When blues vocalist Koko Taylor was growing up on her father's sharecropper farm just outside Memphis in the late '40s, she and her brothers couldn't afford musical instruments, so they improvised.
"I remember my younger brother, he made a harmonica out of a corncob," says Taylor, still tickled by the thought. "And my older brother, well, he never got the chance to get the feel of an electric guitar, but he saw one and knew how they were supposed to go. So he put some hay-baling wire up against the back wall of our house and that was his guitar. Of course, I was the vocalist, and after that we really had a thing going on."
Taylor, who performs at the Saba Club tonight, has been on a blues roll ever since. The winner of an unprecedented four W.C. Handy awards, five Grammy nominations and a Grammy award for Best Blues Record of 1984, she is widely regarded as the Queen of Chicago blues, as well known for her gravelly voice and soul-wrenching delivery as for her feverish club performances.
Her vocal style, born of a potent mixture of gospel and blues influences, began to take shape in Memphis. "I grew up singing gospel in a Baptist church with my brothers and sisters," Taylor recalls. "I'd sing gospel on Sundays, and during the week, when I went into the fields doing my routine chores, I'd sing the blues. That's all I knew."
She credits B.B. King with introducing her to a lot of blues music, although King wasn't singing or playing his familiar guitar, Lucille, full time in those days. He was playing records instead, as a disc jockey for Memphis radio station WDIA.
"Everybody looked forward to his program, because we didn't have many records back then," Taylor says. "I still remember he was always advertising Pepticon a health tonic . He'd be singing, 'Pepticon, Pepticon, sure is good. You can get it anywhere in your neighborhood.' "
King's program, along with another hosted by Rufus Thomas, whetted Taylor's appetite for recordings, including some featuring female vocalists. "The first woman that I admired so much was Memphis Minnie," she says. "Back in those days they were still making 78s. We had a record player that you had to wind up like an old car, and one day I got hold of Memphis Minnie's 'Me and My Chauffeur Blues.' She was the first woman to move me, inspire me. Then I got to hear other women, too -- Big Mama Thornton and Bessie Smith."
At 18 Taylor moved to Chicago with her boyfriend, soon-to-be-husband Robert Taylor. She started singing "just for the fun of it," and was discovered by Willie Dixon, the highly successful and prolific songwriter and A&R man for Chess Records. Before she knew it she was working in the same studio with some of the biggest names in the business -- Muddy Waters, Elmore James, J.B. Lenoir.
"Being a woman at Chess was kind of difficult," she says, "even though there were other women recording back then, like Fontella Bass. We just never received the kind of record promotion the men got."
Despite that policy, Taylor scored a hit in 1965 with the million-seller "Wang Wang Doodle," a song that has since become a raucous blues classic. "Willie Dixon wrote it specially for me, but I didn't want to do it at first," she says. "I didn't want to sing about all these mean people. But I'm sure glad I did. Howlin' Wolf had already done the record first, but mine just took off."
During her years at Chess Taylor began to write songs, yet she never had much control over her recordings. "I was so inexperienced, I just did what I was told mostly," she says, and the results were often uninspired.
In 1972, after Leonard Chess' death, Taylor signed with her current label, Alligator, and the awards have been piling up ever since. A lot of her success, she believes, is due to the fact that she and Alligator chief Bruce Iglauer discuss each album. "We put our heads together and try to work out the feeling of the tunes, just what we want to hear."
Her new album, "Queen of the Blues," which will reach stores in a couple of weeks, illustrates how well the collaboration works. Besides showcasing some of Taylor's most impassioned and rollicking performances, it combines the always considerable power generated by her Blues Machine Band, with a rotating cast of all-star players -- among them Albert Collins, James Cotton, Son Seals and Lonnie Brooks.
"It was an idea that I came up with," says Taylor, "and Bruce liked it. Get all my friends and put them in the studio and jam some. I really wanted to put everybody in there -- Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny Winter, everybody. But I could only get so many of them in there this time. We sure did have a good time, though. We were really jumpin'."