Praise the Bridge that Carried You Across
An Audience with The Queen of the Blues
by Michael Buffalo Smith
I understand that Koko is a nickname. How did you come to be called Koko?
My family called me Little Koko because I was a chocolate lover. Chocolate anything. And then when I moved to Chicago, they dropped the "Little" and just called me Koko. Then when I started recording down at Chess Records, which is located here in Chicago, Willie Dixon told them the name to go on the record. He said, 'Just put Koko Taylor.' (Laughs) And that's how it just stuck with me. It's a family pet name.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Memphis, Tennessee on what we called a share croppers cotton farm. We stayed in Memphis, me and my sisters and brothers until I was eighteen years old. I've been in Chicago ever since.
Did you come from a musical family?
Yes, I did. But I'm the only one into the blues. My daughter that lives here with me, and my sister, they are both singing gospel music in the church. My one brother played guitar, and then one of my other brothers played harmonica. I was the outcast that sang blues. (Laughs)
I understand your father was opposed to you singing blues, right?
We had this little three room house they called it a shotgun house out in the country, and we all stayed there. We had to go and pick cotton every day in the fields. When we weren't picking cotton, we'd sneak off behind the house- supposed to be playing. (Laughs) But we'd made us a band, and having a good time. My brother made him a guitar out of bailing wire. And my youngest brother made him a harmonica out of a corn cob. And me, I didn't need no microphone. If I did, I'd have been in trouble because we didn't have no electricity no way.
Well, you had your built-in volume anyway, didn't you?
(Laughs) I had my built-in volume. And we'd be behind that house just having a good time, singing and playing the blues. Now, my daddy said he didn't want us listening to no blues music, because it was the devil's music. To me, it was just good music. Forget the devil. (Laughs)
You sang a lot in church too, right?
Yes. That's what our parents wanted us to do, to grow up in church, singing gospel.
Do you think those church experiences had an impact on your future as a singer?
It had influence on me, because I did gospel, and I loved gospel. But he just didn't want us listening to no blues. We would also sneak and listen to WDIA radio station in Memphis with Rufus Thomas, and he played a lot of blues. One day I heard a song on there called "Me and My Chauffeur Blues," and the flip-side of the record was "Black Rat Blues." That was the first song that just stuck to my ribs, when it comes to blues.
Other than the church, who were some of your early musical influences?
Well, Magic Sam- like I said, Memphis Minnie, Big Mama Thornton, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, all of those people. Bessie Smith, I wouldn't leave 'em out. They were just great singers and great people. Some of 'em I never got a chance to know personally, but so far as their music, it was out of sight!
Tell us a little about your move to Chicago. You moved there at eighteen?
I sure did. I came to Chicago suposedly to get what we call "a good job." And I found a job, and it was good. I was making five dollars a day, and when I left Memphis, I wasn't getting nothing. If I worked for somebody else, I'd get like a dollar and a half a day. So when they paid me five in Chicago, that was a good job.
And the best part of all was, I survived.
Definitely. Now, before your contract with Chess Records, you got to Chicago and began sitting in with a lot of artists. Is that right?
Muddy, Wolf, Jimmie Reed. (Laughs) What happened was, in Chicago there was a lot of clubs. And I don't mean no big fancy clubs. These were just little neighborhood tavern clubs where the black people went and drank and had a good time. And they would have their band up there playing, and when I'd go in there, I'd just be going in there to have a good time too. But they got to know me, and they started calling me Little Koko on their own. 'We got Little Koko in the house, and we're going to get her up here to do a few tunes.' And that's what I did. Um-hm. I'd just go up there and sing anything, just to be singing. Didn't get no money. (Laughs) They weren't either, not enough to talk about.
If you couldn't sing, what would you do?
(Laughs) I really don't know, because singing is my life. I look forward to it. It's just like, I'm sitting here in my kitchen talking to you, but my mind and my heart is on coming where you are at one day, singing the blues. I'm always geared up and looking forward to it.
How did you come about getting your first recording contract in 1962?
