"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Long live the queen

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Her Majesty refuses to act her age.

Now nearly 80, an age when most people slow down if they haven't stopped altogether, Koko Taylor, the undisputed Queen of the Blues, still performs more than 100 shows a year.

She has just released a new record, aptly titled Old School, that some critics are calling her best work ever. Chatting over the phone from her home in Chicago, her regal poise notwithstanding, she sounds as energetic, playful and almost flirtatious as a woman a third her age.

This week, fresh from tour stops in Quebec and Albany, N.Y., she will be playing shows in Nagoya, Osaka and Tokyo with fellow Chicagoan Lurrie Bell, the guitarist son of blues harp great Carey Bell. Their Japan tour culminates in the Japan Blues and Soul Carnival at Hibiya Yagai Ongakudo in Tokyo's Hibiya Park. Then she's off to Spain to play another music festival at the end of the month.

"Well, I don't play Japan every day, but I've been there a couple of times and I always enjoy every moment of it," Taylor says . "The only difference is I can't speak their language, but the people there seem to understand me fine when I'm singing."

It's all a long way from the little town outside of Memphis where she was born and grew up.

Taylor is one of the last of the old school of blues musicians, people such as Muddy Waters, Magic Slim, Howlin' Wolf and Buddy Guy, who grew up poor in the rural South before the civil rights movement and came to Chicago to find a new life and eventually a new career in music.

Taylor talks fondly about the trip north with her late husband, guitarist Robert "Pops" Taylor in 1951, famously arriving in the Windy City "with 35 cents in our pockets and a box of Ritz crackers" according to her official bio.

Her husband drove a truck and Koko found work as domestic servant for 5 dollars a day. It wasn't easy, but it was better than sharecropping with her family back on the farm. Recalls Taylor: "It was tough down there when I was young...we used to cut cotton...work on the farm...we didn't have nothing."

On Saturday nights, Mr. and Mrs. Taylor would make the rounds of the blues clubs on the South and West side of town. In the liner notes from Old School Taylor recalls: "We didn't go to no clubs playing that fancy music. Everywhere we went was a blues club. Nothing fancy, nothing beautiful. It was just a hole in the wall where a bunch of us was in there listening to the blues, dancing, drinking, talking loud, doing everything else. It wasn't a place you had to sit up and look pretty, be cute and use a certain language and say something a certain way."

It wasn't long before both Pops and Koko were sitting in with the bands and eventually Koko caught the attention of the legendary bluesman Willie Dixon, who helped her land a recording contract at Chess Records. She had her biggest hit in 1966 with Dixon's song "Wang Dang Doodle"--still her signature tune.

"We used to practice in [Willie Dixon's] basement...we'd play for hours, sometimes all night... with his wife bringing us down food," she remembers.

Taylor says the constant travel is a bit wearing after 40 years, but she wouldn't have it any other way.

"My favorite place in the world is where the people is there and enjoying what I do. It don't matter where you go, people is people and I love people."

She's performed almost everywhere, been on television and in movies, won Grammys and has more Blues Music Awards (25) than any other performer has ever won. Asked if she had any professional ambitions still left unfulfilled, she laughs.

"Nothing but to keep on singing the blues. I've gone too far to turn around now. I'm 79 years old--Why would I try to turn around now and try to do something new?"

Old School, released last month in Japan by P-Vine Records, shows the Queen in peak form. Even after all these years, her voice still has enough raw power to knock down a wall. While she admits it is a chore, she is still writing songs too, having penned five of the dozen tracks. Old School is hardcore blues that sounds like it could have been recorded back in her days at Chess. There are no jazz arrangements or pop orchestration to smooth the rough edges and sharp corners, just power, warmth and foot-stomping shake-your-moneymaker beats. Taylor's authoritative voice reaches out and grabs you and doesn't let go. Her passion and genuine joy in what she is doing shine through in every note.

"God has been good to me. I'm doing what I love to do most of all," she says, before summing up hercareer: "I just do what I do and hope people like it."

Long may she reign.

Koko Taylor will play the Japan Blues and Soul Carnival along with Lurrie Bell, Mitsuyoshi Azuma and the Swinging Boppers, Jun Nagami and others on July 22, 3:45 p.m. at Hibiya Yagai Ongakudo in Tokyo, (03) 5453-8899. Taylor will also play with Bell on July 18, 7 p.m. at Namba Hatch in Osaka, (06) 6362-7301; July 19, 7 p.m. at Bottom Line in Nagoya. (052) 741-1620; and without Bell on July 20, 7 p.m. at Duo Music Exchange in Shibuya, Tokyo. (03) 5453-8899; Bell will play on July 21, 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. at Blues Alley in Meguro, Tokyo, (03) 5740-6041.

(The Daily Yomiuri Jul. 14, 2007)

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