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Koko Taylor

Sept. 28, 1928 - June 3, 2009

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Singer Koko Taylor was “born and raised with the blues” on a cotton farm in the Mississippi Delta and joined the migration to Chicago, where she remained popular even as blues faded among African Americans. Despite health problems and her husband's death, she continued to perform and record, taking particular delight in being a role model for young people. 2004 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., photograph by Michael G. Stewart, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Koko Taylor, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Koko Taylor, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Koko Taylor, 2004 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., photograph by Michael G. Stewart, Courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Koko Taylor, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Koko Taylor, 2004 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., photograph by Michael G. Stewart, Courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Koko Taylor, 2004 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., photograph by Michael G. Stewart, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Koko Taylor, 2004 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., photograph by Michael G. Stewart, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Koko Taylor, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Koko Taylor was born Cora Walton on a sharecropper’s cotton farm in western Tennessee. She was nicknamed Koko as a child because of her love of chocolate. She fell in love with music at an early age, singing in the choir at a local Baptist church and hearing the blues on B.B. King’s and Rufus Thomas’ radio shows from nearby Memphis.

“I was born and raised with the blues,” Taylor told NEA interviewer Mary Eckstein. “That’s all me and my sisters and brothers did when I was growing up. We sung and listened to the blues. We were raised on a cotton farm, and our daddy said to us, ‘You children all got to work in this field, but I don’t want no violent singing.’ He didn’t want us to sing nothing but gospel. He just wanted us to sing gospel in church, and that was it. So when he went to buy gin or to the store to get his snuff or whatever, we would sing and listen to the blues.... One day my oldest brother made a guitar with some hay-baling wire wrapped around some nails on the back of our house. My younger brother made a harmonica out of a corncob. I was the singer, but I didn’t need no microphone — I didn’t even know what a microphone was. I just used my voice. We’d get behind that house and we’d sing the blues. Oh, Lord, you talk about having fun! We’d get back there, and we’d sing until we saw our daddy coming home.”

When she was 18, Taylor moved to Chicago with Robert “Pop” Taylor, whom she soon married. She recalled in a 1993 Living Blues interview that they traveled to the Windy City with “35 cents and a box of Ritz crackers.” She sang at home to her husband’s guitar accompaniment, and they ventured out to clubs on the weekends.

Soon, while cleaning houses by day, she became a part of the city’s burgeoning blues scene and sat in with such legendary figures as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James and Magic Sam. Her break came in 1962 when Willie Dixon, resident writer/producer at Chess Records, heard her singing in a bar and helped her get a Chess contract. Three years later, she had a hit with “Wang Dang Doodle.” Though the blues was fading from popularity with black audiences, she found regular work in clubs and at festivals, with the help of Bruce Iglauer, owner of Alligator Records. “My career didn’t start until I got with Alligator,” she told Living Blues. Iglauer, in turn, called her “the essence of what a blues musician should be.”

Taylor continued to perform despite health problems and the death of her husband. She won numerous awards and appeared in films and on radio and television.

“Young people is very important to me,” she told Chicago radio host Niles Frantz, “and it makes me proud to be a role model for young people coming up that wants to sing and play the blues. I’m reaching for the sky, but if I fall somewhere in the clouds, I’ll still be happy. I’m going to keep on doing what I’m doing and hanging in there for the best.”

Bibliography
James Plath, "Queen of the Blues: Koko Taylor Talks about Her Subjects," Clockwatch Review 9:1-2 (1994-95) 117-31.

Discography
Taylor, Koko. Royal Blue. Alligator Records ALCD 4873.
_____ I Got What It Takes. Alligator Records AL4706.
_____ The Earthshaker. Alligator Records AL4711.
_____ From The Heart of a Woman. Alligator Records AL4724.
_____ Queen Of The Blues. Alligator Records AL4740.
_____ Live From Chicago — An Audience With The Queen. Alligator Records AL4754.
_____ Jump For Joy. Alligator Records AL4784.
_____ Force of Nature. Alligator Records AL4817.
_____ Deluxe Edition. Alligator Records AL5610.

Watch

Koko Taylor, 2004 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Listen

Koko Taylor answers the question 'How long have you been singing the blues?' Arlington, Virginia, 2004, interview by Alan Govenar

Koko Taylor answers the question 'When did you start singing the blues?' Arlington, Virginia, 2004, interview by Alan Govenar

Koko Taylor answers the question 'How did you get your style of singing?' Arlington, Virginia, 2004, Interview by Alan Govenar

Koko Taylor answers the question 'What is your style?' Arlington, Virginia, 2004, interview by Alan Govenar

Koko Taylor answers the question 'Why do you sing the blues?' Arlington, Virginia, 2004, interview by Alan Govenar

Koko Taylor, 'But On The Other Hand,' Royal Blue, 2000, Alligator Records & Artist Mgmt., Inc., ALCD 4873

Koko Taylor, 'The Man Next Door,' Royal Blue, 2000, Alligator Records & Artist Mgmt., Inc., ALCD 4873

Koko Taylor, 'Keep Your Booty Out Of My Bed,' Royal Blue, 2000, Alligator Records & Artist Mgmt., Inc., ALCD 4873