Blues legend Koko Taylor dies

June 3, 2009 9:50:46 PM PDT
Koko Taylor, a sharecropper's daughter whose regal bearing and powerful voice earned her the sobriquet "Queen of the Blues," has died after complications from surgery. She was 80.Taylor died Wednesday at Northwestern Memorial Hospital about two weeks after having surgery for a gastrointestinal bleed, said Marc Lipkin, director of publicity for her record label, Alligator Records, which made the announcement.

A moment of silence was held on Wednesday night for the Chicago singer whose sound changed blues music.

"They don't come around like that but once in a lifetime. Muhammad Ali. You know, those people come around once in a lifetime," said Buddy Guy, blues musician.

Koko Taylor was born on a sharecropper's farm in Tennessee. She left Memphis as a teenager and came to Chicago where she started performing in nightclubs, belting out Blues with legends like Buddy Guy and Willie Dixon.

In 1975, she teamed up with music producer Bruce Iglauer.

"Koko's music was so direct, so honest, and so much from the soul," said Bruce Iglauer, Alligator Records, president & founder.

Iglauer still has Taylor's Grammy award in his northside office - and posters of Koko adorn his walls. Iglauer says Taylor was like his wife, mother and child. They even fired each other a few times.

Essentially, Taylor was a tough cookie in a male-dominated Blues world.

"Koko decided she was going to be as tough as any man, any Blues band in the world. She led her band with an iron hand," said Iglauer.

As Taylor's star continued to rise along with awards came recognition. Stevie Ray Vaughn, Paul Schafer, The Rolling Stones. Taylor mixed it up with all of them. And when you were on stage with her she was the Queen of the Blues.

"You knew you were with the Queen. You knew you were with the best. She was always professional and she always gave her best," said Billy Branch, blues artist.

And she mixed that sound from the Delta with the flavor of Chicago.

"It's rough and it's tough," said Branch.

Mayor Richard Daley released a statement on Wednesday that says, in part, "Taylor's life and music brought joy to millions of people all around the world and Chicago is especially honored that she called our city her home.

Koko Taylor is survived by her second husband as well as her only daughter and her grandchildren. They live in Chicago but for about the last 19 years they've lived in Country Club Hills. The funeral arrangements are pending.

Taylor's career

The break for Tennessee-born Taylor came in 1962, when arranger/composer Willie Dixon, impressed by her voice, got her a Chess recording contract and produced several singles (and two albums) for her, including the million-selling 1965 hit, "Wang Dang Doodle," which she called silly, but which launched her recording career.

From Chicago blues clubs, Taylor took her raucous, gritty, good-time blues on the road to blues and jazz festivals around the nation, and into Europe. After the Chess label folded, she signed with Alligator Records.

In most years, she performed at least 100 concerts a year.

"Blues is my life," Taylor once said. "It's a true feeling that comes from the heart, not something that just comes out of my mouth. Blues is what I love, and blues is what I always do."

Taylor appeared on national television numerous times, and was the subject of a PBS documentary and had a small part in director David Lynch's "Wild at Heart."

In the course of her more than 40-year career, Taylor was nominated seven times for Grammy awards and won in 1984.

Born Cora Walton just outside Memphis, Tenn., Taylor said her dream to become a blues singer was nurtured in the cotton fields outside her family's sharecropper shack.

"I used to listen to the radio, and when I was about 18 years old, B.B. King was a disc jockey and he had a radio program, 15 minutes a day, over in West Memphis, Arkansas and he would play the blues," she said in a 1990 interview. "I would hear different records and things by Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, Sonnyboy Williams and all these people, you know, which I just loved."

Although her father encouraged her to sing only gospel music, Cora and her siblings would sneak out back with their homemade instruments and play the blues. With one brother accompanying on a guitar made out of bailing wire and nails and one brother on a fife made out of a corncob, she began on the path to blues woman.

Orphaned at 11, Koko -- a nickname she earned because of an early love of chocolate -- at age 18 moved to Chicago with her soon-to-be-husband, the late Robert "Pops" Taylor, in search for work.

Setting up house on the South Side, Koko found work as a cleaning woman for a wealthy family living in the city's northern suburbs. At night and on weekends, she and her husband frequented Chicago's clubs, where many the artists heard on the radio performed.

"I started going to these local clubs, me and my husband, and everybody got to know us," Taylor said. "And then the guys would start letting me sit in, you know, come up on the bandstand and do a tune."

In addition to performing, she operated a Chicago nightclub, which closed in November 2001 because her daughter, club manager Joyce Threatt, developed severe asthma and could no longer manage a smoky nightclub.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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