Koko Taylor (1928-2009): An Appreciation

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Koko Taylor, a sharecropper’s daughter whose five-decade career earned her the nickname “Queen of the Blues,” has died at 80. Taylor suffered complications Wednesday after surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital for a gastrointestinal bleed, according to label Alligator Records.

Over the course of her career, Taylor was nominated seven times for Grammy awards and won in 1984. She was also the subject of a PBS documentary and had a small part in director David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart.” Born Cora Walton just outside Memphis, Taylor last performed on May 7 in Memphis, Tenn., at the Blues Music Awards.

Here’s our take on a late-period favorite from Koko, a holiday tune of hers that’s a special favorite, and a list of other must-haves from Taylor’s catalog. Click through the titles for expanded reviews …

FORCE OF NATURE (1993): This record marked Koko Taylor’s 20th year on Alligator Records — and 28th since her remarkable hit rendition of Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle.’ Yet it found the Tennessee native still taking gutsy risks with song selection.

Start with “If I Can’t Be First,” which is prototypical Koko: Gargly vocals, and bap-bap horn breaks. It’s made complete with her legendary heck-with-you attitude.

This familiar stop-dogging-me-around stance finds its surest footing in her now-legendary update (or is a backdate?) on “Hound Dog,” which initially hit not with Elvis’ Wonder bread take but on a racy so-called race record by Big Mama Thornton. Taylor reclaims the song from a woman’s perspective, and it’s all the more powerful for it.

She even provides a tingly thrill with a jazzy vocal intro that owes more than a little to Ella.

‘MERRY, MERRY CHRISTMAS’ (1992): That big, saucy voice of hers makes Koko Taylor the modern incarnation of classic lady blues belters like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. She can lift any tune solely on the attitude she brings to it.

And so is the case for “Merry, Merry Christmas.” This song won’t ever become quite as memorable in the holiday season as, say “Please Come Home For Christmas” — more popularly known as “Bells Will Be Ringing.”

That doesn’t matter, though, because with Koko’s sassy wailing, it provides a great excuse to sway to some prime, funky electric Chicago blues done right by one of its living legends whilst chugging egg nog and positioning yourself under the mistletoe.

OTHER MUST-HAVES FROM KOKO TAYLOR

“KOKO TAYLOR” (1969): Her Chess Records debut; this is where you find Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle.”

“I GOT WHAT IT TAKES” (1975): Mighty Joe Young is one of two guitarists who burn their way through Koko Taylor’s first record for Alligator.

“THE EARTHSHAKER” (1978): Home to “You Can Have My Husband,” and her response to “Mannish Boy”: “I’m A Woman.” A sassy delight.

“QUEEN OF THE BLUES” (1985): Fun duets recording, with Albert Collins, Son Seals, Lonnie Brooks and others.

“OLD SCHOOL”: (2007): A set-closing reminder of her strength and grace, recorded in the wake of a staggering run of health problems three years before that left Koko Taylor in a coma.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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