They called her the Queen of the Blues. She was born Cora Walton but got her nickname Koko from her love of chocolate. Koko Taylor earned fame in the male-dominated blues profession after being discovered in a Chicago nightclub. Taylor attributed her success in blues to her devotion to traditional style.
“I’m about the only woman out there singing the old, traditional Mississippi blues,” she once told Contemporary Musicians in an interview. “Guys like the Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters … this is where I got my inspiration from. This is where I got my courage and strength. I would think that’s what caused me to be where I am today.”
Born and raised down in Memphis, Tennessee, on a sharecropper’s cotton farm in 1935, Taylor was the youngest of six children. Her father primarily raised her and her siblings after their mother’s death in 1939. “He would make everybody in the household work. When we weren’t in the fields working, we would cut wood for our cooking stove and we’d pick up our kindling,” she recalled in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. “I didn’t get a chance to go to school a lot so I didn’t get a big education or college degree. What I know, I taught myself.”
Taylor taught herself music through the gospel songs she sang in her church choir and the blues she heard on the radio. She would listen to blues records by Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, and Mathis James ‘Jimmy’ Reed during bluesman B. B. King’s radio show. In fact, the first blues record she ever heard was “Me and My Memphis Blues” by Memphis Minnie.
“I was 12 or 13, and just loved it,” she told Chicago Tribune. And on weekdays while she picked and chopped cotton with her family, they would all sing their own blues. “…We would sing gospel on Sunday and blues on Monday. That’s the way I was raised up,” she said to Contemporary Musicians.
At age 18, Taylor got married to Robert Pops Taylor and she followed him to Chicago in search of work. She cleaned houses of some wealthy individuals in the day and then hung out in blues clubs at night, where she met blues greats like Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf, and Junior Wells. Taylor’s husband introduced her to these acts and soon, she was on stage performing with them.
It was during one of these performances that composer and arranger Willie Dixon discovered her. After performing with the Howlin’ Wolf band, Taylor recalled in her interview with Contemporary Musicians that, “Dixon came down and said, ‘My God, I never heard a woman sing the blues like you sing the blues.'”
Dixon later wrote three songs for her — “Don’t Mess with the Messer,” “Which Came First, the Egg or the Hen?” and “Wang Dang Doodle”, introducing her to Chicago’s Chess Records, where she signed her first contract. In 1964 “Wang Dang Doodle” was released and it sold a million copies. The hit boosted Taylor’s career and as her performing schedule grew, she quit her day job, and started performing with her Blues Machine band while writing her own songs including the hit “Jump for Joy”.
After Chess Records folded, Taylor signed with Alligator Records in 1974 and she continued to perform, earning acclaim in Chicago and throughout the U.S. and Europe. But then tragedy struck when she lost her husband in 1988 following a car accident. She was devastated but her love for her music kept her going.
Besides her concerts, she entered the film industry, starting off with Wild at Heart in 1990 and following it with Force of Nature in 1993, which earned a Grammy nomination. That same year she starred in her second film, the mayor of Chicago, Richard M. Daley, declared March 3, 1993, as “Koko Taylor Day,” presenting her with a “Legend of the Year” award.
Taylor took a break from recording but continued her national tours. She did this for seven years during which she got married again. In 1998, she was named Chicagoan of the Year and was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame in 1999. That year, she opened her own blues club — Koko Taylor’s Chicago Blues and returned to recording in 2000.
Thanks to her amazing records and her powerful voice and personality, she was nominated for several Grammys and won in 1984. The “Queen of the Blues” passed away in June 2009 in Chicago after complications from surgery for a gastrointestinal bleed. She was 80.
Before her death, she had described her style of blues to NPR.
“My blues is not depressing. When I go up on stage to sing blues, I have joy in every lyric that come out of my mouth. I’m up there to make other people feel good, not to make them feel sad. So, my blues, it’s not sad at all, it’s all fun and happiness and telling a story, relating to other people where they can relate to what I’m singing about.
“You know, every song that you sing, it might – that shoe might not fit your feet, but it’s going to fit somebody else’s. You know, you touch somebody’s heart through a song.”