Koko is a knockout

Sep 11, 2002 at 12:00 am

The first time Koko Taylor performed at the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival in 1972, most of the young white kids busily discovering the blues there had never heard of her. But — back in her sweet home Chicago, and in smoky, bawdy, hard-rocking, shot-and-a-beer, black blues bars around the country — she was a rising star, practically the only woman seriously trying to make a career out of belting modern, heavily amplified, Chicago-style blues.

And belt she did, roaring with the best of them, including, at that time, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little and Big Walter, Jimmy Rogers — that music’s founding fathers.

She had two secret weapons. One was her startling voice — a combination of granite, gravel and grit that exploded on command from deep down in her gut. The other was Willie Dixon, the bassist, singer, bandleader and top dog when it came to writing, producing and recording tunes for Chess Records. When Dixon heard Taylor he swore to her that he “had never heard a woman sing the blues like you sing the blues. There are lots of men singing the blues today, but not enough women. That’s what the world needs today, a woman with a voice like yours to sing the blues!”

So Dixon produced some Chess sessions for Taylor; together they cut her version of the bassist’s “Wang Dang Doodle,” which black buyers made a bona fide million-selling hit single in 1965. White kids missed it completely; they were too busy digging Clapton, Mayall, the Stones and other British blues invaders.

All of that changed when Koko took the stage at the first Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival and unleashed her tight, hard-hitting band and her patented roar on the unsuspecting audience. It led to all sorts of things, including a standing ovation, a head-turning cut on Atlantic Records’ double album from that festival, and a contract with Alligator Records. This new Chicago label was determined to sell the real, unadulterated, Chicago blues to a white audience hungry for it.

How times have changed. Wolf, Muddy, Jimmy, Willie and Chicago’s other founding legends are dead and gone. Blues is now a full-fledged industry and many of its strongest performers and biggest fans are white. The music has truly crossed over into the worldwide mainstream. And Koko can’t roar quite like she used to; how she kept that up so long is a medical mystery.

Now, after going through some serious times — health problems, the death of her longtime husband and partner Robert “Pops” Taylor and general exhaustion from her demanding life on the road — Koko is touring again. Chicago Tribune critic Howard Reich, a certified tough cookie, wrote recently that Koko’s “surprisingly sweet, warm-toned alto” is “no less alluring than in earlier performances.” Which means that, instead of sheer strength, Taylor’s using her deep wisdom and great soulfulness to get her message across.

With an amazing 22 W.C. Handy awards to her credit, Taylor remains the world’s undisputed Queen of the Blues. Her sharecropper roots, her musical beginnings that include singing along to a “guitar” made out of bailing wire and nails, and a tough career track that required tons of nerve and determination to make it, have made her a true cultural icon in the best, most honest sense. How appropriate that the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival celebrates its 30th anniversary by headlining the woman who almost stole the show at the very first one — the tough and tender Koko Taylor.

Koko Taylor performs at the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival on Saturday, Sept. 14, at Gallup Park on a bill with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Andre Thierry and Zydeco Magic, Alberta Adams with R.J.’s Rhythm Rockers and the Paul Vornhagen Quintet. Other performances include Eddie Palmieri at the Michigan Theater, Olu Dara at the Bird of Paradise and a Sunday Gallup Park lineup including more veterans of the 1972 festival in the Sun Ra Arkestra. Ticket information at 248-645-666 or 734-763-TKTS. Surf www.a2.blues.jazzfest.org.

Jim Dulzo is a Detroit freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]