Koko Taylor

Koko Taylor
Old School

Alligator Records ALCD 4915

By Karen Nugent
May 2007

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I was afraid to listen to Koko Taylor’s new album. It’s been seven years since her last record. She’s in her late 70s, and nearly died three years ago following emergency surgery. It’s hard enough to get back to doing anything after all that, let alone belting out swaggering, loud blues in that oh-so-powerful voice.

Would she still be the greatest blueswoman alive? What if she changed her style? Lost her voice? Become frail?

Well, the fears were for naught, and the reassuring title of the disc tells it all.

The 12-song disc takes us back to Taylor’s early Chicago days. She belts out Chess classics from the Windy City’s blues heyday, along with five new originals that could easily have topped the blues charts back then, or in any era since.

Old School features tunes by Willie Dixon - including the Muddy classics “Young Fashioned Ways” and “Don’t Go No Further” – and Magic Sam, along with Memphis Minnie’s “Black Rat,” a tune Taylor sang as a teenager.

Taylor has always had the uncanny ability to pull off doing machismo blues songs such as “Mannish Boy” and “Wang Dang Doodle.” So much so that an astonished Dixon himself immediately took her to Chess.

This disc has that same tough charisma. She carries the rough-sounding “Bad Avenue” in that manner, sounding a lot like Waters. Perhaps because, adding to that Waters’ feel, is the guitar solo featuring Bob Margolin, a popular Muddy sideman from the 1970s. Margolin, now a success in his own right, also plays some tremendous slide guitar on “Black Rat.”

My favorite song on the disc is “All Your Love,” a long, slow blues with some heavy pounding rhythm, and those wonderful Koko growls. The guitarist on this cut, Criss Johnson, positively wails.

Four of the five originals lean toward the man-bashing side of the street. But it’s done in good humor, and we gals can get a good chuckle out of Taylor’s lyrics.

The opening cut, “Piece of Man” (grabbing your attention with a loud “HEY Y’ALL”) describes an emotionally absent dude, who is, “like a dog with a bone: He don’t want it but he won’t leave it alone.” But, she decides he’s better than no man at all.

The rocking “Gonna Buy Me a Mule” is about buying the beast to take the place of her man, something she thinks is easily accomplished.

“You Ain’t Worth a Good Woman” (‘cause you sure ain’t much of a man/All you do is lay around waitin’ for something good to fall in your hands.”) That sums it up nicely.

“Better Watch Your Step” and “Hard Pill to Swallow” talk about cheating.

Born Cora Walton (she got her nickname early on – from her love of chocolate) and orphaned at age 11, Taylor left a sharecropper’s farm outside of Memphis in her early 20s bound for Chicago with her future husband, the late Robert “Pops” Taylor. They had no money, and Koko worked cleaning houses in rich, white suburbs. She and Pops would relax at Southside blues clubs on weekends, and with her love of blues already well nurtured, she was soon sitting in with the likes of Waters, Howlin’ and Little Walter.

Her big break came in 1963, after Dixon caught a particularly hot live performance, and the rest is history.

Throughout this disc, Billy Branch plays a mean harp. And Taylor’s regular band, The Blues Machine, is in its usual top form.

The record was produced by guitarist Johnson, along with Taylor and Alligator president Bruce Iglauer, and recorded in Chicago, where Taylor still lives.

In her liner notes, Taylor makes no bones about how hard her life was in the south: picking cotton, feeding hogs and chickens, and catching rabbits for dinner. If you didn’t catch one, it was hoecakes with molasses three times a day.

She describes her early days in Chicago as pretty tough, too. She made five dollars a day for all kinds of backbreaking work for various white families. But going out to hear blues at night helped. The bluesmen she met seemed familiar to her, like her old country people, yet they were considered big start there.

“That’s why I like blues, because it tells a true story. It’s not only something about my life, it reaches out to a lot of people. Maybe something to lift you up, or help bring you out of this rut you’re in,” Taylor wrote at the end of the notes.

Amen. And she’s still doing it in a big way.

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