Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Ko Ko Taylor Passes Away at 80

I have not been blogging much lately, but I thought I should pay due respect to a true pioneer of the blues genre, Ko Ko Taylor. I once had the pleasure of seeing Ms. Taylor at the Blue Cafe in Long Beach, California. When she belted out "Wang Dang Doodle" I had never heard anything quite like it. Born Cora Walton on a sharecropper’s farm just outside Memphis, TN, on September 28, 1928, Koko, nicknamed for her love of chocolate, fell in love with music at an early age. Inspired by gospel music and WDIA blues disc jockeys B.B. King and Rufus Thomas, Taylor began belting the blues with her five brothers and sisters, accompanying themselves on their homemade instruments. Legend has it that in 1952, Taylor and her soon-to-be-husband, the late Robert “Pops” Taylor, traveled to Chicago with nothing but, in Koko’s words, “thirty-five cents and a box of Ritz Crackers.

In Chicago, “Pops” worked for a packing company, and Koko cleaned houses. Together they frequented the city’s blues clubs nightly. Encouraged by her husband, Koko began to sit in with the city’s top blues bands, and soon she was in demand as a guest artist. One evening in 1962 Koko was approached by arranger/composer Willie Dixon. Overwhelmed by Koko’s performance, Dixon landed Koko a Chess Records recording contract, where he produced her several singles, two albums and penned her million-selling 1965 hit “Wang Dang Doodle,” which would become Taylor’s signature song.

After Chess Records was sold, Taylor found a home with the Chicago’s Alligator Records in 1975 and released the Grammy-nominated I Got What It Takes. She recorded eight more albums for Alligator between 1978 and 2007, received seven more Grammy nominations and made numerous guest appearances on various albums and tribute recordings. Koko appeared in the films Wild At Heart, Mercury Rising and Blues Brothers 2000. She performed on Late Night With David Letterman, Late Night With Conan O’Brien, CBS-TV’s This Morning, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, CBS-TV’s Early Edition, and numerous regional television programs.

Over the course of her 40-plus-year career, Taylor received every award the blues world has to offer. On March 3, 1993, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley honored Taylor with a “Legend Of The Year” Award and declared “Koko Taylor Day” throughout Chicago. In 1997, she was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame. A year later, Chicago Magazine named her “Chicagoan Of The Year” and, in 1999, Taylor received the Blues Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2009 Taylor performed in Washington, D.C. at The Kennedy Center Honors honoring Morgan Freeman.

Koko Taylor was one of very few women who found success in the male-dominated blues world. She took her music from the tiny clubs of Chicago’s South Side to concert halls and major festivals all over the world. She shared stages with every major blues star, including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy as well as rock icons Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.

Taylor’s final performance was on May 7, 2009 in Memphis at the Blues Music Awards, where she sang “Wang Dang Doodle” after receiving her award for Traditional Blues Female Artist Of The Year.

Survivors include Taylor’s husband Hays Harris, daughter Joyce Threatt, son-in-law Lee Threatt, grandchildren Lee, Jr. and Wendy, and three great-grandchildren.


Candy Minx said...

I have been playing that exact same video for the past few days. Stagg and I have also both seen her live and her singing was really something unique and powerful. Good post!

Hope you are doing well!


Lori said...

PJ, thanks for the info. I thought it was incredibly fitting that Ms. Taylor was given her last award in Memphis, the home of the Blues.

I can remember, years ago, being in a club on Beale Street with some friends from out of town when Wang, Dang, Doodle started playing over the loudspeakers. I couldn't believe it when one of our friends claimed they had never heard the song.

I bet Ms. Taylor is somewhere up there pitching herself one grand Wang, Dang, Doodle . . .

pjazzypar said...

Hi Candy, I am doing fine, just really busy. I am teaching and working and in the midst of a transition. My breakthrough is on the horizon. Pray for me! I hope you are well also. Ko Ko Taylor was an American treasure. No one (and I mean No One) could belt out a song with the richness and enthusiasm as she. I bet she is at the Pearly Gates pitching a "Wang Dang Doodle".

Hey Lori, It is very fitting that Ko Ko was in Memphis this year. You know I got to get to Memphis, I have never been. I just got to get to Beale Street and visit the ground zero for the blues. A couple of years ago Stax record was reformed and as you might well know I was always a staunch supporter of that label from Issac to the Staple Singers to the Dramatics.

But I digress, back to Ko Ko I cannot imagine anyone not ever hearing that song. On their first album, the Pointer Sisters did a rousing four part harmony version of the song. And although I love me some Pointer Sisters that could not hold a candle to Ko Ko.

Malcolm said...

Very nice tribute. I didn't know that you saw Koko perform out in Long Beach. I really liked the story of Koko and her husband driving to Chicago with only 35 cents and some Ritz crackers.