Well, I met up with Willie Dixon by sitting in with these guys. He heard me singing, and when I got down off the stage, he told me, 'I've never heard a woman sing the blues like you. That's what the world needs today, more women to sing the blues. We've got plenty of men, but not enough women. From that conversation, he gathered me up and took me down to Chess for an audition, and Chess agreed, 'Yeah, she's got the voice we've been looking for.' And they said, 'Do you have a contract?' And I didn't even know what a contract was. I thought when they said a contract, they were sending somebody out to kill you or something. (Laughs) From that, Willie Dixon arranged for me to do some songs, and that's when he wrote "Wang Dang Doodle" for me. And some other songs, "I Got What it Takes," and so on and so forth. At that time, they weren't making cd's or albums, they were making the little-bitty records, you know what I'm talking about...
Yeah! They were making them. I didn't have to worry about no whole lot of songs. I'd record four or five songs and I was through.
What was it like around Chess Records?
It was okay. They were the ones that did my first recordings and accepted me and took me in. Now that's just like a homeless person. You can be homeless and hungry and be outdoors, and if you don't knock on somebody's door and ask for help, they might not see you and invite you in. See, that is the bridge that carries you across. And my daddy always said, 'Praise the bridge that carried you across. Don't burn that bridge! Because, you may want to come back across that bridge again.' That;s the way it was with me. I stayed with Chess until Chess went out of buisiness. I did several recordings with them, but then the business folded. Then I wan't with a company until Alligator came along. And Alligator did the same thing. They took me in and started recording, and this and that. I've been with Alligator for twenty-six years now. I came in on the beginning of Alligator.
You hear people talk about all these different types of blues. Here in South Carolina, we have Piedmont blues, Pink Anderson, Rev. Gary Davis; and then there's Delta blues and Texas blues. What makes Chicago blues different from the rest?
To me, Chicago blues just stands out over any other music, so far as the blues is concerned. That's just like years ago, when I was growing up down in Memphis it wasn't like it is today. They called that Delta Blues, Memphis Blues. They didn't have the horns, they didn't have all this fancy stuff. They didn't even have guitars, some of 'em didn't. And if they had a guitar, it wasn't no electric guitar what you need an amplifier like you do today. They just be standin' up there playing an old acoustic guitars, and somebody blowin' their ol' harmonica. Somebody beatin' on an ol'washtub. Same one we used to wash our clothes, 'cause we didn't know anything of no washing machine or dryer! That was what they called Delta blues. But when we got up here to Chicago, they was playing electric guitars. Now, see all of that is something new. But the sound of the music still brought out the Delta blues. That's what I call the difference. We still are singin' and playing Delta blues.
On your new album, "Royal Blue," you have some mighty fine musicians- none more prestigious than Mr. B.B. King. What can you tell us about B.B.
First of all, he's a great person. A wonderful man that you would really enjoy meeting and sitting down and talking too. You know. I met B.B. when I was growing up down in Memphis. He would come to Beale Street every Saturday and stand on the corner and play his guitar to the people who would pass on the street. B.B. was also a d.j. over in West Memphis, Arkansas. He was advertising 'Pepticon! Sure is good! You can get it anywhere in your neighborhood!' (Laughs)
What was Pepticon?
It was a tonic. Like a medicine. Uh huh. I guess that was their sponsor, like they do today. But that's what I know about B.B., and we became good friends. He's like my big brother. When I did this CD, I saw him on the road and he said 'What you been up to?' and I said 'I'm just out here workin' hard and gettin' old. But I'm working on a new CD.' And he said, 'I want to be on that CD with you.' (Laughs) Yeah. When I called him up and told him I was ready for him now, he said 'I don't have time to come to Chicago. The closest I'm comin' to you is 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles.' I said 'Well I'm coming to Los Angeles.' If the mountain don't come to you, you go to the mountain. So that's what I did. Me and Bruce (Iglaur), the president of Alligator Records, got on a plane and went. That's where we recorded him on my CD. "Blues Hotel!"
What a great song. There seem to be a whole lot more male blues singers than female. Whay do you think that is true?
The difference is, they is women! Women can not jump up and pack a suitcase and say I'm gone! Why? Because they got a house full of little kids to raise, to feed, to clean, to take care of, you know what I'm sayin? It's more housewives and more mothers. All that keeps them from doing what they might want to do. Now, there's plenty of women in their kitchen cooking apple pies that can sing as good as I can. Sing good as Aretha Franklin or Whitney Houston, but they can't get out there and do what they do, and why? Because, 'I got a husband," first of all. And there ain't too many men that are gonna want there wife out there on the road. I traveled, and I had a husband, but my husband was right there with me. That makes a difference.
