Q&A: Koko Taylor

Rolling Stone interviews the blues legend

Koko Taylor at Navy Pier, Chicago, Illinois, July 21st, 1979 Credit: Kirk West/Getty

BY THE SOUND OF HER VOICE, you might expect Koko Taylor to be a thundering bossy boots; she's been proving for thirty-five years that women can shout as raw and mean as the men. But the great female blues singer of her generation is a kind, easygoing great-grandmother. Willie Dixon, the great song writer of postwar blues, discovered her in 1962, nine years after she had moved to Chicago. "Wang Dang Doodle," recorded in 1965 for Checker, the R&B subsidiary of Chess Records, was one of the company's biggest blues hits. Taylor still writes a lot of songs, many of them sly, womanly subversions of male blues bragging, and lives in the developed flatlands of Country Club Hills, Illinois, south of the South Side.

You're sixty-two now. How much are you out on the road?
I'm doing over 200 dates a year. That's a lot, I know it's a lot, and I keep telling myself, "Why do I do this many dates?" I can't explain it. I guess it's like a habit, you know — plus, when you're doing something that you been doing all your life ... see, singing didn't just start when I did my first recording. Down in Memphis, where I was raised, the blues was all I heard on the radio.

There was six of us kids, three girls and three boys, in a three-room shotgun house. My parents was cotton sharecroppers. My mother died when I was three, and our father raised me until I was fourteen. He made us go to church every Sunday, so I sung gospel up until I came to Chicago.

You left that world with your boyfriend and soon-to-be husband, Pops Taylor.
Right. I left Memphis in a Greyhound bus, going to Chicago with thirty-five cents in my pocket and a box of Ritz crackers. I didn't even have a suitcase. And when I saw all of these bright lights, I said, "Good God Almighty, this must be heaven!" I had never used electricity before in my entire life.

What were you expecting to find in Chicago?
The purpose of our leaving Memphis in the first place was to find good jobs. So when we got to Chicago, I got a job housecleaning for rich white families. I soon found out that a lot of the people I had heard on the radio, like Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, was right here in Chicago.

My husband would start telling these guys, "My wife can sing." Howlin' Wolf got that news from him, and he said, "Come on up here, gal, and do a tune with us!" Oh, my God. I had never been onstage before .... And afterward, here comes this man — ohhh, huge guy. He said, "I'm Willie Dixon." He said, "Where did you come from? You got a voice that the world needs today. We got a lot of mens out here singing the blues, but we ain't got no womens. Who are you recording for?" I didn't know what he was talking about.

Describe his basement studio, his laboratory for the Chess sound.
Well, about a year later, he called me in the middle of the night: "Hey, Koke! Y'all come on down here. I wrote this song and we want to get started on it." I said, "What song is this that can't wait until tomorrow?" He said, "'Wang Dang Doodle.'" I said, "What? What made you think up a song with that kind of name?" He said, "Money."

So we went on down to his house, at Fifty-second and Calumet, down to his basement; his wife, Marie, was upstairs cooking, frying chicken at one o'clock in the morning. There were people coming through there, writing songs and rehearsing for the next session. Dixon was writing songs for everybody.

He was a really amazing man, and he was the cause of me writing songs. He said, "Koke, all you have to do is put the words together. It got to rhyme, and it got to make sense. If you start talking about the three little pigs, you got to make meaning out of it, like reading a storybook. You got to tell why they called 'em the three little pigs, what they did, why they did it, how it started and how it ended. You look over your shoulder at everyday life and that's how you can come up with a song."

Who were your role models for singing?
The womens that I used to listen to were Bessie Smith and this old lady called Memphis Minnie. Rufus Thomas would play her song every day — "Me and My Chauffeur Blues." There was also a record called "Black Rat Blues." I just loved that — it was the one song that stuck to my ribs. It goes [sings], "Yeah, you is one black rat/Someday I'm a find your trail/Yeah,'m gonna hide my shoes/Somewhere near your shirttail" [laughs].

But when it come to the mens, Muddy Waters was my Number One idol. He had this song called "Mannish Boy" where he was describing, "I can make the sun stand still/I can make love in five minutes' time" — how he could do so much because he was a strong man. So I come up with the idea of writing a song called "I'm a Woman." I'm saying I'm a woman as good as you are a man. You made love in five minutes' time? I made love to a crocodile! [Laughs]

Do you think blues has much of a future when black people stop listening to it?
I'll tell you one thing, and I hate to say it. Years ago there was always young guys and womens coming up. Say, for instance, like Bernard Allison. That was Luther Allison's son; he'd been playing guitar ever since he was a little guy, coming up with his daddy. What's gonna happen when we don't see no young people coming on under them? I'm not seeing that, and I'm kind of saddened by it. I'm trying to carry the torch, because the young blacks do not have the opportunity to hear blues. How can you like steak if you don't never hear nothing but pork chops?