 1-2 (1994-95): 117-31
Though titles like "Queen of the Blues" are always suspicious, Koko Taylor has won 15 W.C. Handy awards over her thirty-year music career--more than any other female blues performer. And though Taylor can't recall and the Blues Foundation, which hands out the awards, can't confirm when she received her first recognition, her bio in Contemporary Musicians lists 1983 as the year she received her first W.C. Handy.
Taylor hasn't won a Grammy for a solo album, but she's been nominated eight straight years. And she did win one for Best Blues Recording along with Stevie Ray Vaughan for Blues Explosion in 1984. She's big in the city of big shoulders, where she makes her home on the suburban South Side. Last year, Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley proclaimed March 3rd "Koko Taylor Day." This past year, she was named W.C. Handy Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year for her most recent album, Force of Nature.
Born Cora Walton on September 28, 1935 to a sharecropper's family in Memphis, Tennessee, Taylor's love for music grew out of the songs she'd sing working in the cotton fields during the week, and in a Baptist church choir on Sundays. Her family--Willie and Annie Mae Walton and three brothers, two sisters (Koko was the youngest)--apparently loved music. Her oldest brother made a guitar out of hay baling wire, and a younger brother made a harmonica out of a corncob. Koko, who, according to folklore, got her nickname because of a fondness for chocolate, was the vocalist. The family also had a radio on which she used to avidly listen to deejay Rufus Thomas, out of Memphis, and B.B. King, who at that time was a deejay playing the blues in West Memphis, Arkansas.
Taylor's mother died when she was only four, and her father by the time she turned eleven. She left school in the sixth grade, not to return until years later, when she would attend night school for a time in Chicago.
Her career had its beginnings in 1953, when she went north with Robert "Pops" Taylor, a cotton trucker twelve years her senior, whom she met in Memphis and married in Chicago that same year. By day, she worked cleaning houses in wealthy northern suburbs for five dollars a day; her husband, meanwhile, worked in a slaughterhouse. With "Pops" playing guitar and Koko singing, they went to the rowdy South and West Side neighborhood "juke joints," where they often sat in with the performers. The first songs she ever sang onstage, she told Living Blues magazine and the Chicago Tribune, were "I Idolize You," an old Tina Turner song, and "Make Me Feel Good, Kiddio," by Brook Benton--the only two songs she knew.
After her first record, cut for the USA label in 1963, did little to launch her career, she met bluesman Willie Dixon, who'd produced a number of hit albums for Chess Records. Dixon talked her into recording his "Wang Dang Doodle" for Chess in December 1965, a recording which turned out to be Taylor's theme song of sorts and the famed label's last big hit. "Wang Dang Doodle" was widely played on black radio stations during the sixties, and Taylor soon found herself playing southern "gigs" with Jimmy Reed. Shortly thereafter, in 1967, she toured Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival, and became an instant hit with European blues fans. Since then, a European tour has been a regular part of Taylor's musical year.
But Willie Dixon did more than engineer Taylor's first big break. He also urged her to write her own music. The first song she wrote, "What Kind of Man Is This?" was a tribute to Pops, her husband, friend, promoter, and producer for thirty-five years--written in 1964 while she was pregnant with their first child. Taylor's subsequent musical growth would eventually lead her away from Chess in 1972, the year she formed her own band, The Blues Machine. Three years later, when Chess went out of business, Taylor signed with Alligator RecordsÑthe Chicago label which has since become the biggest blues label in the nation. There she produced a string of award-winning albums. Now, by her own admission, she's "the only woman out there singing the old, traditional Mississippi blues."
Devoted to her fans, Taylor often hosts poolside barbeques for them in the backyard of her fairly new, split-level home. And fans showed their devotion by lavishing Taylor with care and attention after her tour bus went over a cliff in Tennessee in 1988, and the singer was severely injured. Another low point (and outpouring of support from fans) came in 1989, when, on March 22, "Pops" Taylor died as a result of injuries sustained in a car accident.
But Koko Taylor continues to move forward. In 1990, she made her film debut, playing a lounge singer in the David Lynch film Wild At Heart. In between performing 200 concerts during a typical year, she still finds time to make appearances on NPR, The David Letterman Show, and other shows.
I interviewed her at her South Side Chicago home when she was between tours, having recently completed a swing through Texas and the Carolinas, and looking ahead to successive tours of the Midwest and both coasts. My car had broken down, and so I was driving a 12-passenger van rented from Illinois Wesleyan University. Taylor was watching out her front door as I parked the oversized beast in front of her neatly manicured lawn. After welcoming me into her home, she showed me the kitchen, dining room, and living room, asking where I'd like to do the interview. "Kitchen," I told her. It wasn't much of a decision, since her living and dining rooms were done in red velvet French Provincial furniture, each piece covered with clear, protective plastic. On the walls of both rooms were large oil paintings of Taylor, while the only kitchen wall without cabinets was dominated by the largest mirrored clock I've ever seen. Leaning against the wall in her living room behind a chair were a number of awards she had won, waiting, apparently, to be hung on the walls or taken to the basement which contains many of the honors she has received.
The singer, dressed in a purple jumpsuit with scarf, introduced me to her daughter, "Cookie," and one of her two grandchildren, offered me a cola, and, seated around her kitchen table, we began to chat.
