Koko Taylor And Her Blues Machine
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Koko Taylor And Her Blues Machine Biography
I come from a poor family, recalls Koko Taylor. A very poor family. I was raised up on what they call a sharecropper's farm. Born Cora Walton just outside of Memphis, Tennessee, Koko 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 songs she heard in church and 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 out back with their homemade instruments and play the blues.
With one brother accompanying 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 blues woman. 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 listen to their songs 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. With nothing but, in Koko's words, thirty-five cents and a box of Ritz crackers, 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. And thanks to prodding from Pops, it wasn't long before Taylor was sitting in with many of the most legendary blues 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 (and two albums) for her, including the million-selling 1965 hit, Wang Dang Doodle. That song firmly established Koko as the world's number one female blues talent.
In the early 1970s, Taylor was among the first of the South Side Chicago blues artists to find work (and an audience)on the city's North Side. In 1972, Koko played at the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival in front of more people than ever before (including a young Bruce Iglauer). Atlantic Records recorded the festival (including her performance) and released a live album, which brought Koko to the attention of a large, national audience. In 1975, Koko found a home with the city's newest blues label, Iglauer's Alligator Records. Her first album for the fledgling label, I GOT WHAT IT TAKES (AL 4706), earned her a Grammy nomination. Since then, Koko's recorded seven more albums for Alligator (and received five more Grammy nominations) and has made numerous guest appearances on various tribute albums and recordings of her famous friends. She's been in movies and on television, on radio and in print all over the world.
It is 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 major 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, 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.