No time to quit the blues: Koko Taylor

Boston Globe, August 17, 2007

Koko Taylor’s new album is called “Old School,” and rarely was a title ever so succinct and so apt. There’s no blues artist active today who so perfectly channels the thrill, the sadness, and the power of classic Chicago blues as Taylor, who left sharecropper Tennessee for the Windy City in 1953 and resides there to this day. With a new album and a busy tour schedule that brings her to Lowell’s Boarding House Park on Thursday, after five decades of raw-soul singing Taylor is going plenty strong.

Queen, doyenne, keeper of the flame are some of the titles that are regularly trotted out to describe the 71-year-old blues belter, and she accepts them all with good grace. “Yes, I do,” she says on the phone from her home. “I’m very honored to be in that position. I’m out here to make people happy with my music.”

“Old School” is just that – a dozen solid tracks, five penned by Taylor, played by three different high-caliber Chicago blues combos and released, like all of Taylor’s work since 1975, on Alligator, the label that has become a one-stop curator of the genre today. This is classic urban blues, mainly fast-paced but with a pair of scorching slow songs, Johnny Thompson’s “Money is the Name of the Game” and Walter Williams’s “Bad Avenue.”

Taylor shares the bill at Lowell with Shemekia Copeland, who, at 28, is one of the blues’s exciting new stars. Copeland was raised in the music – she’s the daughter of the great Houston bluesman Johnny Copeland – but she’s also a clear inheritor of Taylor’s extroverted belting style and, importantly, a beneficiary of Taylor’s work consolidating a place for women in what was and can still be a male-centered genre. Like Taylor before her, Copeland is building a body of work that shows her as a woman in full, free of such old blues caricatures as victim, harpy, or whore.

Taylor is proud of her influence on young blues artists who, she says, often look her up to get perspective or advice. She’s excited about Copeland – who also records for Alligator – but she’s also not above pulling a little good-humored rank. “She’s just getting started,” she says. “I’m old enough to be her grandmother. That’s why I’m old-school!”

Of course, if there’s a genre where age and experience count for something, it’s the blues, where it takes a certain amount of emotional weathering to convey the pathos of life’s daily tribulations and the small offsetting joys. Though Taylor has enjoyed prominence and commercial success in the blues world for many years, life has dealt her some harsh cards, too. In 1989, she barely survived a car crash; in 2003, she underwent surgery for gastrointestinal bleeding and nearly died from ensuing complications.

Her label’s publicity materials offer that “the blues saved her life” by giving her reason to pull through this health crisis, and Taylor doesn’t contest the notion, though she also clearly doesn’t want to dwell too much on the memory. “Yes, the blues has saved me, because it gives me inspiration every day,” she says.

She’s far more content to let her ceaseless output of recordings and performance speak for her. She’s most comfortable presenting herself as something of an artisan: a driven worker who tours relentlessly and gives dozens of concerts each year despite having entered her eighth decade. She’s got a song in her mind at all times, and she sings every day: “It drives my family crazy, but they know it’s something I have to do,” she says. “You have to keep practicing.” And she admits that even as she’s being interviewed, a part of her mind is figuring out a new song that she’s been working on.

Her perfectionism, she says, comes out in the making of her records. She wants each song to be better crafted than the previous one and the production values to keep reaching new heights. And she still craves approval. “I want them to hear something good,” she says of her concert audiences. “Something they can brag on the next day. Where they can say, `You shoulda went to that show.’ Don’t you love hearing that? Don’t you love picking up a newspaper and reading, `Koko Taylor was awesome!’ Doesn’t everybody love that?”

Taylor sees the blues as her job, and she feels she has plenty more work ahead.

“I think of myself as a working woman,” she says. “And as a woman that don’t give up. I don’t take no for an answer. I don’t intend to drag my feet. I’m gonna pick it up and walk.”