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Remembering Koko Taylor: A Blues Mama’s Heyday on Chess Records

RBP mourns the passing of Chicago matriarch, most famous for her version of Willie Dixon's "Wang Dang Doodle." Don Snowden wrote these liners about Koko's golden years on the Windy City's Chess label.-- Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

IT'S ALTOGETHER FITTING that Koko Taylor's first Chess single was "I Got What It Takes." Nearly three decades in the blues business--years punctuated by a satchel-full of Grammy nominations and W.C. Handy awards for her string of albums released on Alligator--have long since dispelled any doubts about Taylor's capabilities as a blues vocalist.

But every successful career has a starting point and Koko Taylor's roots lie in the songs collected on What It Takes/The Chess Years, the recorded fruits of an eight-year stint under the massive wing of Chess blues majordomo Willie Dixon. And the Chess association was a two-way street--Koko provided the label with its last Top 10 R&B chart hurrah by a stone blues artist in 1966 with the bona-fide classic "Wang Dang Doodle". 

"When "Wang Dang Doodle" hit the top of the charts, everything was new to me and I didn't know what a hit was," Taylor recalled. "When they told me that I had sold a million copies, I couldn't believe it. It was like, you know how you dream something but you wake up and whatever you had in that dream is gone already? That's how I felt--it just couldn't happen to me."

Taylor was the perfect vehicle for bringing to life the raffish crew of hard-core party characters Dixon assembled in "Wang Dang Doodle" because what separates Koko Taylor from the blues pack is her huge, rough-hewn roar of a voice. Her singing really had no contemporary equivalents when she began recording in the mid-'60s. Female vocalists of the day in the R&B sphere were either channeled towards the demure propriety of the Supremes or the gospel-rooted shouting of Aretha Franklin.

The pop world was largely overrun by delicate folkies and chirpy girl group harmonizing--the leather lunged, whiskey-drenched blues/rock mama school epitomized by Janis Joplin would only arrive a few years later. Etta James came closest, working more in a soul vein, but Koko Taylor was pretty much off by herself, looking back to the true blues female forebears for her sources.

"I never have, during my whole career, tried to pattern after anybody else," says Taylor. "I've always wanted to do my thing and do something so that some day, somewhere, somebody would say, 'I would like to sound like Koko. I would like to do a tune close to what she did,' pattern after me.

"When I was growing up down in Memphis I used to listen to older blues singers from back in the '30s--Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, Ma Rainey--and there was Big Maybelle. I got a lot of inspiration of from these ladies and I want people to love my music as well as I love Bessie Smith's."

Born Cora Taylor in 1935, Taylor grew up in the blues life--singing gospel in church, hearing blues over the radio at home and singing the songs while picking cotton in the fields outside of Memphis, Tennessee. She made the northward trek to Chicago in 1953 with her future husband, Robert "Pops" Taylor, and worked as a domestic on the affluent North Side while he toiled in steel mills. Together they made the rounds of the city's blues clubs, where Koko had the inimitable experience of sitting in with the likes of Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Jimmy Reed and J. B. Lenoir--the cream of the Windy City's blues crop and the core of the Chess roster.

But music remained only a casual enjoyment until Chicago DJ Big Bill Hill introduced Taylor to Willie Dixon, who saw potential in Taylor's huge voice and immediately signed her to a management/production deal that lasted for the duration of her Chess stint. Her first recordings were actually released on USA and Spivey Records, the latter an impromptu 1961 jam session recorded in Dixon's basement--Taylor didn't even know she had been recorded until a year later, when she received an album and her first royalty check (for $25).

"All of us were down in Willie Dixon's basement and we were just like having a jam session," laughs Taylor. "I never thought about it until a year later when they came to Chicago and gave me an album that I was on and the first royalty check I ever had--$25."

And in June of 1964, Koko went into the Chess studios to record "I Got What It Takes".

"Willie Dixon negotiated how the songs would go, arranged the music and selected the musicians," said Taylor of her Chess years. "My job was to sing and that's what I did, no more and no less.

"Willie was willing to listen to my suggestions but the only thing was that during those years I didn't have a lot of experience. I was quite green as to what to do or what not to do, put horns here or harmonica there. In this recording business, if you don't really know what you're talking about, you can't be too much of a help."

Dixon was obviously receptive to one Taylor suggestion--covering Betty James' vibrant "I'm A Little Mixed Up", one of the handful of Taylor's early pieces that didn't bear his distinctive songwriting stamp. "I Got What It Takes" was cut from a classic Chicago blues mold but working with Taylor also pushed Dixon outside his usual writing scheme of things towards more up-tempo songs with soul-tinged, horn-flavored arrangements that even found him functioning as a virtual co-lead vocalist on several tunes.

The result was an assortment of fresh approaches tailored to Taylor--from the high-striding shuffle "I Got All You Need" to the harrowing melodrama of "Insane Asylum", the racehorse tempo and love/lust theme of "Fire" to the slinky riffs & philosophizing of "(Which Came First) The Egg or the Hen", the soul-slanted punchiness of "Don't Mess With The Messer" to a flawed experiment in mid-song rhythm shifts like "Love Me, Baby". But always front and center were the robust vocals of Taylor as she delivered performances that displayed far more range and sensitivity to dynamics than one might expect from her rough 'n' tough image.

But Taylor arrived on the scene at a time when the popularity of blues was waning in the face of the soul surge. The success of 'Wang Dang Doodle' only enabled her to get club engagements in Chicago and a few other urban centers and it wasn't until 1969 that Taylor's early Chess singles were collected on the Koko Taylor album.

The sessions for her second album, 1972's Basic Soul, may have largely stripped away the soul trappings and horns--save for "I Need More"--but there was no lack of variety in that relaxed, back-to-basics approach. Look no further than Lafayette Leake's rollicking piano on "Um Um, My Baby," the steady rolling momentum generated on the typical Dixon lament "Bills, Bills, Bills" or the slippery riffs locking in behind Taylor in her man-hunter mode on "Let Me Love You, Baby" for proof positive. The surprising flip side of the coin is the previously unreleased "Blue Prelude," where Taylor skilfully runs the vocal dynamics gamut as she successfully--save for one sour stretch--negotiates an ambitious series of jazz-tinged chord changes. 

No slip-ups mar the impromptu encore jam of "I Got What It Takes"/"The Same Thing," recorded at the 1972 Montreux Festival with Taylor trading verses with Muddy Waters backed by Leake and Little Walter's original backing band, the Aces. It's an altogether fitting closer to What It Takes/The Chess Years, a full-circle reminder of the early stages of a career that began with Taylor just sitting in for fun with her blues heroes. 

But that cycle continues, even after Taylor severed her ties with Chess and Dixon in 1972, formed her own Blues Machine band, signed with Alligator and embarked on the career that established her as a worldwide blues star and a 1984 Grammy winner as one of the featured artists on the Blues Connection album. Apart from the inevitable "Wang Dang Doodle," "29 Ways" and "Let Me Love You, Baby" still occasionally pop up in her live sets, a sure-fire indication of the ongoing importance of the material contained on What It Takes/The Chess Years to the career of Koko Taylor.

"I enjoyed working there at Chess and working with Dixon," Taylor summed up. "I still say that if it wasn't for Willie Dixon, I probably wouldn't have been where I am today because he was the beginnings and roots of my career."

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