Clockwatch Review Interviews The Blues Page
CLOCKWATCH: Some articles and Who's Whos indicate that you were born in 1938, while others say 1935.
TAYLOR: Now . . . when was I born (laughs). Why don't we go with '38.
CLOCKWATCH: Then in 1953, when it's generally acknowledged that you came to Chicago, you would have been only fifteen ?
TAYLOR: Well, the truth is, I came to Chicago when I was eighteen years old, but the truth is, as long as we talkin', I might as well tell you that most womens don't like to tell their age. And I'm one of them that don't, because usually as a whole they say the truth will set you free. But sometimes, the truth will mess you up if you talkin' about they age (laughs), so I just wanted to make that statement. You know, I just did a new CD on Alligator, Force of Nature, and there's one song that I wrote myself and it's titled "I'm Your 63 Year Old Mama." And everybody talk to me or say anything about that song, the first thing they headline is, I'm sixty-three years old. And, really, it made me feel like I wished like I hadn't wrote that song. And this is the truth, because they want to title that with my age, you know what I'm sayin'? I don't get upset about it or anything, but I just don't especially feel like my age has to go all over the world in every part and every detail (laughs).
CLOCKWATCH: In another interview you talked briefly about being the daughter of sharecroppers in Memphis, Tennessee.
TAYLOR: Yes, that's very true. My father, my mother were sharecroppers, if you know what that means. They were people that lived in the country on a cotton farm and this is what we did as us kids grew up. We grew up workin' in the cotton field, pickin' cotton, choppin' cotton, or gardening--hogs, cows, chickens, and all this kind of carryin' on. But it was a good life, growin' up in the country, it was one that I enjoyed, one that I always remember and refer to. In a lot of ways I miss that. But we was a poor family. We was a family that, you know, my father and mother, they didn't have nothin', but they always said, "Money is not everything. What's really's important if a family has love. Where there is love, there's richness," and I always felt very rich because we had a family of love. And even right today, without my mother and father, I have a family here with my daughter, my son in-law, my two grandkids--now I got a brand new great grand-baby in the family--and, I mean, it's plenty love. We still don't have nothing, we still poor, but we loves each other and we have each other to embrace. And I feel very proud of that, because there's a lot of people that I meet out here on the road . . . .
I talk to people. People come up and talk to me. I was down in Charlotte, North Carolina just a week ago, and this lady came up to me and she say, "Could you sing a song for me?" she say, "And I don't know what to tell you to sing." She say, "I just know that I'm very depressed." She say, "I don't have nobody." She say, "I don't think it's nobody in the world really loves me or care about me." She say, "So if you could just find a song that might would help me," she say, "I would appreciate it." So I did this song, "I'd rather Go Blind." When I finished, she came over to me and she was cryin'. Now, I didn't know what to sing. I was gonna sing "I'd Rather Go Blind" anyway; even if she hadn't said nothin' to me, I was gonna do this song. She came over to me and the lady was cryin' and she say, "That song that you sung, it fitted my predicament," she say, "and it really touched my heart." She say, "How did you know that's what I wanted you to sing?" And I told her, I said, "I didn't know what you wanted me to sing, but every song that I do, I try to do something that will reach out to someone, touch someone, because this is how I feel, and this is how I want it to be."
In other words, my career, my singin', a lot of people ask me, "What is the blues? What does your music mean to you?" To me, my music is like a therapy. My music is healin', you know? It's healin', it's therapy, it's encouragement. I try to sing the type of songs that make people happy. I try to sing a song that's gonna touch somebody, to make them look up, pep up, feel good about themselves, encourage them--have a lyric that will encourage them in some way or another--and that's what this song did to this lady. And I was so touched by what she said, how I made her feel, until I almost had tears in my eyes, because I feel good when I feel like I have did somethin' to help somebody--if it's no more than make them feel happy or feel wanted, or feel loved, or feel that somebody, somewhere, really care for them. And these are the type of things that keep me going strong, keep me influenced with my fans and with younger people and older people.
CLOCKWATCH: Your kind of blues are certainly upbeat. There's not much of the ponderous 12-bar, keep-it-slow blues in your music.
TAYLOR: Well, I tell you. I try to do them all. I will not record a whole album of CD and I will not do a complete live show without doin' some of all. I do fast, up-tempo tunes, and also I do slow tunes. But I always felt like it's nobody in an audience nowhere . . . say for instance there's three hundred people sitting here. I never felt like of those three hundred people, all of them wants to hear slow, old, traditional Mississippian blues. And at the same time, I don't feel like three hundred people all wants to hear a "Wang Dang Doodle" or a "Hey, Bartender!" or "Let the Good Time Roll," you know what I'm saying? So, I try to base my show on a fast tune, because here is somebody in the audience that likes blues, but they like up-tempo music. At the same time, here is somebody else like blues, but they like ballads. They want somethin' that's kind of soft, laid-back, like "That's Why I'm Crying," or "I'm Walking the Backstreet," or "I'd Rather Go Blind." You know, these type of tunes. Then there's somebody else in the same audience that likes blues, but they just like the old, traditional blues like "I'm a Woman," or "Baby, Please Don't Dog Me," you know what I'm saying? Or "I Cried Like a Baby." Now, this means I have did somethin', hopefully, that will please and reach out to everybody in the audienceÑwhich is hard to do, to please everybody--but I always end up tryin'.
