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
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'
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
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
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
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
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.