In her epic career, Koko Taylor is certainly no stranger to awards but it was still exciting to see her win three more at the Blues Music Awards this year; Traditional Blues Album of the Year, for the 2007 Old School; Song of the Year Gonna Buy Me a Mule which she also wrote and Traditional Blues Female Artist of the Year. With her trademark growl – which can sandblast a lyric at will – she has long been known as a gritty, no-messin’ kind of artist who can hold her own in a genre that has typically been occupied by men.
Koko Taylor is nearly eighty years old now although you would never know it from her good looks or her remarkable voice. She’s come full circle from hard times “picking cotton … feeding hogs” as she states on the Old School liner notes all the way to her current reign as ‘Queen of the Blues.’ When she first moved up from the south to Chicago, she and her husband (Robert ‘Pops’ Taylor) only had “thirty five cents in our pockets and a box of Ritz crackers.” But Chicago in the 1950’s had a lot to offer musically and they were soon swept up into the weekend blues club circuit and found themselves hanging out with musicians such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’Wolf. With a bit of encouragement, Koko was soon singing herself and was subsequently discovered by songwriter/producer Willie Dixon, who went on to become her friend and mentor.
The interesting thing about Koko’s latest album is the vintage blues sound that she has managed to replicate even though some of the songs are penned by herself, more recently. There is almost an equal selection of Koko’s original material vs. songs she has covered, but the whole album ends up with that Muddy Waters, early electric kind of swankiness, which suits her singing style perfectly. (No wonder she has sang with Buddy Guy so often and to such acclaim; it’s the perfect combo of rough and smooth!) Koko calls her own particular brand of blues “down in the basement, far as you go” – and I love that description – when she belts it out there is no doubt, she’s been there, done that. Maybe twice.
Personal favs on this album are: Bad Rooster with some excellent hen house imagery happening (“better watch your neck baby, else I chop it off” springs to mind) and a clucking, stuttering guitar to drive the point home. The winning Gonna Buy me a Mule is humorous threat to replace her man with a mule but has a infectious, relentless hook that draws you in from the start. Piece of Man is the ferocious opening track – could be my most played on this album – and starts by Koko shouting “Hey y’all. Listen to me!” at the beginning of this cautionary tale about men. Also, the very sexy and wonderful All Your Love a slow, hoochie coochie kind of a number, infused with a gentler Koko as well as some swelling, molten guitar solos. The whole album is great and a good sampler too if you are trying out different kinds of blues. Koko Taylor is nowhere near done yet, so buckle up.
Buy Old School on CD from Amazon