Koko Taylor, at 80; her gritty, raw, and powerful voice helped define the blues
CHICAGO - Koko Taylor, a sharecropper's daughter whose regal bearing and powerful voice earned her the sobriquet "Queen of the Blues," died yesterday after complications from surgery. She was 80.
Ms. Taylor died at
"The passion that she brought and the fire and the growl in her voice when she sang was the truth," blues singer and musician Ronnie Baker Brooks said yesterday.
"What a loss to the blues world," said Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy. "She was one of the last of the greats of Chicago."
Ms. Taylor's career stretched more than five decades. While she did not have widespread mainstream success, she was revered and beloved by blues aficionados and earned worldwide acclaim for her work, which included the best-selling song "Wang Dang Doodle" and tunes such as "What Kind of Man is This" and "I Got What It Takes."
Ms. Taylor was the subject of a PBS documentary and had a small part in director David Lynch's "Wild at Heart."
She was nominated seven times for Grammy awards and won in 1984.
Ms. Taylor last performed on May 7 at the Blues Music Awards in Memphis.
"She was still the best female blues singer in the world a month ago," said Jay Sieleman, executive director of The Blues Foundation, based in Memphis. "In 1950s Chicago, she was the woman singing the blues. At 80 years old, she was still the queen of the blues."
Born Cora Walton just outside Memphis, Ms. Taylor said her dream to become a blues singer was nurtured in the cotton fields outside her family's shack.
"I used to listen to the radio, and when I was about 18 years old, B.B. King was a disc jockey and he had a radio program, 15 minutes a day, over in West Memphis, Arkansas, and he would play the blues," she said in a 1990 interview. "I would hear different records and things by Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, Sonny Boy Williamson, and all these people, you know, which I just loved."
Although her father encouraged her to sing only gospel music, Cora and her siblings would sneak out back with their homemade instruments and play the blues. With one brother accompanying on a guitar made out of bailing wire and nails and one brother on a fife made out of a corncob, she began on the path to blues woman.
Orphaned at 11, Koko - a nickname given because of an early love of chocolate - at age 18 moved to Chicago with her soon-to-be-husband, the late Robert "Pops" Taylor, in search for work.
Setting up house on the South Side, Koko Taylor found work as a cleaning woman for a wealthy family. At night and on weekends, she and her husband, who would later become her manager, frequented Chicago's clubs.
"Everybody got to know us," Ms. Taylor said. "And then the guys would start letting me sit in, you know, come up on the bandstand and do a tune."
The break for her came in 1962, when blues composer and singer Willie Dixon, impressed by her voice, got her a Chess recording contract and produced several singles (and two albums) for her, including the million-selling 1965 hit, "Wang Dang Doodle," which she called silly but which launched her recording career.
From Chicago blues clubs, Ms. Taylor took her raucous, gritty, good-time blues on the road to clubs and festivals around the nation and across Europe. After the Chess label folded, she signed with Alligator Records.
In most years, she performed at least 100 concerts a year. The last time she performed in the Boston area was 2007, at Lowell.
"There are many kings of the blues," wrote Boston Globe critic Steve Morse at the beginning of his review of Ms. Taylor's 1993 show in Cambridge, "but at this point, only one consensus queen. She's Koko Taylor, the Chicago dynamo who stirred up another tidal wave when she blew into the House of Blues."
"Blues is my life," she once said. "It's a true feeling that comes from the heart, not something that just comes out of my mouth. Blues is what I love, and blues is what I always do."
In addition to performing, she operated a Chicago nightclub, which closed in 2001 because her daughter, club manager Joyce Threatt, developed severe asthma and could no longer manage a smoky nightclub.
In addition to her daughter, Ms. Taylor leaves her husband, Hays Harris; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements will be announced, the label said.