CLOCKWATCH: You grew up singing in a church choir on Sundays and singing the blues in cotton fields during the week. Could you talk about what you got from each kind of music, or what types of things you did, what your days were like?
TAYLOR: You see, my daddy said, "Everybody in this house, whether you like it or not, we goin' to church today. Today's Sunday, we goin' to church." So, because I grew up goin' to church, grew up in gospel, naturally that put a different reflection on me and on my life, and I'm very thankful today for that lifestyle, because instead of goin' somewhere, gettin' into somethin' bad or doin' something that maybe some other kids are doin' that wasn't in church on Sunday, I didn't have that opportunity. And living in the gospel taught me to love, it taught me the pleasure and the great things about life. It taught me about helpin' other people, carin' for other people, respectin' other people. It taught me bein' honest, because that was all in the church; they would read scriptures where they said, "Thou shall not steal." We was always taught that it's wrong to steal. I don't even want to know that you stole a piece of bubble gum from somebody else, I don't want to know that you went to school and took somebody's pencil, and you know that pencil didn't belongs to you, and if it don't belongs to you, you stealin', if they didn't give it to you. So, bein' brought up in a house of gospel, it was a therapy to me, it was teaching, learning, it was caring, learning to share, and that has followed me all the way through my life.
CLOCKWATCH: What about the gospel music spoke to you?
TAYLOR: The gospel music spoke to me just as I'm tryin' to explain it now. This is how the gospel music spoke to me. It spoke to me in my heart that these things is different from all of the other worldly things--you know, the right way and the wrong way, and there's a separation between this. This is what the gospel music did for me. It was a teaching, it was a learning, it was a leader. And it's somethin' that stayed in my mind that I always followed, and I always thought about it. Even today, my mind focus back on church. Even today, if I'm not on the road--if I'm home as much as two weeks, especially like on a weekend--I will get up and get dressed and go to church, because I still have that background in my mind that somewhere down the line it makes we want to go to church, it makes we want to be with the spiritual, gospel, singin', prayin', and worshippin' God.
Now, a lot of folks might say, how can she say that, and she's singing the blues? I am not one of those people that straddle the fence, and I am not one of those pretenders. I'm not pretending to be one of those great religious people now that's a big deal in the church, and yet I'm singing the blues. I'm not professing to be one of those kind of people. But what I'm sayin' is, because I still like church and I like certain things about it, means I still go to church once in a while. I'm not active in church or anything like that, but I just like to go.
All music started and comes from blues music. That was the beginning of all music--country, western, jazz, rock, pop, and all of that. You see what I'm saying? But then, gospel is also a beginning of music. The gospel music in my heart is like a foundation, it's like somethin' I can always fall back on, and it's always a guiding to me. You know, I think about this day after day and night after night and still sing my blues at the same time.
CLOCKWATCH: What was that little church like that you went to, where you first sang? When I was in a choir as a youngster, I found it very easy to feel an intensity about the music, because of the spiritual nature of whole thing. It's easy to feel yourself almost lifting right off the ground as you're singing.
TAYLOR: That's exactly how I felt. I feel like, to sing gospel, it uplift me, you know? It made me feel like a feather. I felt light, I felt consolidated, I felt like I was reborn. It's like a new person. It's havin' a battery charge. When I go to church and sing, shout, feel good about what we sung about today, it's like gettin' a battery charge, and this battery charge would carry me for weeks and days until I'm back in church again. And this is how I felt. I felt good about it.
The church that I attended was just a little old country Baptist church. That's all it was. It wasn't nothin' beautiful. It wasn't nothin' fancy. It wasn't nothin' pretty. And it was nobody there that was dressed up in expensive, fancy clothes to show off. Because that's why a lot of people go to church today, is to show off how dressed up they can be, or how good they can look, or what the most expensive car they can ride, and they got to go and show it off. But I've always felt like it's not the outside appearance, but it was from the heart, and that's what I got out of goin' to church, was what the pureness that I had in my heart.
CLOCKWATCH: Do you remember any of the songs that you sang back in those days?
TAYLOR: Yeah, I do. You wanna know? One of the songs that we sung at church--they probably sound very old and old-fashioned now, because most churches today don't sing these kind of songs--but anyway, one of the songs was, it went like (sings): "Glory, Glory . . . Hallelujah . . . when I laid my . . . burden down." You know? That type of song. What else? Another song, not long ago one of my fans passed away in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and her husband wanted me to sing at her funeral. And, I didn't mind doin' it at all, but yet, I couldn't figure out why he wanted me to sing at this funeral. And he said that she remembered me talkin' about the old hymn-songs that I would sing. And he wanted me to sing this particular song, because she loved hearing me sing it around the hotel, you know? They would come to my hotel room sometime, and I wasn't exactly just singin'. You know how sometimes you sing just a word or two of a song? I wish I could remember it now, but I can't. Maybe I'll think of it later. But anyway, those are the kind of songs we sang in church.
