“Blues is my life,” Grammy Award-winning blues icon Koko Taylor once proclaimed. Sadly on Wednesday June 3, 2009, the undisputed “Queen of the Blues,” passed away from complications from an operation to correct gastrointestinal bleeding.
As recently as May 7, 2009, this quintessential blues singer won her 29th Blues Music Award (for Traditional Female Blues Artist Of The Year) which made her the recipient of more Blues Music Awards than any other artist.
Koko Taylor was born on September 28, 1928 on a sharecropper’s farm (as Cora Walton) that was located just outside Memphis, Tennessee. She earned her nickname “Koko” because of her love for chocolate and she fell in love with music at an early age.
Inspired by gospel music and the love of WDIA blues DJ’s B.B. King and Rufus Thomas, Taylor began singing the blues with her siblings (who listened to Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie and Sonny Boy Williamson, among others). The children accompanied themselves with homemade instruments and although Taylor loved to sing, she never envisioned herself of joining her idols popularity and prestige.
In 1953, at the age of eighteen, Taylor and her soon-to-be-husband, the late Robert “Pops” Taylor, traveled to Chicago with, as Taylor said, “Thirty-five cents and a box of Ritz Crackers.” The pair settled on the south side of Chicago where Pops was employed for a packing company while Koko found work cleaning the houses for the wealthy families in the rich northern suburbs. Together they would frequent the Chicago blues clubs and encouraged by her husband, she would sit in with Chicago’s top blues bands, including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Magic Sam, Little Walter and Junior Wells.
Taylor’s big break came in 1963 when she was approached by songwriter/arranger Willie Dixon who 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.”
Taylor’s first recording was with USA Records (“Honky Tonk “) and then she secured a recording contract with Chess. Dixon produced her million-selling hit “Wang Dang Doodle” in 1966 which firmly established Taylor as the world’s number one female blues artist and became her signature song. The record went to #4 on the R&B and #58 on the pop charts.
However, it was her live performances that set her apart from her contemporaries. Her passion, raw vocal prowess, and blustery swagger are legendary. For decades, Taylor recorded iconic blues albums and was a mainstay in the Chicago blues scene and eventually was a staple at the national blues clubs and festivals.
In 1983, Taylor was awarded a Grammy Award (Best Traditional Blues Album) for her guest appearance on an album called Blues Explosion. In 1997, Taylor was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and received the Blues Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999. In 2004 she received the NEA National Heritage Fellowship Award, which is among the highest honors given to an American artist. Her most recent CD, 2007's Old School was nominated for a Grammy (as were eight of her nine Alligator albums).
Over the course of her almost fifty-year career, Koko Taylor has received almost every award that can be bestowed to a singer and that the blues world had to offer. She was one of the few female artists to find success in the male-dominated genre. Her music is far reaching and will continue to inspire and influence countless blues singers for years to come.
“There are many kings of the blues,” said The Boston Globe, “but only one queen. Koko’s voice is still capable of pinning a listener to the back wall.” Without a doubt, Koko Taylor was the preeminent blues woman in the world today. She is—and will always remain—the undisputed “Queen of the Blues.”