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Blues Queen Koko Taylor Dies At 80

Koko Taylor, here performing in 2005, died Wednesday at the age of 80.
/ RAFA RIVAS / Getty Images
RAFA RIVAS / Getty Images
Koko Taylor, here performing in 2005, died Wednesday at the age of 80.

Her name is synonymous with Chicago blues, and her voice was growling, thunderous and full of soul. Grammy Award-winning blues artist Koko Taylor died Wednesday at the age of 80.

Born in 1928 on a sharecropper's farm near Memphis, she was called "the Queen of the Blues." Her given name was Cora Walton, but she acquired the name Koko due to a love of chocolate. During an interview with NPR in 2000, Taylor said she and her five siblings would sing gospel music on Sundays, but on Mondays it was the blues.

"My younger brother made himself a harmonica out of a corncob, and I didn't need no microphone," she said. "And we'd be back there singing and playing."

Later, Taylor would move to Chicago with her soon-to-be-husband. She worked as a cleaning woman, but says she and her husband would frequent nightclubs on nights and weekends. She told NPR in 1991 that musicians would invite her to join them on the bandstand.

"One Sunday, I was sitting in," she said. "And Willie Dixon happened to be in the audience. And when I finished, he says to me, he says, 'My God, I ain't never heard a woman sing the blues like you sing the blues before in my life. Where did you come from?' I said, 'Memphis.' "

Dixon, already a celebrated bluesman, helped Taylor sign with Chicago's Chess Records and wrote a song for her that became her signature. Sales of "Wang Dang Doodle" would reach a million, and Taylor hit the road to blues and jazz festivals around the country and abroad. When Chess Records went out of business, Taylor signed with Alligator Records.

Alligator president Bruce Iglauer was Taylor's manager for more than 30 years. He says the Queen of the Blues didn't fit the traditional image of a blues singer.

"She didn't party. She didn't live a wild life at all," he says. "What she did do, that was so much the essence of the blues, is that she sang directly from the soul."

Taylor also appeared in film and on television, and she more than held her own in the male-dominated blues industry, sharing the stage with other major blues stars such as Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf and Buddy Guy. Iglauer says Taylor knew she had to be tough, and she absolutely ruled her band.

"She would stomp out the beat with her right foot and, boy, the drummer better play Koko's beat," Iglauer says. "When she told them to bring it down, they better bring it down to a whisper. Because she was determined that she was going to make it and that nobody was going to say, 'Well, she's good — for a woman.' "

During her 40-plus-year career, the woman who could blast songs like a hurricane from her lungs won a plethora of awards, including a Grammy in 1984. She was inducted into the Blues' Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1997. Last month, Taylor was named Traditional Blues Artist of the Year at the Blues Music Awards in Memphis.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.