Class in Session
Koko Taylor has every reason to sing the blues.
Take, for example, her early years. In 1939, at the ripe young age of 11, Taylor was abandoned by her birth parents, subsequently forcing the people of her hometown of Bartlett, Tennessee, to view her as an orphan. Then, by the time she reached her early 20s, she and the man who would eventually become her husband, the late Robert Taylor, decided to head for Chicago with, as legend has it, nothing but 35 cents and a box of Ritz crackers.
Even after she was able to break through and achieve a great deal of success within the world of the blues, heartbreak and turmoil continued to follow her. In 1989, Taylor suffered a setback when she was involved in a car wreck that nearly took her life. Then, in November of 2003, she needed emergency surgery for gastrointestinal bleeding, and spent a good amount of time following the surgery struggling to simply just breathe.
All things considered, it’s not too presumptuous to assume she has done her part to earn the title as “Queen of the Blues”. Come on. She has more things to sing about than most anybody else on the current blues circuit. And on her latest effort, Old School, the woman whose birth name was Cora Walton defends that title more vigorously than ever while proving that, when it comes to the blues, age is nothing but a number.
While seven of the album’s 12 tracks are old blues classics penned decades ago by such artists as Willie Dixon and Lefty Dizz, Old School’s five brand new Taylor tracks show that even after nearly 50 years of being in the music industry, Ms. Walton still knows how to convey the heart and soul of the blues so flawlessly that any aspiring blues singer, male or female, should take notes while listening.
This all comes in front of two bands that know exactly what they are doing. From legendary Chicago bluesmen Willie Hayes (drums) and Kenny Hampton (keyboards) to more contemporarily renowned artists like harmonica player Billy Branch and pianist John Kattke, Taylor’s group of backing musicians make the music feel authentic. And considering the sleek production tricks at their disposal, that achievement of authenticity is nothing less than impressive.
One of Old School’s best tracks, Johnny Thompson’s “Money Is the Name of the Game”, stays as true to the traditional blues sound as any 2006 blues-style recording possibly could. Branch’s lackadaisical harmonica playing makes the song seem like it just flew in on a plane from Mississippi. And as Taylor croons lines like “I used to have good credit” followed by “Things done got tough”, it becomes obvious that not age, car wrecks, or serious illnesses could touch what has become one of the most signature female vocal sounds in the history of the genre.
Then Taylor showcases her own songwriting abilities on “You Ain’t Worth a Good Woman” and “Better Watch Your Step”, two songs that prove her talents don’t end with just a mere classic voice. On the first of the two, Taylor stays true to the essence of the blues, using simple words and phrases while letting her voice convey the core of the song. Lines like “You put two and two together / You’re bound to come up with four” and “You might not have no money / But baby I’m good to go” are a breath of fresh air in a blues world that has been covered in smog for decades. The simplicity of the words and the groove of their presentation create a time machine that takes you directly to the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the blues were still the blues.
On the latter, “Better Watch Your Step”, Taylor boogies down to a tune that the late Muddy Waters would be envious of. The song’s fast-paced tempo and southern piano placed perfectly next to Branch’s 1950s-era harmonica playing highlight this Taylor original. And as she warns a possible dog of a man by saying “You better watch your step now baby / Something bad might happen to you” with that poignant tone of hers, one better believe she can still lay a beatin’ on any back-stabbin’ tramp if need be.
Only when Taylor decides to try and sound contemporary does the album falter. Though Old School’s opening track, Taylor’s own “Piece of Man”, still has a bluesy undertone, the song has more Johnny Lang than Robert Johnson. On this radio friendly tune, Taylor has her one slip up as she pays more attention to the elements of pop rather than the blues. Considering it is the blues that got her where she is today, this twist of focus turns out to be bland, unnecessary, and a big mistake.
But mistakes like that are OK when you are Cora Walton. After 78 years of living through every little thing life has to offer, good or bad, she has earned the right to do whatever she wants. And no one can blame her if Old School, from top to bottom, is the album she wanted to make. She has proven that even at her worst, she can still out-blues any post-1980s, longhaired, festival playing, 18-to-35-year-old wannabe. After all, remember, this queen has lived through every reason to sing the blues.