Koko Taylor, Legendary Blues Singer, Dies At 80

07/04/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

CHICAGO (AP) -- Koko Taylor, a sharecropper's daughter whose regal bearing and powerful voice earned her the sobriquet "Queen of the Blues," has died after complications from surgery. She was 80.

Taylor died Wednesday at Northwestern Memorial Hospital about two weeks after having surgery for a gastrointestinal bleed, said Marc Lipkin, director of publicity for her record label, Alligator Records, which made the announcement.

"Her music was extremely direct, raw, emotional, straight from the soul," said Bruce Iglauer, Taylor's friend and owner of Alligator Records. "It was intentionally very, very unvarnished music. There was no sweetness to her music. Her signature was a raw throaty growl that she injected into a lot of songs that came straight out of the Delta."

Taylor's career stretched more than five decades. While she did not have widespread mainstream success, she was revered and beloved by blues aficionados, and earned worldwide acclaim for her work, which including the best-selling song "Wang Dang Doodle" and tunes such as "What Kind of Man is This" and "I Got What It Takes."

Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy said he had to draw Taylor out of her shell so she could perform "Wang Dang Doodle."

"What a loss to the blues world," Guy said. "She was one of the last of the greats of Chicago and really did what she could to keep the blues alive here, like I'm trying to do now."

Taylor appeared on national television numerous times, and was the subject of a PBS documentary and had a small part in director David Lynch's "Wild at Heart." In the course of her career, Taylor was nominated seven times for Grammy awards and won in 1984.

She last performed on May 7 in Memphis, Tenn., at the Blues Music Awards.

"She was still the best female blues singer in the world a month ago," said Jay Sieleman, executive director of The Blues Foundation based in Memphis. "In 1950s Chicago she was the woman singing the blues. At 80 years old she was still the queen of the blues."

Born Cora Walton just outside Memphis, Taylor said her dream to become a blues singer was nurtured in the cotton fields outside her family's sharecropper shack.

"I used to listen to the radio, and when I was about 18 years old, B.B. King was a disc jockey and he had a radio program, 15 minutes a day, over in West Memphis, Arkansas and he would play the blues," she said in a 1990 interview. "I would hear different records and things by Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, Sonnyboy Williams and all these people, you know, which I just loved."

Although her father encouraged her to sing only gospel music, Cora and her siblings would sneak out back with their homemade instruments and play the blues. With one brother accompanying on a guitar made out of bailing wire and nails and one brother on a fife made out of a corncob, she began on the path to blues woman.

Orphaned at 11, Koko - a nickname she earned because of an early love of chocolate - at age 18 moved to Chicago with her soon-to-be-husband, the late Robert "Pops" Taylor, in search for work.

"I was so glad to get out of the cotton patch and stop pickin' cotton, I wouldn't of cared who come by and said, 'I'll take you to Chicago,'" Taylor recalled in a 2004 interview with The Associated Press.

When she first entered the city, she thought, "Good God, this must be heaven," Taylor said.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said the city was honored to be her home.

"The strength of her style was formed in the night clubs of Chicago's South Side and she carried that spirit with her wherever she went," Daley said in a statement.

Setting up house on the South Side, Taylor found work as a cleaning woman for a wealthy family living in the city's northern suburbs. At night and on weekends, she and her husband, who would later become her manager, frequented Chicago's clubs, where many of the artists heard on the radio performed.

"I started going to these local clubs, me and my husband, and everybody got to know us," Taylor said. "And then the guys would start letting me sit in, you know, come up on the bandstand and do a tune."

The break for Tennessee-born Taylor came in 1962, when arranger/composer Willie Dixon, impressed by her voice, got her a Chess Records contract and produced several singles (and two albums) for her, including the million-selling 1965 hit, "Wang Dang Doodle," which she called silly, but launched her recording career.

From Chicago blues clubs, Taylor took her raucous, gritty, good-time blues on the road to blues and jazz festivals around the nation, and into Europe. After the Chess label folded, she signed with Alligator Records.

Taylor was a mentor and inspiration to the next generation of female blues singers, said 30-year-old blues singer Shemekia Copeland, who first met Taylor when she was 15 at a club in New York.

"When I saw her, I couldn't speak," said Copeland, the daughter of late blues artist Johnny Copeland. "You can't ask a woman who sings blues right now who influenced them and not say, 'Koko Taylor.' If she didn't pave the way for us we couldn't do this."

Taylor was a member of the first generation of blues artists who brought Southern sounds to the North and invented the Chicago blues, Iglauer said.

"I don't think there's anybody who can really fill Koko's shoes," Iglauer said. "From the standpoint of the blues, she really is irreplaceable."

In most years, she performed at least 100 concerts a year.

"Blues is my life," Taylor once said. "It's a true feeling that comes from the heart, not something that just comes out of my mouth. Blues is what I love, and blues is what I always do."

In addition to performing, she operated a Chicago nightclub, which closed in November 2001 because her daughter, club manager Joyce Threatt, developed severe asthma and could no longer manage a smoky nightclub.

Survivors include her daughter; husband Hays Harris; grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements will be announced, the label said.


On the Net:

Koko Taylor Web site: http://www.kokotaylor.com

Alligator Records: http://www.alligator.com


Listen to Taylor perform "Wang Dang Doodle" in 2008:

A much earlier version, with harmonica ace Little Walter:

Watch a recent interview with Taylor:

View more news videos at: http://www.nbcchicago.com/video.