Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Queen

Koko Taylor.

Really, you don't have to say much more than that.

She shares the table with the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Willie Dixon. All of them were of the greatest generation (in my opinion) of bluesmen.

Yes, I know she was a woman. That's what makes her a true original.

She was the blues.

Me, I'm just contributing to her eulogy.

I could go into her historical details: coming from Memphis to Chicago in the '50's, being "discovered" by Willie Dixon at a Howlin' Wolf club date, etc. But I won't. Everyone else has, so there's no need.

Aside from being the "Queen of the Blues", she was a good woman, and someone I considered as a friend. In all of my years on the road with Lonnie Brooks, we've done a lot of gigs with Koko and the Blues Machine (her band.) Both Koko and Lonnie are Alligator (Records) artists, so naturally, the two acts were packaged together regularly. Next week, in fact, we were to go overseas to Spain together.

Now it's just us.

One of the best memories I have of Koko is from 2003. Both Koko and Lonnie were on the roster of the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise, a floating blues festival in the middle of the Caribbean. There were probably a dozen or so acts lined up, all of them A-listers.

Koko was the draw, though. She was the Queen, and it was HER gig, no questions asked.

And she exercised her royalty, without doing a damn thing.

You see, we were all flying together out of Chicago to Florida, Ft. Lauderdale, I think. It was winter, so the weather was typically crappy. And our flight out of O'Hare was typically delayed. The delay was so long, in fact, that it got to the point where we realized that we'd never make it to the boat in time for the scheduled departure.

For those of you that have been on any kind of a cruise, then you know that if you miss the boat, so to speak, you're basically out of luck. It's not gonna wait for you.

Anyways, all of the powers that be are running around and basically freaking out. "Oh, my God, what are we going to do? We have to get to that boat. This is an outrage. It's our jobs, here!"

Etc., etc.

Tempers were a bit flaring and hostile, airline workers were getting yelled at, phone calls were being made. You could say there was a bit of stress in the air.

Koko just sat there quietly. She seemed to not worry about anything and she certainly was not giving anybody and earful of anything.


To make an already long story short, we were able to fly out, but not to Ft. Lauderdale. We flew into (I think, anyways) Miami and then had to be driven to the boat. It was, needless to say, a big production. And there was still uncertainty as to whether or not we'd make it to the ship.

Koko, of course, showed no signs of sweating it.

And, as I'm sure you've obviously surmised, we made it.

The boat had waited for us. Really, though, it waited for her. After all, she was the Queen. Blues royalty.

The rest of us? We were simply part of her entourage. We ended up being something like 4 hours late for the scheduled departure. In fact, Lonnie was scheduled to perform the first night of the cruise, and we were forced to sett up and sound check and then doing our show before we even got to our cabins and could unpack and have a drink or a smoke or something to eat or do whatever. It was a flurry of activity.

Koko didn't have to work the first night, and she could have taken the time to rest for her performance the next night. But she was at our show, anyways, hanging out with with us and all of the bands and musicians.


She seemed to have a particular attachment to Pinetop Perkins, another old blues man (Muddy Waters' piano player for years and years.) They spent a lot of time together on that cruise, basically sitting and holding court for everyone that wanted even the briefest of interviews.

They held each others hands frequently, I'd noticed.

Koko's passing marks the end (just about, anyways) of the great blues migration to the north from the south. She was pretty much the last of that ilk. I can only hope and pray that her legacy will be carried on and that the music that she helped to develop will live on and stay strong.

So it goes...


  1. Thanks, that was well written. I will tell you that I am a white girl from the Northeast and have been a fan of Koko's for many years. I saw her in Chicago, at her club too. At many shows in other states. Class A in my book always took the time to say hello or chat. Very gracious person indeed. Yes, I could see she is and was calm and controlled Queen of Blues and experienced not to rush,panic the spirit is and was on her side. I will surely miss her spirit. God Bless KoKO and her family.

  2. Hi Mike:

    Awesome story! I saw Koko many times in the mid 90's with my buddy whose cousin, Duke Kelly, played in her band. Koko rocked all the time - and the rest of her band was pretty good too.

    Keep rocking with Lonnie, who is pretty awesome, as well. I saw Lonnie at a festival in Skokie last summer. Smoked.

  3. Tim,
    I've known Duke for years. We call him "Duke Blues". He actually made the Guiness book of World Records for playing the largest drum set in the world.

    How funny.

    Thanks for the comment. Share this with your friends.