Grammy-Winning Jazz Singer Koko Taylor Dies

Koko Taylor burst into the spotlight with
Koko Taylor burst into the spotlight with "Wang Dang Doodle." (Al Schaben - Los Angeles Times)
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By Terence McArdle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 5, 2009

Koko Taylor, 80, a Grammy-award winning singer whose growling vocal style earned her the title Queen of the Blues, died June 3 at a Chicago hospital of complications from gastrointestinal surgery.

Women such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey were leading blues vocalists in the 1920s and 1930s, but the field had become dominated by men when Ms. Taylor emerged as a major figure in 1966 with her hit "Wang Dang Doodle," written by record producer Willie Dixon.

The song celebrates a party with such colorfully named characters as Automatic Slim, Razor Totin' Jim and Fast Talkin' Fanny.

"I said it was the silliest song I ever heard in my life!" Ms. Taylor told Living Blues magazine. "I said, 'Where did you find words to put together to make a song talking about some wang dang doodle? What was you thinking about when you wrote that song?' He say 'Money.' Just like that. 'Money.' "

Dixon's conviction proved true. The song became a million-seller for Chess Records, reaching No. 4 on the Billboard rhythm-and-blues charts in 1966. The Taylor-Dixon arrangement, with its a hypnotic guitar line and duet chorus, is still covered frequently by blues bands to this day.

Cora Walton was born Sept. 28, 1928, into a sharecropping family near Memphis. Her stage name came from a childhood nickname, Little Cocoa, derived from her love of chocolate.

She was orphaned by age 11 and left school in the sixth grade to pick cotton with her five older siblings. Although she did most of her singing in church, she listened to B.B. King's and Rufus Thomas's broadcasts on WDIA in Memphis and learned the songs of blues singer Memphis Minnie from old records.

She married Robert "Pops" Taylor in 1953, and the couple moved to Chicago. She worked as a domestic in Wilmette, a wealthy northern suburb, for $5 a day while her husband took a job in a slaughterhouse.

Pops Taylor encouraged her to perform as an unpaid guest singer at blues clubs. In 1962, Dixon heard her and persuaded her to record several of his songs. He gave her "Wang Dang Doodle."

Later Dixon productions with Ms. Taylor were less successful, and her recording career floundered when label owner Leonard Chess died in 1970. She formed her own band, the Blues Machine, in 1972. Her husband handled the bookings and drove the bus.

After signing with Alligator Records in 1975, she recorded the first of nine albums for the label and was marketed to a mostly white, collegiate blues audience.

Her second album for the label, "Earthshaker" (1978), included the song "I'm a Woman," a female version of Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man." In an entirely different style, "I'd Rather Go Blind," a ballad originally recorded by Etta James, became a staple of her live appearances.

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