Koko Taylor–the undisputed Queen Of The Blues–infuses every song she sings with an instantly identifiable raw, soulful power. From her humble beginnings on a sharecroppers’ farm near Memphis to her current status as one of the greatest voices that the blues has ever produced, Taylor’s story is an amazing tale of talent, hard work, perseverance and dedication. Her soul-drenched voice and riveting stage presence have earned her fans across the globe as well as a host of accolades and awards from the blues world and beyond.
Born Cora Walton just outside of Memphis, Tennessee, Taylor was an orphan by age 11. An early love of chocolate earned her the lifelong nickname Koko. Along with her five brothers and sisters, Koko developed a love for music from a mixture of the gospel songs she heard in church, and from the blues and R&B songs she heard on B.B. King’s daily radio show beaming in from Memphis. Even though her father encouraged her to sing only gospel music, Koko and her siblings would sneak behind their one room house with their homemade instruments and play the blues. With one brother accompanying her on a guitar made out of bailing wire and nails and another on a fife made out of a corncob, Koko began her career as a blues woman. As a youngster, Koko was enthralled by blues men and women like Memphis Minnie, Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson. 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. With nothing but, in Koko’s words, “thirty-five cents and a box of Ritz crackers,” the couple settled down on the city’s South Side, the cradle of the rough-edged sound of Chicago blues. Taylor found work cleaning house for a wealthy family in the ritzy northern suburbs. At night and on weekends, Koko and Pops would visit the clubs, hearing Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Magic Sam, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. And thanks to prodding from Pops, it wasn’t long before Koko was sitting in with those legendary blues artists on a regular basis.
Her big break came in 1962. After she gave a particularly fiery performance with Howlin’ Wolf’s band, famed blues producer/songwriter Willie Dixon approached her. Much to Koko’s astonishment, he told her, “My God, I never heard a woman sing the blues like you. 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.” Dixon got Koko a Chess recording contract and produced several singles (and two albums) for her, including the million-selling 1966 hit, Wang Dang Doodle. That song firmly established Koko as one of the hottest new female blues talents.
In the early 1970s, Taylor was among the first of the South Side Chicago blues artists to perform on the city’s North Side. In 1972, she played at the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival in front of more people than ever before in her career (including Alligator Records president Bruce Iglauer). Atlantic Records recorded the festival and released a live album, which brought Koko to the attention of a large national audience. In 1975, Koko found a home with Iglauer’s Alligator Records. Her first album for the fledgling label, I GOT WHAT IT TAKES, earned a GrammyC nomination. Since then, Koko’s recorded seven more critically acclaimed albums for Alligator and has made numerous guest appearances on recordings by her famous friends.
Aside from her many recordings, Koko has also made her mark in movies and on television. She appeared in the feature 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, FOX-TV’s New York Undercover and many regional television programs. People, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly and Life are just a few of the national publications
to run features and reviews.
Over the course of her 40-year career, Taylor has received just about every award the blues world has to offer. She has earned 21 W.C. Handy Awards (more than any other artist), six GrammyC nominations for her last seven Alligator recordings and won a GrammyC in 1984 for the compilation album Blues Explosion on Atlantic. 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.
Taylor has succeeded in the male-dominated blues world. She’s taken her music from the tiny clubs of Chicago’s South Side to world-renowned festivals. She has shared stages with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy as well as with Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton. Taylor continues to perform over 80 concerts a year worldwide. Through good times and personal hardships, Koko Taylor has become
a true blues icon. “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’m doing today.” Indeed, Koko Taylor is a giant among blues artists. And with no plans to slow down anytime soon, she will no doubt remain the undisputed Queen Of The Blues.