Thanks to early teachers, Koko Taylor sings blues with the best of them

October 28, 1994|By Larry Hoffman | Larry Hoffman,Special to The Sun

Koko Taylor, the reigning two-fisted Queen of the Blues, is used to a man's world.

As a youngster, she cut her teeth on the rough-hewn recorded vocals of Howlin' Wolf and the poetic machismo of Sonny Boy Williamson. As a teen-ager she growled the blues in the tough joints of Chicago's rough-and-tumble South Side. Later, she understudied two he-men of the blues -- Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters.

Female role models, such as Bessie Smith and Big Mama Thornton, were on the tough side themselves -- and scarce.

"Well, it's still not a lot of women out here that's into the blues like it is the men," Taylor says. "But you know there are some women doing it, and they are doing a great job. There is a lot of really good local talent in Chicago. And, there's actually a little more of it today. But, like I say, it's not nearly enough women out here doing it."

The history of blues on record begins in 1920 with Mamie Smith's hit record, "Crazy Blues." This paved the way for the celebrated parade of "classic blues singers," led by such divas as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. By the end of the 1920s, however, their popularity had dwindled, leaving the blues field to be dominated by male artists for over 60 years.

Ms. Taylor has seen many female contemporaries abandon the blues for the more lucrative fields of soul, R&B, pop and jazz.

"That's what they're doing because [there's] more money," she observes, "and it's respected as 'high quality.' Everybody respects you when you say 'I sing rock, pop, jazz' -- even soul music. You know -- every music other than the blues.

"But you know, if you want to continue with a blues career you just have to hang in there like it's a marriage -- for better, for worse -- not because people respect it, as they should any music."

Ms. Taylor has risen to the top of this male-dominated field, never once flinching or doubting her sense of purpose. Today she can point with pride to the many jewels of success that adorn her crown. Her 1966 million-seller, "Wang Dang Doodle," began a run that has led to 14 W.C. Handy Awards, a Grammy (plus six subsequent nominations), and the prestigious "Chicago Legend of the Year Award."

She has also performed at the inaugural party of George Bush, been the subject of a 1990 PBS documentary, and made an appearance in David Lynch's film "Wild at Heart."

Her career seems to reach new heights with every step. "Force of Nature" (Alligator 4817), her new CD, recently received a four-star review from Rolling Stone and has been praised by critics around the world.

"Well, like I say, I see the blues is on an uprise," she remarked. "More popular today than it has ever been in the past. Blues has never been recognized and respected as [other types of] urban music. But today blues is very popular all over the world -- Europe, Japan, everywhere. I'm touring everywhere, and I see that it's getting better all the time."

Taylor's no stranger to Baltimore. "Been there more times than fingers and toes," she says. "I have a lot of wonderful fans in Baltimore, and I am looking forward to coming back there on the 28th, pitching a wang dang doodle."

Calling on Koko

To hear excerpts from Koko Taylor's "Force of Nature," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6233 after you hear the greeting.

Koko Taylor and Her Blues Machine

When: Friday, 9 p.m.

Where: American Legion Hall, 1331 Seling Ave., Rosedale

Call: (410) 444-1716

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