CLOCKWATCH: What about in the fields? We hear about people working in cotton fields, but never any details. What was it like?
TAYLOR: Rough, hard, that's what it was like. It was hard. When we worked in the field it was like in the summertime. The summertime in Memphis, Tennessee was like a day in August in Florida. You know what that's like, because you know it's hot in December in Florida. Now, we out there in the hot sun and the sun is comin' down like a hundred degrees, shinin' on us, no shade, no nothin' over us. We're just out there humped over, pickin' cotton or standin' up choppin' cotton with a hoe. It wasn't nothin' easy, it wasn't nothin' to rejoice over or be proud of--I can tell you that much. It was hard work, and also it was work that we didn't get paid for. Because, what we did was, like I say, we was living on this sharecropper's farm, and what we made went to the man that owned the cotton field. And we just worked. And my daddy got paid once a year. At the end of the year, when we get through choppin' cotton, pickin' cotton, then the cotton would go to what they call the gin mill, and they total up how much money was made and this and that and whatever, and we didn't have no jurisdiction over how much was made. The man that we was livin' on his farm, he would tell us what we made, and that was no money--that was like two barrels of flour, a great big barrel. He would give us like two barrels of flour, meal, and one of those great big buckets--like about a five or ten gallon bucket--of rice, molasses. Today people in the city call it syrup, but we called it sorghum molasses, which was the same thing. So this is what we would get out of workin' all the year. I mean, it was like slavery, and like I say, we didn't have no money, we didn't have no fancy clothes. And I remember a lot of days we would sit down and sew with a needle--I don't mean on no sewin' machine--and we would make dresses out of flour sacks. If we wanted a new dress, that's how we got it.
CLOCKWATCH: In the cotton fields, would you actually sing while you were working?
TAYLOR: Yeah, sometimes we'd be goin' up and down a row of cotton, choppin' or pickin', either one--me and my brothers and sisters and all, and sometimes some of the other kids that lived around, they might be out there with us, or whatever--we'd have us a group goin', you know? And we'd all start singin' just . . . whatever. No song in particular, we would just be singin,' and my brothers were good at making music sounds with their mouth or whatever. That's just the way we'd do--just singin', just havin' a nice time, passin' the day away. We didn't have nothin' else to do but work and sing, so that's what we did.
CLOCKWATCH: How many hours a day did you end up working, and how old were you when you first started?
TAYLOR: Well, the age that I started was as far back as I can remember, that I was big enough to go out there and do some work. See, back in those days, when a child got big enough to work, it wasn't no certain age, it's whenever you got big enough to use a hoe and go out there and cut grass around that cotton. You know, it don't make no difference if you were six, seven, eight or ten. But as far back as I can remember, I think I was somewhere like eight or ten years old when I first started workin' in the field and everything. And not only that, when you too little or too young to work in the field so far as pickin' or choppin' cotton, then you be a water boy or water girl. You go draw a bucket of water and take it to the ones that is out there workin'. If you too young to work, you go get some water (laughs).
CLOCKWATCH: Is there any of those days in your music today?
TAYLOR: No, I don't think so. You mean those words?
CLOCKWATCH: Words, feelings, impressions?
TAYLOR: Feelings? Yes. Feelin's is always there. Like I was talkin' about the gospel. It's the same thing. Workin' hard, slavery like that, for no money, nothin' fancy, and not havin' nothin' behind all of that, it's a big memory in my mind today. It grew up with me; as I got older, that was in my mind. And even right today, I think about all of that. Because one of the things make me think about what it did, today, now that I'm really up in age and got grandkids and all of this, I think about today if my parents hadn't have been strict parents--growin' up with nothin', teachin' us the will of God, the right way from the wrong way--I think about where would I be today. Where would my sisters and brothers be? All through the years of us growin' up, I don't have a brother or sister or myself that has ever been arrested because we done stole somebody's car. You see what I'm saying? None of us, even up 'til today, have used drugs or are out sellin' drugs, you know, doin' a lot of breakin' in somebody's house, or robbin' somebody, or rapin' somebody. Now, I'm not sayin' all of this because I'm a angel. But, I'm too much of a angel to do any of these things that I'm talkin' about. What I'm sayin' is, we was taught and raised to work whether we liked it or not. We didn't like out there workin' in that hot sun and workin' for nothin', but we had it to do. But, the bottom line, the result of makin' us work like that taught us that to accomplish anything, to have anything, if you want anything, you gotta work for it.
CLOCKWATCH: Which probably accounts for the two-hundred some shows you continue to do each year.
TAYLOR: This is what I'm sayin'. It taught me that this is the best way out, to work, because if I hadn't been raised like that, then I would feel like I was raised with a silver spoon in my mouth and I'd want the best of everything today without havin' to work for it. This is how I think about the blues, and that's how I thought about gospel. They both relates. The blues relates to gospel, and it all relates together in my mind. I think about it a lot. I'm very thankful today that I was raised the way I was.
CLOCKWATCH: Your family had a radio that enabled you to listen to some early blues performers. If I threw some names at you, do you think you could tell me what about each of them you admired?
CLOCKWATCH: Bessie Smith?
TAYLOR: Yeah, I used to listen to Bessie Smith on the radio. I used to listen to Memphis Minnie.
