Long live the ‘queen of the blues’

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It was 1954 when Cora Walton left the cotton fields of Memphis with her future husband Robert “Pops” Taylor for the big city lights and darkened blues clubs of Chicago.

It was in the Windy City where Cora married Pops and became known as “Koko” (by all accounts because of her fondness for chocolate) would forge a hard-earned legacy with her down and dirty force-of-nature vocals and take no prisoners attitude that would bestow upon her the undisputed title of “Queen of the Blues” for decades to come.

Back in the day—as they say—Koko was the only game in town if you wanted to hear a woman sing the blues, and sing it she did!

Drawing comparisons to her blues belting predecessors Bessie Smith and Big Mama Thornton, Taylor’s gargles-with-gravel dynamo delivery of what have become some of the best known anthems of female power in the genre made her a star first on Chess Records and later on the venerable Alligator Records where she has remained for the past fifteen years.

With a whopping fifteen albums already in her catalog, Taylor has returned once more after a seven year absence from recording to deliver her newest album “Old School” on Alligator Records at the age of 76. Inspired by the Chicago blues sound of the fifties, Taylor wrote five originals and painstakingly picked out songs from Willie Dixon, Lefty Dizz, Magic Sam and others to create an album of Chicago-style blues with the tough, gritty sound of that era. Taylor’s delivery is as powerful as ever on “Old School” and there is a sort of spirituality to her voice that is unmistakably Koko Taylor.

Few performers in any genre have drawn the love and attention of so devoted a fan base as Koko Taylor and her return to the spotlight after her health had spiraled out of control in previous years has brought much joy to her legions of followers.

In addition to her new album, Taylor is also helping to mentor the new generation of blues singers the same way she was taken under the wing of Willie Dixon and Big Mama Thornton by founding Spellbound Records, a label dedicated to helping out talented performers who are just starting out.

Recently, Koko Taylor took time to chat with O&AN from her Chicago home about the new album and being out on the road once more. You can find out more about Koko Taylor and her new album “Old School” by visiting www.KokoTaylor.com or www.Alligator.com on the Web.

I cannot tell you what an honor it is to be talking with you, Koko. Thanks for taking the time to let our readers know what you have been up to. How does it feel to be releasing your first new album in seven years?

I’m very excited about the new album. It was wonderful to be able to get back out in the spotlight after having been absent for so long. I’m still not at my best, but I’m feeling much better than I did and my first sign of feeling better was getting back out on the road. I’m very grateful to be back out doing my thing again because as large as my house is, these walls start to close in on you after a while. I missed the stage and my fans especially so it feels really good to be back with them again. I want my fans to know that I love them as much as they love me and I appreciate everyone’s prayers. I want them to know that their prayers for me have not been unanswered. 

Will your devoted fans have to wait another seven years for a new album after this?

*Laughs* No, sir! I’m already writing new material for the next album now. I wrote five of the songs on the current album. In the past they have usually only used three or four of my originals for the albums, but this time they used five of the six I wrote for the album. 

What were you trying to say about yourself as an artist and performer with this album?

I wanted to do this album because it shows that you can’t keep a good woman down. After I’m done working this album I will be working on the next one and I just pray and hope that I will be able to stay healthy enough to stay out here and continue to sing and not only keep the blues alive  but to keep the hope alive for the music and musicians of the upcoming generation. I can just hang out here until God says I have to retire.

I hope I have half of your energy when I get to be your age.

*chuckles* Why, thank you. I hope you do too.

As long as I can remember people have been calling you “The Queen of the Blues” but you have always struck me as a real down-to-earth type of person. How does it make you feel to have people refer to you in such high terms?

I feel like it is a real honor because they don’t have to call me nothing at all. I do what I do because of the people. I am humbled and honored because those people who listen to my music think that think I deserve that title. It’s because of their love and respect for me that I accept the title but I personally feel like I’m still just Cora and I live day by day as Cora and I am just as grateful as I can be for the fans who love me enough to honor me in such a way.

You’ve been doing this for so long now to such popular and critical acclaim. Did you ever imagine back when you were staring out that you would be where you are today?

Oh no, I had no idea when I started out I would ever make it this far. I grew up in the cotton fields of Memphis, Tennessee and there was no way that when I came to Chicago with nothing but thirty-five cents and a box of Ritz crackers between me and my late husband (which was then my boyfriend) I would have ever thought this day would come. I came from a one room shack with one way in and one way out. We used to call them “shotgun houses”. I live in a 14-room house today and I would never have thought that would happen back then.

I have no doubt it was hard for you as a female performer during that period in a mostly male business. How did you manage to make it though as well as you did?

It was definitely harder for me as a woman back then in the blues and it still is today. It may not be as bad as it once was but we still have to deal with it. Male musicians still get more respect than women and they get looked out for more in general. I have seen male performers get better treatment and there have been times that some of the men have gotten much better dressing rooms than I did just because they are men. That sort of thing may never change. When I was starting out there wasn’t anyone else doing what I was at the time. The only other woman who was is my mentor Big Mama Thornton. Other than she and I at the time there were no other woman doing the blues, well not the real blues anyway. Everyone kept telling me that it was a man’s world, but I was determined that it was our world and we were going to share it if they liked it or not.

You are often cited as an inspiration to female blues performers and you have also become a sort of mentor to many of them. What advice do you give to young women wanting to break into the music business as a blues vocalist?

I tell the girls they have to be determined and believe in what they are doing. They have to love the work and they have to be dedicated to it. These days I am telling the girls that they have got to educate themselves in what they are doing. I wasn’t fortunate enough to have education but for them it is important to know how to read contracts and know how to manage money and so many other things. That’s what I want them to do so they can be the best they can be.

I understand you are presently working with the phenomenally talented Chick Rodgers on your own Spellbound Records label (Editor’s note: named after one of Koko’s best and most famous songs) and there is some rumor of other performers being added to the roster soon. Why did you found Spellbound Records and what do you hope to accomplish? 

My goal with Spellbound is to try and help new artists that don’t get the opportunities to work with the bigger labels. My hope is that with the right help and grooming they can make it to the point where they need to go. As artists who have paid our dues and worked so hard we have to help the younger generations make their way in the industry because if we don’t the music will die. If it weren’t for Willie Dixon and Big Mama Thornton I would never have made it. It takes somebody to get you somewhere to get where you are today. If it weren’t for Chess Records signing me way back then, I wouldn’t be with Alligator Records today. One hand washes the other. When I leave this place for the last time I want to be able to leave behind a legacy in a good way. You can’t take everything with you so you might as well share what you got while you can. If I can just share my knowledge or just a dollar with somebody who is less fortunate than me then I feel like I have been a success.