Koko Taylor, ‘Queen of the Blues’, Dies at 80

BY Arts Desk  June 4, 2009 at 3:51 PM EST

“A lot of people think blues music is something to make you look sad, look down at yourself. But I tell everybody: not my blues, my music is like a therapy. It’s designed to make people look up, pep up, get up, smile, feel better about themselves.” – Koko Taylor, from the PBS documentary “Godfathers and Sons”

Koko Taylor, the soulful blues songstress, died Wednesday in Chicago at the age of 80, due to complications from a stomach surgery.

Taylor, born Cora Walton, grew up outside Memphis, Tenn., on a sharecropper’s farm. She earned her nickname, Koko, from her love of chocolate, and sang from an early age: gospel with her family, but some undercover blues with her brothers, one playing a guitar made out of baling wire and nails and another on a fife made from a corncob. She was orphaned at the age of 11, and at 18 decided to leave Memphis with her future husband. “I was tired of picking cotton, so I said I’m going to Chicago,” she told PBS in 2003, “They tell me if you go up there you can find a real good job.”

When she arrived, Taylor went to a performance by the legendary bluesman Howlin’ Wolf. According to Taylor’s account, Howlin’ Wolf called out to her at the show, saying “We got little Koko in the house,” and called her up on stage so he could grab himself a drink. When she started singing, the audience showed their Koko craving, prompting record producer Willie Dixon to approach her. The next day he took Taylor to Chess Records, where she recorded from 1964 to 1972. Dixon and Taylor recorded several singles and albums together, including the 1965 hit, “Wang Dang Doodle.”

After Chess Records folded, Alligator Records label founder Bruce Iglauer signed Taylor in 1975. “Koko was tireless,” Iglauer has said. “She always wanted to record with the live band to urge them on.”

Her zeal for recording and performing, often with more than 100 performances a year, earned Taylor many accolades. After numerous Grammy nominations, she won in 1984 for the compilation album “Blues Explosion,” from Atlantic Records. In David Lynch’s dark and stormy 1990 film “Wild at Heart,” Koko Taylor played herself, singing in a nightclub. Taylor has been awarded 29 Blues Music Awards, more than any other artist, including, most recently, traditional blues female artist of the year, last month following her final performance.

In the past decade, Taylor also dabbled in the nightclub business with her daughter Joyce Threatt running Koko Taylor’s Celebrity nightclub in Chicago’s South Loop from 1999 to 2001. The club closed due to Threatt’s asthma, and Threatt now runs the Koko Taylor Celebrity Aid Foundation, which assists struggling blues performers. In addition to Threatt, Koko Taylor is survived by her husband, Hays Harris; two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.