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Koko Taylor has a touch of the flu. She assures me she's feeling fine, but earlier in the day she was concerned enough about the possibility of pneumonia that she postponed our interview to go see a doctor.
Sure enough, Taylor's voice is a little softer than you'd expect from the blues belter who, in her most famous recording, assured us that she was "gonna pitch a wang dang doodle all night long." Somehow, you get the feeling that all Taylor's going to be able to pitch on this night is a shot of Nyquil and about 10 hours of sleep.
But, truthfully, it's really not that easy to tell when Taylor's under the weather, because the vocal rasp that would indicate a sore throat in someone else is actually Taylor's professional calling card. Her tonsil-shredding blues wails are so overpowering that for years some critics had a hard time with her records, believing that what was exciting live came off bombastic on a recording. It's a complaint that's been leveled from time to time against most of blues' wildest performers (from Howlin' Wolf to Bessie Smith). But Taylor has always followed her instincts, and trusted the purity of that big voice. It's a voice that she says revealed itself from the first time she guested with a blues band on the South Side of Chicago four decades ago.
"It was there early," Taylor says of her voice. "It wasn't as strong as it is now. But I've been doing this more than 30 years, and anything you do long enough, you either get better or worse. And the older I got, the stronger my voice got. But the bottom line is, it's like fine whiskey. The older it gets, the better it tastes."
For a second, Taylor's boast makes her sound like the character she plays onstage, the tough-talking blues matriarch who brags in the self-penned song "63 Year Old Mama": "There may be snow on the mountain/But there's fire under the hill."
You sense that other people saw this brassiness in Taylor before she saw it in herself. After legendary blues songwriter Willie Dixon signed her to Chess Records in 1962, the first song he wrote specifically for her to record was "I Got What It Takes." In this harmonica-driven track, Taylor lustily boasts, "I got the same thing that makes a bulldog break his chain." This record set the pattern for a string of cocky anthems, such as "Don't Mess With the Messer," "(I Got) All You Need" and "I Don't Care Who Knows."
But for all her onstage bravado, in conversation Taylor comes off as essentially humble, someone who works hard at her job and considers herself lucky that she's been able to endure. She recalls that Dixon taught her how to write her first songs, and helped her conquer her lack of confidence. "I told him that I could not write a song," she recalls. "But he said I could if I put my mind to it."
In many ways, Taylor's story mirrors not only the development of urban blues, but also the 20th-century African-American experience. Like so many blues greats, she was born in the Mississippi Delta region, in the music mecca of Memphis.
"It was just on the outskirts of slavery," she says of Memphis. "It was during the time that it was 'yes, ma'am' and 'no, sir.' It was about going in the back door of somebody's house and the back door if we rode the bus. But even so, those was the good ol' days because it wasn't then like it is now. It wasn't scary. Things wouldn't happen then like they happen today. And I never had no problem, none whatsoever, when I was growing up in Memphis. It was always calm and pleasant when I was there."
Most important, Memphis was the epicenter of southern blues at the time, with the first black-operated radio station in the country (WDIA) and the hottest music strip south of Harlem (Beale Street). Taylor recalls that she and her brothers would sneak over to Beale Street and see a young, svelte B.B. King stand on the corner and play the guitar. During that same period, King hosted a radio show on WDIA, and would frequently play live on the air. As big an inspiration as King was, though, Taylor took inspiration from an earlier blues icon.
"I listened to this woman named Memphis Minnie, and she had a record called 'Me and My Chauffeur,' and on the flip side of that song was a song called 'Black Rat Blues,'" Taylor says. "And I thought it was so funny, and something about that song stuck to me like red beans and rice. I've never forgotten that song, and that was the first song that I paid attention to, as far as blues."
Like so many other blues artists of her generation, Taylor was confronted with a father who did not approve of the blues. "He just wanted us to go to church and sing gospel and live the gospel way. Well, we tried to live the gospel way, but we would sneak in some blues and listen to it without him knowing it."
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.