CLOCKWATCH: What about their singing stood out for you? What seemed to you their musical strengths?
TAYLOR: It was a lot of strength to me, because I loved blues, and by listenin' to them made me more interested in blues than I was at that time. The more I grew up listening, the more stronger and interested I become listenin' to it. I remember listening to B.B. King. He used to also play Sonny Boy Williamson. I don't remember the name of it, but Sonny Boy Williamson had this song that they'd play all the time. It meant a lot. Memphis Minnie had this song, "Me and My Chauffeur Blues"--things like that, it was a big inspiration to me because I always felt like they was so strong, and I didn't know the meaning of recordin', and I didn't know the meaning of bein' popular, nothin' like that. The only thing I really knew about and listened to and was interested in, they just sounded good to me. But the results of, say, sale price and the amount of sales, that never occurred to me, because when I first heard the word "recording," I didn't even know what it meant. I was just thinkin' about ooh, wow, this woman can really sing. She got a beautiful voice, and there's somethin' about her singin' really touches my heart. It sticks to my ribs like red beans and rice (laughs).
CLOCKWATCH: You often sing about juke joints. Did you and your Robert every get to any juke joints down South, before coming to Chicago?
TAYLOR: Yeah, a lot of them. That's all we went to. I mean, if we went anywhere at all, it was a juke joint. We didn't have no fancy clubs--you know, like people get dressed up today and say, "I'm going to Robert's Show Lounge," or "I'm going to the Civic Center tonight," or "I'm going down to McCormick Place to see this somebody or that somebody." It wasn't about that. It wasn't none of that.
CLOCKWATCH: That was down in Tennessee?
TAYLOR: Yeah, that's down in Memphis, Tennessee. But we was in country, we wasn't in the city. Where I lived we didn't even have streets. We had a path go across the field from my house to somebody else's house, and a railroad track, and a road. Yeah, we had roads that a car or a mule and wagon would go across. You know, it wasn't no cars or traffic passing. It wasn't about that. When I was in the city, I'd go to the window of the CTA [Chicago Transit Authority] buses and entertain myself by just looking at people walking up and down the street, cars passing, going both ways, trucks, buses, whatever. It wasn't about that. It wasn't none of that. If we looked out our window, we didn't see nothin' but some chickens runnin' around in the yard, maybe a snake passin' by.
CLOCKWATCH: What was a typical juke joint like?
TAYLOR: The juke joint was a place that everybody came to on the weekend like Saturday, Saturday night, Friday, Friday night. It was only a weekend joint. It wasn't nothin' that stayed open seven nights a week. And everybody, the same people would come because it would be people that lived out there in the vicinity of where we lived. They had in the corner what they call an old juke box. We would put like a nickel in there--I think it was, at that time, a nickel or a dime or somethin'--and it would play records and things like that. And that was it.
CLOCKWATCH: Any live music that you can recall?
TAYLOR: In the juke joint, sometimes somebody would be there live music playin'. But when they had live music, it wasn't a band like you go hear a live band today. It wasn't that kind of music. You go hear live music, you'd see one man sittin' in a corner playing a guitar, like my husband used to play. You know, he'd be playing the guitar, he'd be singin'. It wasn't no microphone. He'd just be singin' out his mouth and that was it. If you could hear good, you'd hear him sing. And if you couldn't hear good (laughs), you'd just see his mouth workin'. You know, it wasn't because he was hooked up to no electricity, because, you know, most of the time there wasn't no electricity. They'd have a kerosene lamp, a lantern, that kind of stuff hangin' up in the corners of the ceiling. And sometimes you may see this guy playin' the guitar and maybe somebody with him playin' the rub board. And the rub board was a washboard that people washed clothes with, because most people back in those days didn't have washin' machines and dryers. They'd wash clothes in a tin tub or a wash pot, or whatever, and they would use a rub board. And that's what a lot of the guys would use to play their music--the rub board.
CLOCKWATCH: You sang in the church and you sang in the fields. Did you ever try your hand at singing in a juke joint down there?
TAYLOR: No, I never did sing in a juke joint. I'd always go and we'd listen to other people singin', and watch them dancin' and drinkin' corn whiskey.
CLOCKWATCH: But you were too young for that.
TAYLOR: I was too young for that. I'd just go around and listen. I knew all about what was goin' on, though (laughs). It was fun, that was all the entertainment and fun we had, would be to go to the juke joint and watch what's goin' on and see what's goin' on. We had a wonderful time.
CLOCKWATCH: How many people would turn out each weekend?
TAYLOR: Sometime, the place would be full, and that wasn't nothin' but just one room. But sometime it might end up bein' sixty people there that night. You know, it never was a crowd like three or four hundred people--you know, it wasn't like that. But we'd have sometimes maybe sixty people there, and if it was a good night it might be eighty, ninety people. In the summertime, you know, everybody come out on Saturday night.
CLOCKWATCH: Before you got together with Willie Dixon and before you got your big break that way, who did you sit in with when you and Robert were going around to all the clubs in Chicago?
