Koko Taylor passed away earlier this month. The “Queen of the Blues” was 80.
Koko Taylor passed away earlier this month. The “Queen of the Blues” was 80.I was privileged to meet Koko, whose nickname was given to her at an early age because of her love for chocolate, back in the early 1980s.
Taylor and her band The Blues Machine were going to headline the finale of the weeklong American Culture Festival at the College of Lake County in Illinois. I was involved with both the campus radio station and student newspaper at the community college located in the county north of Chicago.
I had seen her play at the college the year before and was blown away by the performance.
I pulled some strings to get the assignment and set up an opportunity to interview her in one of the blues clubs downtown. It’s been too many years for me to remember which one, but it was one of the top clubs, I remember that much because I never made it. I had backstage and all access passes I never got to use, and for the lamest of excuses: I got lost in Wisconsin.
As background, I’ll only say Bruce Nelson and I didn’t have the means to go to Daytona for the week, so we headed north. His parents owned a getaway place in east-central Wisconsin and my family owned one west of there. We spent the week cruising the state, sampling all the best of the small breweries and chasing girls.
We went up to Hayward, which was so far north you could smell the Canadian bacon wafting in from the other side of the river. After sharing a long ride in the back of Bruce’s father’s station wagon with a dozen 50-pound bags of potatoes, we got out of the car, walked to the back of the property to look at the river, hiked back to the car and left.
Bruce’s dad was a union foreman where they were building a nuclear power plant somewhere in northern Illinois and was pulling down a good paycheck. Many of his buddies were experiencing hard times from an economic downturn, and he left each one of them a sack or two. It was a lot of taters.
We spent the night at a town called Luck, which at that time, had run out when the paper mills shut down and left a lot of the locals unemployed.
The guys drinking coffee and playing backgammon at the bar in town weren’t too friendly to two kids from Chicago, until I realized my dad had grown up on a farm about 30 minutes south of there. We were all right by them then, and spent the night in a room overlooking main street that seemed like it was straight out of one of those old black-and-white movies on TV late at night.
At the end of the week, we were supposed to head back to Illinois, so we made a road trip to the home of Point Beer - one of the world’s finest - to tour the brewery in Stevens Point and headed back home on Saturday.
Somewhere along the line, Bruce turned right when he should have turned left. About the time we noticed the road sign informing us we were approaching Iowa in just a few miles, it began to snow, which is not all that uncommon in Wisconsin in early April.
We found a map and tried to figure out the fastest way home so we could make the show in downtown Chicago that night. Turns out, there was no quick way to Chicago from southwestern Wisconsin, and we didn’t cross the border near our homes until mid-evening.
I was really bummed. I had fought to get the opportunity to do the story, made arrangements to get backstage to meet Koko Taylor and looked forward to partying with the band.
It never happened.
And, I still had to write the story previewing her appearance at the college.
I was able to procure a phone number to do a phone interview with her on the Sunday afternoon before Monday morning deadline for the weekly paper.
Koko Taylor won just about every blues award offered during her four-decade career, and no doubt did hundreds if not thousands of interviews with media outlets on several continents.
To this day, I’m certain I was one of the few who ever had the opportunity to interview her at home while she was babysitting her grandkids.
When she answered the phone, I explained why I was a no show on Saturday night. That drew a bemused chuckle and an “I’m sorry you couldn’t make it,” from Taylor, to which I responded, “Not as sorry as I am I missed it.”
The interview went well, and it gave me a rare glimpse into the personal life of a world-famous musician. She was no different than anyone else’s grandmother, just another woman with kids, only one who happened to tour the world making music.
Taylor, who had been talked into leaving her family’s sharecropper farm near Memphis, Tenn., to pursue music in the Chicago blues scene, found what she loved to do and was good at it.
“The blues are practically my whole life, my first priority,” she told me during that 1983 interview. Then she excused herself from the phone, authoritatively told her grandkids to mind while she was on the phone, and came back onto the line.
“It’s one of the things I love doing most – making people happy by singing,” she said. “All music, rock, disco, jazz, even gospel, come from roots in the blues. They are just different ways of phrasing it.”
I did get the chance to meet Taylor and the Blues Machine when they played at the college later that month. It was a great performance, but certainly not the same as at the downtown blues club.
I also asked her about the collection of awards she had already begun to assemble at that point in her career. Her answer reflected her down-to-earth humbleness.
“I feel really good that other people appreciate my music. It makes me work harder to know that it will lift their spirit and maybe make their day. It’s a tremendous feeling to be able to make people happy.”
That’s the power of music.
It transcends barriers as it weaves itself into the fabric of a culture.
Over the years, I’ve owned Koko Taylor 8-tracks, cassettes, albums and CDs and even mp3 versions.
The Queen of the Blues" may have passed on, but her recorded music will continue her reign indefinitely.
Top 5 collection starter
There are a number of Koko Taylor albums available through iTunes, including her last, 2007’s "Old School." I’d recommend these to start your collection.
1. "Force of Nature," 1993
2. "Old School," 2007
3. "From the Heart of a Woman," 1981
4. "I Got What It Takes," 1975
5. "Queen of the Blues," 1975