Monday, June 08, 2009

Koko sang ‘Wang Dang Doodle’ to us

Leader publisher

Koko Taylor, the Queen of the Blues, appeared at the Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival in Greenville, Miss., last September.

We’d missed her show because the festival had been moved without much advance notice. But we caught her back stage and asked her to autograph a publicity shot her record company had sent us. We then asked her if she’d sing just a tiny bit of her big hit, “Wang DangDoodle,” and she obliged us while we sat on a bench.

We gonna pitch a wang dang doodle all night long

All night long, all night long, all night long.

We hugged and promised to look her up in Chicago, but she looked frail — she’d been in poor health for years — and we didn’t think we’d see her again.

Koko died on Thursday at the age of 80 in Chicago, where scores of other great blues artists who’d migrated there from the South are buried.

We first met her more than a decade ago, when her band from Chicago appeared for a fund-raiser for the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Miss. John Mayall was on the bill, and Buddy Guy was the headliner.

Koko and her group may have driven down from Chicago (years later, a couple of her musicians were killed on the road trying to get to a gig). She was never a megastar like Buddy Guy or John Mayall. But she was just as good.

Taylor’s family moved to Chicago from Memphis in the early 1950s, and she soon became part of the jumping blues scene that included transplants from all over the South.

It was an amazing gathering of great artists who were born in a region where the blues began. But few women rose to the top in a field dominated by men since the 1930s. Before that, Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey and other women were the stars.

Then tastes changed, so it was remarkable for Koko Taylor to take her rightful place in the Chicago blues pantheon. She had a powerful voice till the end, even though she’s had a couple of operations and many health problems.

She recorded Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle” on Chess in 1965, and remained a star for the rest of her life. Her finest recordings are gathered on a Chess compilation titled “What It Takes,” where she’s backed by some of the finest blues musicians in Chicago: Big Walter Horton (harmonica), Buddy Guy, Robert Nighthawk, Jack and Louis Myers (guitar), Lafayette Leake (piano), Dixon (bass) and others.

There’s also a similarly titled CD from Alligator (her label for more than 30 years), titled “I Got What It Takes.” This, too, has several top-notch Chicago bluesmen, including Sammy Lawhorn of Little Rock, Mighty Joe Young on guitar, Abb Locke on saxophone, Bill Heid on keyboards and Vince Chappelle on drums.

Wonderful musicians, wonderful singer.

“There’s not a lot of young people listening to the blues,” Koko told an interviewer. “I want to educate the next generation and show them how to sing the blues. I want to get it through their little heads the blues is cool, and the blues will never die. It’s music that sticks to your ribs—like red beans and rice.”

May she keep singing to us from heaven. Rest in peace, Koko.