TAYLOR: There was a guy by the name of J. B. Lenoir. I used to sit in with him and go around to different places that he'd go, and sing with him. Then, there was another guy by the name of Magic Sam. I'd sit in with him a lot, too. Then Hound Dog Taylor. And Hound Dog Taylor, at that time he wasn't doin' no more than me. He wasn't recordin' for nobody or doin' nothin', because he didn't start recordin' until he got with Alligator Records, and that was years later. J. B. Lenoir, Howlin' Wolf, Magic Sam, and then Little Walter. He blew harmonica and he died years ago, but he was really a great guy and he did a lot of recordin' on Chess Records. And so a lot of people knew about him.
CLOCKWATCH: Who did you like to sing with, and why?
TAYLOR: I really liked singin' with all of these people, because actually we had a lot of fun and a lot in common, because these people liked singin' themselves and playin' music. I liked singin' myself, and I liked listenin' to music, and then my husband, sometime, would be playin' with these guys, just sittin' there, you know. He'd hook us his guitar and stuff and sometimes he'd have acoustic, or whatever, and play. Why I did it was because I just loved singin'. I've always loved to sing and I've always loved music, so that was the reason why. And it was for no other reason. So far as money, I wasn't gettin' paid for doin' this.
CLOCKWATCH: These were clubs on the West and South Sides?
TAYLOR: Yeah. Let's see, one of them was called the Silvio Lounge, on Lake Street, one of them was called Beale Street Club, on 63rd and Halsted. Let me see, what else? God, it's been so long now. There was another club called Celebrity Lounge, and there was another little old place called Bucket of Blood.
CLOCKWATCH: Was it as tough as the name sounds?
TAYLOR: It was tough. It was rough, it was tough. You name it, you'll get it (laughs). You might get more than you want, more than you bargained for. But anyway, people had a lot of fun there, and wasn't none of these places no big fancy clubs, nothing like that--they were just little old juke joints in the city, a little hole in the wall. We wasn't in the country nomore, but it wasn't nothin' to write home about.
CLOCKWATCH: You said that when you did hook up with Willie Dixon, that quite often he would open up his basement to you and Buddy Guy and a number of other people would just kind of jam down there or play some music together. Was that a very frequent happening?
TAYLOR: Sometime it was, sometime it wasn't. Sometimes we'd go down two or three times a week, and then again we might not go back for a month. It just depend on whenever he wanted this to happen, that's when it would happen. But when I first met Willie Dixon, he was very busy, because he was doin' a lot of things for a lot of people with the recording, and then he was into doin' a lot of writing, and so he didn't have a lot of time to spend on one person or one thing. You know what I'm saying? So, it was whenever he wanted to do these things. If he say, we gonna get together, let's rehearse a song tonight--you know, he'd get me and a bunch of other folks together, and he was good at gettin' folks together--he'd get them down there. I'll never forget, it was Sunnyland Slim, Johnny Shines, and all these folks, you know, and Buddy Guy. We'd all get down there in Willie Dixon's basement and we really just be jammin'. That's all it amounted to.
CLOCKWATCH: Why did you smile when you mentioned Sunnyland Slim?
TAYLOR: Sunnyland Slim was a real entertainer, and I don't mean a real entertainer just because he played the piano and sing, although he was a great entertainer singin' and playin' the piano. But he was a great entertainer for making you laugh. You know, he'd say little funny things and crack jokes, and he was a nice guy too, he was just somebody that you just enjoyed being in his company. I liked him a lot.
CLOCKWATCH: Could you describe one of those jam sessions? What was one of them like?
TAYLOR: Real entertainment. We would get on to one song, or somebody come up with a idea and break out on a song, and it didn't make no difference what it was or what it was about, everybody would just horn in on it. And it wasn't no special song that I do, or somebody else do--everybody just do the same song. You know, I might sing a verse, and somebody else do a verse, and then the guy whoever was playin' would play and take parts in it--that kind of thing.
CLOCKWATCH: So you'd go a lot longer on a song than a stardard cut?
TAYLOR: Oh Lord, yeah, wasn't no comparison. We may stay on one song thirty minutes, and then we might stop, start again on the same song, and do it over and over and over again. And the whole night might pass and we might not went over but one song. And then sometimes, we maybe done went over a lot of songs. It just depend on the mood, you know, whatever way it went down.
CLOCKWATCH: He must have had a thick basement or pretty understanding neighbors. How late did you go?
TAYLOR: Shoot, sometimes we be down there all night. The neighbors didn't bother us.
CLOCKWATCH: You'd be down in Dixon's basement until the sun came up?
TAYLOR: Yeah, we'd be down there a lot of times all night. It's been a lot of times his wife, Marie, would come down in the basement and bring coffee, fried chicken and fried fish, and bring stuff for us to eat because we done stayed down there all night and got hungry (laughs). Her hobby was to feed people. She loved to cook, cook big old meals and things and serve people, and we'd just eat and have a good time.
CLOCKWATCH: Your albums, I listened to them all in a row before I came here, and it seems as if each one gets a little big stronger. Do you feel your work getting more sure, stronger?
TAYLOR: Yes, I do. I feel like the longer I stay in it, the more I do it, the stronger I get. I just feel like me singin' the blues is like good whiskey--it mellows with age, and I just feel like the longer I do it, the more I do it, the better I sound, the stronger I get. I just feel good doin' it.