We touched on it a little earlier, but how did you first hook up with the folks at Alligator Records?
Like I said before, I started with Chess and I ended with Chess, and the reason I ended with Chess is because Chess the company went out of business. The President of Chess, Leonard Chess, died with a heart attack. Then his brother Phil just couldn't cope with running it anymore without his brother, so they folded the company. Then I wasn't with no company for about five years. Then, they were having a big outside festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan. That was in 1971, I believe. That's when Bruce first heard me sing.
What was it like to appear in the David Lynch movie Wild at Heart?
It was fantastic. FAN-TASTIC! I thought I was in heaven when they called and said they wanted me on the David Letterman show. But when they cast me in "Wild at Heart," it was sure enough outta sight.
A lot of people don't realize you also appeared in a TV series, New York Undercover, playing yourself. How was that for you?
Oh, it was very nice. I've done quite a few things like that.
Royal Blue is a great album. Would you share your thoughts on the making of the album?
Well. First of all, when I go to make an album, the first step is the selection of tunes. And I was looking through, picking out songs I liked. I was going, what should I do? What can I do that would make my fans happy? Because that's my first priority. You think about the public. You think about your fans, not yourself. I think about what people are going to like, or not like, when the cd is finished. So I'm going through, listening to all these records, and I get to this record called "Bring Me Some Water." That was the only one out of that collection that really caught my attention. Wow! I liked that song! Then I presented that to Alligator, and they acted surprised. They said "You like that?" and I said "I sure do!" They were real happy over it because they loved it, but I had never heard it before. Then I found out it had been recorded before, and the young lady that did it before had done a fine job. I loved it. And that's the way it went on, so on and so forth, picking tunes for the album. Except for the ones I wrote. I wrote four tunes on the cd myself.When I'm writing songs, I'm writing them for anyone who can fit in that shoe. They are not to any particular person. I try to write songs with a meaning. Like I wrote that song, "Don't Let Me Catch You with Your Drawers Down." (Laughs) It's the meaning- I didn't say that for no offense. And I hope nobody looks down on me for saying something out of order. But the meaning of the song is, say for instance, I'm talking to my boyfriend, or I'm talking to my husband, "don't let mne catch you with your drawers down." Meaning, "don't let me catch you doing something you got no business doing." You know what I'm saying? Because if they do catch you, you are gonna have the blues!
Every song I select has a meaning. There's a song on there, "I Don't Want No Man Hittin' On Me!" Goes on, "the last man that hit me, he died in 1983." I don't want no man coming hom every night hittin' on me, giving me black eyes! The meaning of that, I'm TIRED of you beatin' me! You see abused women. Abused mothers. They getting divorced, why? Because every night he comes home beating on me. He got my head swole, my legs are out of whack. So the last man that hit me, he died in 1983! Now, the show may not fit your foot. What I mean is, you may not fight. There are as many men getting beat up as there are women. It may not be you, and it sure ain't me. But it may be somebody across town.
You had some other major talent on the new album too, didn't you?
Little Kenny Wayne Shepherd! I call him "Mr. Dynamite!" (Laughs) That little cat, I tell you, I'm standing there singing, looking at him sittin in that chair, and I get a kick out of him. That's what the world needs today is more young people to get out there and do what he does. And he is doing it!
What about Keb Mo?
Oh, that Keb Mo! (Laughing) That rascal. I enjoyed doing that with him. All those guys, I just love'em to death.
I love that song you do with Keb, that's a great style..
No, that's original Delta. That's as far Delta as you can get! But it's good. I love it. And I wrote that song me and Keb's doin.' But think about this. If the whole cd was done that style, people wouldn't be lovong it. That's what I say. When you do a cd, you got to select all kinds of songs. You got to have songs where peole want to come out and dance. Don't nobody want to go to sleep, while you talkin' about (makes slow, moaning sound. Then laughs.)
What do you have coming up next on your agenda?
Right now, I'm not gonna be doing nothing but touring and writing. I will constantly write songs. I got one I'm working on now. I think it's a good title. Says "My baby is hot as a Louisiana pepper. He's a red hot daddy in any kind of weather!"
That's the blues!