I lost another one of my idols yesterday, with the death of Koko Taylor, Queen of the Blues. She was 80 years old. From picking cotton as a girl, to cleaning houses, to ruling the blues clubs, Koko was an American original. As she said, she came to Chicago with nothing in her pocket but “35 cents and a box of Ritz Crackers.”
I was working in a record store in 1984, when I discovered Koko on a live Montreux Blues compilation, singing her signature song, “Wang Dang Doodle”, for which she won her only Grammy. My thought was “this woman sings so hard it sounds like she’s going to hurt herself.”
Later I heard her sing “Come To Mama” on 1985’s “Queen of the Blues” for Alligator Records, a song more frequently heard being done as “Come To Papa” by Bob Seger. The more I heard, the more I liked her.
I bought my first Koko Taylor record when she released “Jump For Joy” in 1990. All it took was one listen to the opening track, “Can’t Let Go”, and I was sold. With it’s thumping beat, wicked guitar solos, horn flourishes and keyboard sting surrounding Koko’s powerful vocals, it instantly became a regular on my CD player.
Normally, I’m partial to upbeat blues numbers… think Stevie Ray, Johnny Winter, Albert Collins… But later on that same disk, she has a song called “Only Time Will Tell”, which became my favorite slow blues tune ever. While straightening up after he's gone, she wonders if her man really loves her any more.
I’ll empty those ashtrays
His glass, put away
Straighten that sofa…
All those marks I’ll erase.
In the last verse she kicks it into high gear:
But will I ever,
Will I ever erase from my mind
Oh, the way he looked at me
Oh, the way he kissed me good night?
Only time will tell.
By the time she hits the first “Only time…” she’s singing with the wailing anguish of a woman whose heart is being torn apart. I still get goose bumps every time I play it. If that song does not move you, you don’t have a soul.
This isn’t to say that Koko’s blues are always blue. In “Ernestine” from 1993, she manages to be both blue and funny. In it she warns a romantic rival about what’s in store for her if she continues to mess with Koko’s man:
I warned you once,
Girl without a doubt.
Two strikes, you lose,
The third strike, you out.
Like a baseball game,
You messin’ with a slugga.
I’ll hit a grand slam,
Cuz I’m a bad mutha fugga!
I saw Koko play live twice. One time she played a free outdoor show out on the street in downtown Albany NY. Another time she headlined a 5-act blues show put on by Alligator Records. This was when I worked for my record store’s home office and had connections such that I could have my folks fly out for the show and not only get free tickets and backstage passes, we sat in a little roped off section in the 2nd row with some others from the company. So we went backstage after the show and meet all the acts. Luckily my parents had been to a concert before. Good thing, or else they might have thought that this was always what happens when you go to a show.
We really enjoyed meeting Koko. Her act was last up so you could see that she was still tired from her set. It showed in her demeanor as well as the little ball of sweat still on the end of her nose. But she was gracious and friendly to all of us, even though you could tell she just wanted to get out of those heels and that Supremes dress.
Now Koko is gone from this earth, but never from my heart, mind or stereo. They broke the mold when they made her. In this time of instant American Idols and disposable celebrity, we’ll never see another one like the Queen of the Blues.
Safe on, dear Koko. You will be sorely missed.