CLOCKWATCH: Has your songwriting improved as well, do you think?
TAYLOR: Yes, I think that has improved too, because I have more experience now in writin' songs, puttin' lyrics together, comin' up with ideas. And, right now, in the back of my mind, I got two or three versions of songs. I just got some lyrics in my mind that I got to put to good use, and I think that, hey, I might as well come up with a song.
CLOCKWATCH: Do the words usually come to you first?
TAYLOR: Yeah, word come to me first and then I start tryin' to figure out, now, what could I do with this? What should I do with it?
CLOCKWATCH: The publisher of songs you've written is always registered as Eyeball Music. Did you come up with that?
TAYLOR: No, that's Alligator (laughs).
CLOCKWATCH: Out of the songs on your last album--"Spellbound," "Put The Pot On," "63 Year Old Mama"--
TAYLOR: Yeah, the one I wished I'da said "43 Year Old Mama" instead of sixty-three (laughs).
CLOCKWATCH: Which of those gave you the most fits when you were trying to write it?
TAYLOR: Well, I tell you, they all was complicated. You see, writin' a song don't come easy. You know what I mean? It's complicated. You gotta come up with words, which is lyrics. Every word should have a meaning. Every word got to rhyme with the last word that you just said, and then, on top of rhymin' with the other word, it gotta make sense. In other words, a song is supposed to tell a story. Say for instance, this song I wrote, "I'm Your 63 Year Old Mama." Now, the meaning of this song and the story behind this song, I'm not talkin' about this is how I am personally, but I'm talking about this is the meaning of the song. I'm expressin', Okay, maybe I am old, I'm your sixty-three year-old mama, but I'm still hot as a ball of fire. In other words, I'm sixty-three year old, but I'm in the same shape that maybe this thirty-year-old woman is. You know, I can do the same thing. I can hold down the same job that this thirty-year-old woman is holdin' down, you know what I'm sayin'? To show you how popular I am, when I say the "young mens call me a Mercedes," now, a Mercedes to drive, not anybody can buy or drive a Mercedes. This is a big deal, because it's one of the most expensive cars. So the young men call me a Mercedes, I'm so great "out on the open road." Then, to turn around and say, "but the old mens say I'm a Jaguar," that's even more expensive. "And their engine don't run cold." Why? Because these are old mens. Now, if an old man can say this about me and I'm sixty-three year old, I mean, hey, you know [there] "may be snow on the mountain (laughs) but there's fire down under the hill. So in other words, what I'm sayin', it's just an expression. Like I say, it's not because of me livin' or doin' any of these things, it's just expressin' words and tellin' a story and a background in your song. And this is what a song has to do. It has to have something to impress somebody else out there that's listening to it. You have to say something that's gonna draw people attention.
"I'm Spellbound." Now, this is a different situation. This is, okay, I'm talkin' about "I been walkin' and talkin' up and down the street, I got corns on my toes and blisters on my feet." Now, I mean, all of this done happen to my feet. I'm tired of walkin', I'm tired of talkin', asking questions, has anybody seen my baby, talkin' about my man up and down the street. But I'm spellbound. I mean, the man has got my mind captured. He got my nose open, I can't help myself. You know, I'm going crazy. Why? Because I'm in love. The bottom line, "I'm spellbound, I'm goin' around in circles like a clown." You see what I'm sayin'? That's the whole idea, that's the background, and that's the story of the song "Spellbound." That's how it is with any song. That's the reason I say it's not really easy, because I couldn't just say, (sings) "I'm, spellbound." No. If that's all, I mean, I've got to explain to people why I'm spellbound. What cause me to be spellbound? How come you spellbound? What's the reason? Now in that song, with those lyrics, I got to explain in the lyrics and I got to put each lyric in the right place to say what it should say to explain to people. You know, in one verse in that song it says, "If you should ever leave me, it would break my heart in two." So, I'm explainin', this is why I'm spellbound. I can't stand for this man to leave me and go get another woman, wife, whatever. Why? Why it would break my heart in two? Because I'm spellbound, and you the cause of it. You see what I'm saying? So this is how you come about writin' songs.
CLOCKWATCH: Your lyrics, then, are stories that can apply to a great many people.
CLOCKWATCH: Is that why you don't focus on your own private life in your songs that you write?
TAYLOR: Well, that's not the reason. The reason I don't focus my own life story into songs because, in the first place, my own life is personal. And the second reason, my song is not based upon no personal person. When I do lyrics I'm not talkin' to or makin' it up for no personal somebody. It's for anybody and everybody to listen to and enjoy, you know? But at the same time, if that shoe fits your feet, then you wear it. I'm still tryin' to think of the name of the gospel song that I sung at this girl's funeral. It said somethin' about, "I was standin' by the bedside on a dark and cloudy day. "Will That Circle Be Unbroken"--that's the name of the song. I couldn't think of it before, but that's the name of the song-- (singing) "Will that circle . . . be unbroken? By and by Lord . . . by and by." I don't know if you ever heard it, but it's a beautiful song. And that's the song that man, one of my fans, wanted me to sing for his wife's funeral. I'm glad I thought of that.
CLOCKWATCH: So you really do have an intimate relationship with a lot of your fans?
