Koko Taylor, the Queen of the Blues

by Jeff Siegel

When I was in college, Muddy Waters played five minutes from where I lived. I didn’t go, because I was young and stupid and figured I’d have many chances to see him play. He died a couple of years later, and I never did see him live.

So when Koko Taylor swung through Texas several years ago, I made sure to see the show. That it was an hour from my house and that it was on a weeknight didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice.

That’s the first thing I thought of when I read that Taylor, 80, died on Wednesday. I had been lucky and smart enough to see a legend go through her paces. Because Taylor, the first woman to succeed in the very male-dominated world of the Chicago blues, was a legend. All you have to do is listen to one song, whether it’s her classic version of “Wang Dang Doodle” or “Young-Fashioned Ways,” from 2007’s Old School, and it’s clear that she could more than hold her own with Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon.

This is an incredible achievement, and not just because the music business mostly treats women as disposable sex objects. It’s because the blues, and Chicago blues especially, is about men and how they have been emasculated by a system of racial and social injustice. The best Delta blues, like Waters’ “I’m Ready” and Wolf’s “The Red Rooster,” are howls in the night by black men who are desperate to be seen as something more than what Jim Crow says they are. Which means the songs are about sex — the rooster imagery is obvious, and Waters’ isn’t getting ready to go to a tea party. (That younger African-Americans have never understood this used to drive Dixon crazy, and he always insisted, until the day he died in 1992, that the blues was just as potent at the end of the 20th century as it was in the middle.)

So how does a woman fit into this? By doing what Taylor did — by being good enough and patient enough to make her own space. Her songs, many written by Dixon and including “Wang Dang Doodle,” deal with the issues that the Chicago blues deals with, but from a woman’s perspective. It’s an amazing achievement. “Wang Dang Doodle” is about getting drunk and picking up women, and Taylor completely turns it around.

Taylor was also a band leader of great repute, another part of the Chicago blues tradition. Waters’ band included Little Walter, the greatest harp player who ever lived, and usually had Dixon on bass. Wolf’s band featured Hubert Sumlin, probably the best guitar player most people have never heard of. Taylor’s band on Old School, her final record, is tight and rocking, with guitarist Criss Johnson and harpist Billy Branch doing exactly what needs to be done when it needs to be done. If you have to go, there are a lot of worse ways than with Old School as your legacy. Taylor will be much missed.

Koko Taylor
1928 — 2009

(The promotional photo of Koko Taylor is from Alligator Records. To see a video of Koko Taylor singing "Wang Dang Doodle" backed by Little Walter and Hound Dog Taylor circa 1967, please check below.)

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