Queen of the Blues
An interview with Koko Taylor
By Terry Loncaric

Older is better in the blues. Nobody sings, sweats, howls, and growls like 72-year-old "Queen of the Blues" Koko Taylor. Even after recent heart surgery she was hitting the blues circuit with a vengeance.

Taylor is an inscrutable part of Chicago's blues history. The only solo female artist on Chicago's independent Alligator label, Taylor has become the senior diva of the blues fest circuit. She sings with grit and passion and has helped define Chicago blues as a spicy stew of blues, rock and roll, and sassy "south side" attitude.

Taylor cleaned houses before she recorded such scorching blues hits as "Wang Dang Doodle" and "I'm a Woman." Today she tours with rock stars. She had a cameo role in the quirky David Lynch movie Wild at Heart, and PBS did a documentary on her life.

Taylor can still sing with fire in her lungs after close to 50 years of traveling the blues circuit. In the words of one wise critic, Koko Taylor remains "the sweaty, growling goddess of down 'n' dirty blues."

Gadfly: You keep some ferocious hours yet you do all of your interviews in the morning. How does that work?

I'm used to it. I have to be both a night and morning person. At night I'm entertaining and traveling. When I'm up in the morning, I have to do interviews, and I love to spend time with my baby granddaughter Raven. I'm always on some kind of schedule. I don't have time to sleep [laughing]. [Staying busy is] just a habit for me.

I have watched you sing through two and three encores at blues festivals. Where do you get all your energy?

I just eat these good ole red beans and rice. [laughs] It's really my love of the music. I just can't imagine doing anything else. I grew up around the blues. I used to listen to B.B. King on the radio, and I used to sing with my brothers in the backyard. The blues is all I have ever known. I sing because I love what I'm doing. My fans give back to me, and I give back to them. I like it when people get up and dance to my music. That's what keeps me going. I ain't fixin’ to retire.

Does it bother you that so much of today's blues is a hybrid of sounds?

I'm musically inclined, so I like all music, but the blues has always been closest to my heart. Everybody doesn't like the same thing. Some people prefer the really slow Muddy Waters style of singing the blues. Some people prefer the ballads you can sit and listen to. Others prefer the up-tempo beats. I like all of them. I like to mix it up.

You often growl and even sweat when you sing. How did you develop your unique style of interpreting the blues?

When Willie Dixon first heard me sing, he said, "My God, I never heard a woman sing the blues like you sing the blues." When I started singing, it just came out like it is todayrough and raw. It isn't something I really thought about. What you hear comin' out of my mouth is a God-given talent. I could sing the blues in January and still sweat. If you ain't sweat, you ain't done sang the blues.

What made you prevail in a career that tossed you so many curveballs? [Chess, her first record label, folded, before Alligator, an independent blues label, signed her.]

I had to get down to the nitty-gritty and say, "I'm not going to let anybody turn me around." You have to be strong to do what I'm doing. You can't be no cauliflower because somebody done hurt your feelings today. It's not every woman who can hang in there and do what I am doing. Willie Dixon told me, "There are lots of men singing the blues today, but not enough women. That's what the world needsa woman with a voice like yours to sing the blues."

You have shared the stage with so many giants in the music business. Do any stand out?

Over the years, I have worked with so many wonderful peoplethat's true. I met Bonnie Raitt, and we did a show together. That was great. I call Kenny Wayne Shepherd my "play son." We just became friendly after he was a guest artist on my last CD [Royal Blue]. It was also great touring with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. It not only made my dayit made my month. The fact that they are really big stuff did it for me. I was very honored to be on the same stage with them. What I really like about them is they are so down to earth. I am always honored that all of these performers respect me and like me enough to want to share a stage with me. It makes me feel so special.

You never seem to tire of singing "Wang Dang Doodle," your signature hit. What exactly does it mean to "wang dang doodle all night long"?

It means having a good time. In the old days, we used to party, and Saturday was our night to have a good time. The men were chasing the women. We were drinking whiskey. That song has a lot of spirit. Every time I sing it, it brings back a lot of memories about the old days.

In a more serious vein, when you sing "I'm a Woman" and "Don't Put Your Hands on Me," you express that you are a woman not to be messed with. What do those powerful songs mean to you?

The message of "I'm a Woman" is that even though I'm a woman, I'm as strong as you. This song was written as a response to Muddy Waters and all the men in the blues. Every song I sing has a message. "Don't Put Your Hands on Me" is a song about a woman standing up to her abusive husband. Sometimes women come up to me after a show with tears in their eyes, and thank me for singing that song. I never get depressed singing the blues. I try to bring a feeling to my songs that people can relate to. My music is designed to make people feel they can make it if they try. My belief is that the sun ain't gonna shine every day. I have to be just as thankful for the cloudy as the sunshiny days.

It seems like there is a growing legion of fans who love the blues. Why is there this resurgence in a musical genre that has really been around for a very long time?

First of all, it's really good music and it's a music that is always understandable. The blues is a true feeling that comes from my heart. It's the music of human experience.

You have made many albums, appeared in movies, what's left for you to do?

I'd like to do more to really promote the blues and get young people interested in the blues. There's not a lot of young people listening to the blues. I want to educate the next generation and show them how to sing the blues. I want to get it through their little heads the blues is cool, and the blues will never die. It's music that sticks to your ribslike red beans and rice.