You never forget your first love. As such, I will never forget Koko Taylor. I forget lots of other stuff. Spelunking to the craggy areas of my memory where it’s dark, dank, and the stalactites and stalagmites grow, I cannot for the life of me remember what drove me to buy my first blues CDs upon entering college in the late 1980s.
(I don’t know for sure, but I am thinking it was because I liked the music of the dumb Ralph Macchio movie, Crossroads. Ironically, if that was it, it was the harmonica solo by the old blues dude in the big “cuttin’ contest” scene that pushed me toward blues–ironic because the old sage was harmonica-syncing to the J. Geils Band and Magic Dick doing “Whammer Jammer,” and not some good old Jimmy Reed or Sonny Boy Williamson stuff.)
No matter what drove me, a Koko Taylor greatest-hits compilation was one of the CDs I plucked out of the used bin upon cashing in more than 1,000 cassettes for store credit. With no idea whether or not Koko Taylor was a man or woman, I dropped it in my bag–the name sounded bluesy to me. Her signature “Wang Dang Doodle” was one of the cuts on the CD, here live with Little Walter in 1967:
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She was a blues belter, a powerful singer. She shredded notes with her voice, enrapturing us and encompassing the pure, visceral power and emotion that encompasses the blues. She was the Joe DiMaggio of the blues landscape, bagging nominations and awards for practically everything she recorded. She made men of the man’s, man’s, man’s world of the blues sound inferior.
She performed until last May, maybe off her “A” game in the end but representing the blues genre with grace, that gold-toothed smile winning ’em over to the bitter end. She died June 3 in her Chicago home, following complications from gastrointestial surgery in May. And Koko Taylor was my first love in the blues. Rest in peace, queen of the blues. You kicked ass, and we will never forget you.