photo: courtesy of Marc Norberg
Koko Taylor's first song for Chess Records was called "I Got What It Takes." Back in 1962, it must have seemed like an announcement of her arrival on the Chicago blues scene. Now, it's more like a statement of fact; nearly 50 years of writing, recording and performing as a blues singer all over the world kind of prove your mettle in the music business...not that it's always been a walk in the park.
"A lot of people think just because you're an entertainer, everything is on a silver platter," says the 71-year-old, who many know as Chicago's Queen of the Blues. "But it's not that simple. It's work. But I'm not complaining about my work because I'm doing what I wanna do and what I love to do, and that's making people happy with my music all over the world."
When she's performing, Taylor sure makes things look easy. Her brash, raw voice is the standard for most female blues singers, and some say she's as vibrant now as she's ever been, an impressive feat considering how ill she's been over the past few years. "I was sick about all of last year, in and out of the hospital," she says. "But today, I'm doin' fine, I'm goin strong again. How long it's gonna last, nobody knows. Nobody knows tomorrow."
Her future may be uncertain, but Taylor's appreciation for the past is still strong, as evidenced by her latest release for Alligator Records, Old School. The album, her first since 2000, features both re-workings of classic 1950's blues standards along with new, self-penned tracks, and the early returns have been good. "[The record company] has been ringing my bell almost every day, sayin' it's making a lot of noise, and we're getting a lot of big sales," she says. "And that tells me it must be talkin' loud and drawin' a crowd."
Part of the reason for the acclaim is the disc's classic sound. In a time when many traditional artists are branching out into other genres to attract new audiences, Koko remains firmly rooted in the blues. "I'm a blues singer," she says. "If I wanted to sing jazz, rock, hip-hop or whatever you call that stuff…then I would sing it. Nobody keeping me from it. But I'm not doin' it because I don't want to do it. I'm doin' just what I love doing."
Doing what she loves is what got Taylor into the business in the first place. When she came to Chicago along with her husband at the age of 21, she knew nothing of city life, having grown up picking cotton and feeding hogs on her family's farm in Tennessee. One thing she did know was singing; she participated in her local church choir and sung along to radio stations with her siblings. Upon her arrival here, Taylor began sitting in with bands at a number of South Side blues clubs.
"So one night I was in the club singing, you know? And this big guy came over and he said, 'Hey girl, you know, I like the way you sing. Who are you?,'" recalls Taylor of her first big break. "I told him my name and everything, and I said, 'And who are you?' He said, 'I'm Willie Dixon.'…Well I had never heard of him. I said, 'Well what do you do?' He said, 'I'm a music writer and arranger, and I arrange music for Chess Records.'
"A few days later he called me and said, 'You know, I really loved your voice, the way you performed, and I sure would like to record you.' I didn't know what that meant. The next thing I knew, he got me and a band together and started rehearsing me for my first song.'"
Seven Grammy nominations (one win) and 25 W.C. Handy Awards (more than any other blues artist) later, Taylor is still going strong. She performs several times a week, giving herself needed time to rest ("I'm an old woman on a young woman's frame," she says, referencing her song "Old Woman"). Though she lives in Chicago, she works mostly out of town, returning only for special events like the Blues Festival. While she loves her adopted home, Taylor looks at the expansion as a good thing. "I guess I graduated," she says. "I was in the first grade, but now I'm in third grade. Little by little, I do more and more and get better and better for the public's sake."
For now, it's all about staying healthy and continuing to do what she's been doing so well for so long. "It's a dirty job," she says of the blues, "but somebody's gotta do it. And I'm one of them."
Fresh from the woodshop: Old School is out now on Alligator Records.
Coming soon to a stage near you: June 7 at the Chicago Blues Festival in Grant Park.