She recently came close to death; now, about to headline the Japan Blues & Soul Carnival, Koko Taylor talks about her 50-year career — and the future of blues
At 78, Koko Taylor would be forgiven if the only rocking she wanted to do was in a chair. But the veteran blues belter isn’t one to forsake the stage, where she still rocks, rolls, struts and strolls like a woman half her age.
“They ain’t got no retirement age on singing,” she says, laughing over the phone from her Chicago home ahead of her headlining appearance at the Japan Blues & Soul Carnival this month.
“So long as you can open your mouth and sing, you can sing. Ain’t nobody ever told me I had to stop when I got to 65.”
It’s a good thing that the singer, dubbed the Queen of the Blues, hasn’t bothered to abdicate her throne. The press and public (if the excited ravings from the online blues community is anything to go by) alike say Taylor’s in her best form ever.
Her latest disc, “Old School,” released here last month by P-Vine, is her first album in seven years and a powerful reminder of why she’s succeeded in the male-dominated world of the blues. With five new Taylor-penned tracks and renditions of songs by legends like Willie Dixon, her late mentor, “Old School” is also the work of a true survivor whose nearly 50-year career has experienced a resurgence since a brush with death in late 2003.
“It kind of feels like the older I get, the better I get. I’m like old whiskey,” Taylor says with another hearty laugh.
Taylor’s upcoming Japan performances, her first since the 1991 Blues Carnival, is something her touring guitarist, Shun Kikuta, has been pushing for since joining the band in late 2000. The 41-year-old native of Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture, went to the United States at 19 to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
He moved to Chicago after his 1990 graduation and has been playing the blues there ever since. Kikuta got to know Taylor when she sang on two tracks on his 1996 album “Chicago Midnight.” She recently contributed vocals to a version of “Voodoo Woman,” one of her tunes, on his new solo disc, “Rising Shun,” released in Japan by Yotsuba Records on May 25. Over the years, Kikuta has come to regard Taylor as his surrogate mother in America.
Like others close to her, the guitarist feared the worst when Taylor, unable to breathe on her own, was placed on a ventilator following emergency surgery for gastrointestinal bleeding in November 2003. Though she recovered and was back on stage by the following April, Kikuta admits to having had doubts that Taylor would keep on singing.
“(In) 2004, 2005 — she was kind of weak, and we cut back on shows because of it. Everybody thought she’d retire very soon,” he says by phone from Chicago. “But she never gave up. She’s a very, very strong lady. This year, she’s been amazing. She’s jumping around like she did 20 years ago.”
With the studio beckoning following her convalescence, Taylor picked out a bunch of tunes and got down to business with her “Old School” coproducers: Criss Johnson, her nephew and longtime studio guitarist, and Alligator Records President Bruce Iglauer, who signed Taylor to his upstart label in the mid-1970s after the folding of the highly influential Chess Records, Taylor’s label throughout the early part of her career.
Though some reviewers have likened the disc to a trip back in time to Chicago in the early 1960s, when Taylor was discovered and mentored by Willie Dixon, the singer just laughs and says, “I named it ‘Old School’ because I’m an old woman built on a young woman’s frame.”
At first glance, the inclusion of two Dixon songs — “Young Fashioned Ways” and “Don’t Go No Further” — would seem like a way of paying tribute to the man who produced, wrote and played on some of her earliest recordings, including “Wang Dang Doodle.” Though originally made famous by Howlin’ Wolf, that song became Taylor’s signature tune after the 1966 version she recorded for Chess sold a million copies. Rather than pay tribute to one individual, however, Taylor says her work is intended to “honor people in general.”
“I always remember Willie Dixon. I loved him like a brother,” she says of the man who passed away in 1992 and who convinced her to start writing her own material. “But so far as my songs, when I do a new one, I’m trying to please my fans.”
From the trademark howl that kicks off album opener “Piece of Man,” a Taylor original that leaves no doubt she’s still got some mighty powerful pipes, it’s clear she doesn’t just aim to please. She hits the mark.
Like a lot of blues musicians of her generation, Taylor comes from a hardscrabble background. Born Cora Walton in 1928 and nicknamed Koko for her love of chocolate, she was raised on a sharecropper’s farm near Memphis, Tennessee. Her mother died young, and she and her siblings were orphaned when their father passed away a few years later.
“I don’t know nothing else but hardship,” she recalls. “I was brought up motherless and fatherless. And there was six of us: three girls and three boys. We was raised up on what we call ‘pillar to post’ — that means we lived where we could, ate when we could, wore what we could.
“But the good part about it was it made a real good woman out of me,” Taylor continues. “I’m an honest person. I could live with anybody, because I know how to treat people. Sometimes children are better off when they don’t have as much — because when you give ’em too much, they get beside themselves.”
As a young woman, the singer moved to Chicago’s South Side with the man who’d become her husband, the late Robert “Pops” Taylor. Taylor worked as a housecleaner, and the couple would hit blues clubs to unwind. In time, Taylor found herself up on stage. As the story goes, Dixon was so impressed by the power of her voice that he got her a record contract.
In the years since, she’s performed with greats like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Carey Bell. Taylor worked frequently with Bell, a blues harp legend who passed away on May 6. Bell’s son, Lurrie, who joined her band for a four-year stint at the age of 19, will open for Taylor on many of her forthcoming Japan dates. Now 48, Lurrie is an example of the passing of the torch from generation to generation.
On the other hand, Taylor fears that there aren’t enough young people taking up the mantle.
“It’s not a lot of youngsters that are into the blues. Today, they’re into hip-hop,” she says, adding that doors have opened up for women in the blues scene in recent decades. “Many people don’t look up to the blues. It’s like dirt under their feet,” Taylor says. “A lot of people don’t want to sing the blues because it’s not recognized like other music.”
Kikuta is less worried about its survival. Noting that his visage is representative of the changing face of the blues, he suggests that the scene will look very different as the African-American stalwarts pass on and the newcomers — white Americans, Europeans and Asians — take their places.
Though Taylor has expressed some fears about the future of the music she loves, reports of the demise of the blues have been greatly exaggerated.
“A lot have passed, but that don’t mean it’s over,” she says. “As long as I’m here, I will be singing the real-deal blues.”
Koko Taylor and Lurrie Bell play July 18 at Osaka’s Nanba Hatch, 6,800 yen (tel.  6362-7301); July 19 (7 p.m.) at Nagoya Bottom Line, 7,000 yen (tel.  741-1620). Koko Taylor plays July 20 (7 p.m.) at Shibuya Duo Music Exchange, 7,000 yen plus drink (tel.  5453-8899). Koko Taylor, Lurrie Bell, Mitsuyoshi Azuma and the Swinging Boppers and Jun Nagami play July 22 (3:45 p.m.) at Hibiya Yagai Ongakudo in Tokyo, 7,000 yen. Call M&I Co. at (03) 5453-8899 or visit www.mandicompany.co.jp.
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