Koko Taylor, a sharecropper’s daughter whose regal bearing and powerful voice earned her the sobriquet “Queen of the Blues,” died June 3 in Chicago after complications from surgery. She was 80.
Taylor died 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.
“The passion that she brought and the fire and the growl in her voice when she sang was the truth,” blues singer and musician Ronnie Baker Brooks said Wednesday. “The music will live on, but it’s much better because of Koko. It’s a huge loss.”
Taylor’s career stretched more than five decades. While she did not have widespread mainstream success, she was revered and beloved by blues aficionados, and earned worldwide acclaim for her work, which including the best-selling song “Wang Dang Doodle” and tunes such as “What Kind of Man is This” and “I Got What It Takes.”
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.”
“What a loss to the blues world,” said Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy. “She was one of the last of the greats of Chicago and really did what she could to keep the blues alive here, like I’m trying to do now.”
In the course of her career, Taylor was nominated seven times for Grammy awards and won in 1984.
Taylor last performed on May 7 in Memphis, Tennessee, at the Blues Music Awards.
“She was still the best female blues singer in the world a month ago,” said Jay Sieleman, executive director of The Blues Foundation based in Memphis. “In 1950s Chicago she was the woman singing the blues. At 80 years old she was still the queen of the blues.”
Born Cora Walton just outside Memphis, 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.
“I was so glad to get out of the cotton patch and stop pickin’ cotton, I wouldn’t of cared who come by and said, ‘I’ll take you to Chicago,'” Taylor recalled in a 2004 interview with The Associated Press.
When she first entered the city, she thought, “Good God, this must be heaven,” Taylor said.
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, who would later become her manager, 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.”
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.”
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.
Survivors include her daughter; husband Hays Harris; grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
— Associated Press