TAYLOR: I do. I make friends with a lot of my fans, and we get into a lot of conversations, talkin' about different things--you know, this and that and whatever. I have a lot of laughs and enjoyment with my fans, you know, just communicatin' with them, and I think that's very important.
Here about two weeks ago I was down in Florida. I was workin' at this school, and this program was especially for underprivileged children--and I love children, I love dealing with young people--and they asked me if I would do a speech, you know, just talk a little to the young people, and I told them I would. Now, really, I'm not a talker, and I don't like doing a lot of talkin'--I'm a singer--but I told them I would, and I started talkin' to these young people, and the more I talked the more I wanted to talk. Looked like the longer I talked, the more I had to say to them, you know? Things I wanted them to know, things I wanted them to relate to. And I talked to them about my background, how I was influenced. I talked to them about music, I talked to them about slavery, I talked to them about just bein' black. I talked to them about it's not so important about who you are, what you are doing--it's what you gonna do, making your life something really positive, doin' something constructive with your life and bein' the best in whatever you do and makin' the best out of it, whether you white, black, blue, or green. Everybody should be color blind and think about one thing, and that's your goal--I want to be the best doctor, I want to be the best professor, teacher, I want to be the best whatever. Be your best at it. If you gonna shoot marbles, if you gonna jump rope, be your best. And that's what I found myself talkin' and teachin' and tellin' these young people down in Florida a couple of weeks ago. I felt good. Yeah, I like talkin' to my fans and things, and these kids, they just sit there and listen to me talk. They never said a word, and it seem like every word was going right in their little ears, you know?
I was tellin' these young people, I'd love to see a little Koko Taylor, and I'd love to see some young B.B. King and some young Buddy Guy guitarist, and all of these things. There's not a lot of young people out there today that's comin' up in the blues. And it's very important. I would like to see that happen, 'cause otherwise the blues will die. And I'd like to know somebody out there sayin' the same thing I'm sayin': the blues will never die as long as I'm around to help keep it alive (laughs).
James Plath (3-24-94)
Koko Taylor. MCA (CHD31271, 1987). Re-issue of a 1969 collection from Checker Records, a Chess subsidiary, of material recorded 1965-69, produced by Willie Dixon. "Wang Dang Doodle," "Don't Mess with the Messer" and other early Koko, with subtle R&B/Motown undertones. **1/2
South Side Lady. Evidence (ECD26007, 1992). Material previously released on Black and Blue Records and some unreleased cuts, recorded in the Netherlands live and in the studio, during the American Folk Blues Festival tour in 1973. Great back-up musicians. ***1/2
I Got What It Takes. Alligator (ALCD4706, 1975). The trademark hard-driving, gravel voice begins to emerge in her first album for Alligator. Songs recorded with sidemen hand-picked by Taylor, including Mighty Joe Young and Sammy Lawhorn. Standards like "Big Boss Man" and Taylor's own "Voodoo Woman." ***
The Earthshaker. Alligator (ALCD4711, 1978). A transitional album, more raucous and energy-filled than previous albums, but without the confidence and polish of later albums. "Let the Good Times Roll," "Hey Bartender," "Wang Dang Doodle," and others. ***
Queen of the Blues. Alligator (ALCD4740, 1985). If you can only afford one Koko Taylor album, go for this one, which features Taylor at her bar-belting best with special guests Lonnie Brooks, Albert Collins, Son Seals, James Cotton and Abb Locke. "Evil," "Beer Bottle Boogie," "Come to Mama" and others. ****
Live From Chicago: An Audience With The Queen. Alligator (ALCD4754, 1987). Live albums can be annoying, but this one is excellently produced with studio-quality sound. "Let the Good Times Roll," "I'm a Woman," "Come to Mama," "Wang Dang Doodle" and others. ****
From the Heart of a Woman. Alligator (ALCD4724). R&B fans will love this one, with its gentler songs Ñclearly a change-of-pace album for Taylor. Includes Louis Jordan's "Sure Had a Wonderful Time Last Night" and others. ***
Jump for Joy. Alligator (ALCD4784, 1990). Album dedicated to Robert "Pops" Taylor, Koko's recently deceased husband. Includes four songs written by taylor, including title cut. ***1/2
Force of Nature. Alligator (ALCD4817). Taylor's strongest album in years earned her W.C. Handy Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year. Rockin' songs: "Mother Nature," "Let the Juke Joint Jump," and strong covers of "Hound Dog" and "Born Under a Bad Sign"Ñthe latter with a little help from guitarist Buddy Guy. ****
Unreviewed recordings: Koko Taylor. (Chess) Basic Soul. (Chess) Teaches Old Standards New Tricks. (Chess) What It Take: The Chess Years (Chess)
Appearances in: Blues Summit. B.B. King's duet album (MCA) Blues Deluxe. Live from 1980 Chicagofest (Alligator XRT) Willie Dixon: The Chess Box. (MCA) The Alligator Records 20th Anniversary Tour. (Alligator) The Alligator Records Christmas Collection . (Alligator) Blues Explosion (Atlantic Grammy winner) Coast to Coast. Paul Shaffer (Capitol) Chicago Blues (Spivey)
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