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At 18, Taylor and her soon-to-be husband, the late Robert "Pops" Taylor, relocated to Chicago. For Koko, it meant a chance to see her blues heroes up close.
"All the people that I used to hear on the radio down in Memphis, suddenly they were right there in front of me in Chicago--Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Magic Slim. I got a chance to meet 'em all and work with them all."
As taken as she was with these performers, Taylor says she carried no great ambitions for herself as a blues artist. For years, she made a living cleaning houses and only sang when she was invited to sit in with local Chicago bands. She insists that through those years, she never thought about recording, attaining stardom, or making money off music. She sang onstage only because she enjoyed it.
One night, Dixon saw her perform and told her that he'd never heard a woman sing the blues with such fire. He signed her to Chess, and launched a fertile partnership that lasted more than a decade, before Taylor moved on to her present label, Alligator Records. At Chess, Dixon wrote her songs, produced her records and played bass on many of them. "He was a nice person, very helpful and understanding," Taylor says. "When he passed away, it was like chopping off my right arm."
Taylor has been known to belittle her early records, saying that she didn't really know what she was doing. However, her work of that period (well-documented on What It Takes: The Chess Years) has a raw energy that's hard to resist, as you sense that she's cutting loose without hesitation as some of Chess' brightest lights (including Dixon, Buddy Guy, Matt Murphy and Lafayette Leake) jam behind her.
While Taylor's voice shares much of the gritty urgency heard in Etta James', her career is best compared with that of her friend and occasional duet partner Buddy Guy. Like Guy, Taylor came along too late to be put on the same pedestal with legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, and too early to benefit much from the commercial renaissance sparked in the '80s by people like Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. As a result, Taylor--like Guy--has probably been most important as an artist who has kept the flame lit, and passed on her command and authenticity to the next generation. It's a role that she's been happy to play, although she worries about the future of the tradition that's defined her life.
"I don't see a lot of [young blues artists], and I'm very disappointed about that," she says. "I'd love to see more young people out there, keeping the torch alive. I'd love to see some little B.B. Kings, little Muddy Waters, or Bessie Smiths. Like they say, if you can't love the one you want, you love the one you're with. So that's what we're doing. The young ones are not out there because they've got their own kind of music.
Taylor's work schedule suggests that she'd like to save the blues single-handedly. Though well into her 60s, she continues to play at least 200 shows a year, a pace she's maintained for ages. If Taylor was singing about it, she'd probably offer a bluster about how she can keep it going when others would quit. Offstage, Taylor speaks softly and sounds grateful for the chance to take a stage every night.
"I get tired, but I'm doing what I love doing most, making people happy with my music all over the world," she says. "Therefore, it becomes easier. If someone is telling you what they want you to do, it's different than if you're doing what you want to do. And that's how it is with me. I want to do what I'm doing and I enjoy doing it, so therefore it doesn't bother me."
Koko Taylor is scheduled to perform on Wednesday, January 6, at the Rhythm Room. Showtime is 8 p.m.