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Koko Taylor: Kicking off Blues Fest celebration

May 31, 2000

Koko Taylor and her Blues Machine

When: Friday, June 2, 8 p.m.

Where: The Maryland Theatre, 21 S. Potomac St., Hagerstown

Tickets: $15, $20 and $25, plus $2 processing fee, and are available by calling 301-790-2000

By KATE COLEMAN / Staff Writer

"Queen of the Blues" Koko Taylor doesn't wear her crown lightly.

Despite a nearly 40-year career, a host of honors - she earned her 20th W.C. Handy award last week - Taylor is performing 200 dates a year.

It was the public who gave Taylor her title, she said. "The audience can feel what you're saying and doing," she believes. "When I'm on stage, I put all that I have - my whole heart - into every lyric," Taylor said.

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She'll be on stage at The Maryland Theatre Friday, June 2, along with her Blues Machine.

In a recent phone interview from her Chicago home, Taylor said she had just returned from a California blues festival and was leaving later that day for festivals in Portugal and England.

People ask her why she keeps working and when is she going to retire, she said.

"I'm not tired. I'm not sick," she said. She'll stop singing the blues when the public lets her know they're tired of her.

That public soon will have something new to listen to. "Royal Blue," the CD Taylor's been working on for four years, will be released next week. Taylor gets a little help from her friends, including the legendary B.B. King and double Handy 2000 winner Keb' Mo'. Guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd, whom Taylor describes as "out of sight" and "such a nice little guy," joins her on a cover of Melissa Etheridge's "Bring Me Some Water."

There are four Koko Taylor originals on the new album. She writes and sings with a sense of humor. In "Don't Let Me Catch You (With Your Drawers Down)" Taylor threatens to "hit you in the head with a rollin' pin." Taylor sings strong words with her strong voice.

Taylor grew up on gospel music. Her father insisted that everyone in the family attend church every Sunday. But Koko, so nicknamed because of her love for chocolate, liked the blues she listened to on the radio - the shows of B.B. King and Rufus Thomas.

What really made her pay attention to blues music was hearing a singer named Memphis Minnie. "Black Rat Blues" was the first blues song that "was sticking to my ribs," Taylor said.

She began performing at the back of her family's old house on a cotton farm outside of Memphis, Tenn. To make a "guitar," her oldest brother nailed six lengths of baling wire to the side of the house. Her younger brother made a harmonica from a corncob, and Taylor sang.

She credits her parents and the many things they taught her with making her a "good woman, a strong woman." Taylor - then Cora Walton - and her five brothers and sisters were orphaned when she was 11.

When she was 18, she moved to Chicago with Robert "Pops" Taylor, the man who would be her husband for 25 years before he passed away. "He was always there when I needed him," she said.

"Pops" Taylor worked in a packing plant, Koko Taylor cleaned houses, and they visited the city's blues clubs at night. Koko Taylor sat in with various musicians, and in 1962, arranger and composer Willie Dixon heard her sing.

"My God. You got the kind of voice the world needs today," Dixon said to her. He told her there were no women singing like her and asked her who she recorded for.

"I didn't even know the meaning of the word," Taylor said. But soon she did. Dixon set her up with Chess records. Taylor's 1965 recording of his "Wang Dang Doodle" sold more than a million copies. She moved to Alligator Records in 1975, and six of her eight albums were nominated for Grammy awards. Taylor received a Grammy in 1984 for "Blues Explosion," a compilation album.

Taylor remarried five years ago. "Old woman," she laughed, quoting another of her "Royal Blue" compositions.

Growing up, Taylor had no thought, no dreams of the career she would have. "Not even related, not even close," she said.

It was hard being a woman in a man's world of the blues when she started "and it's still hard," she said.

But that's never stopped Koko Taylor.

"I do what I do and keep on. Nothing good comes easy."

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