It is routine practice to describe Koko Taylor as either the “Queen of the Blues” or the “Last of the Blues Women”. Oddly enough, the same was already true when this album first saw the light of day—over 30 years ago. The original cover, reproduced here in all its tacky ineptitude, hinted at this by depicting some bygone Flapper-Empress bearing no relation to the actual singer. Taylor does claim links to the Ma Rainey-Bessie Smith tradition but her tough, uncomplicated vocals really belonged to the ‘50s heyday of the raw, amplified Chicago sound. The point is that even at the height of her powers it was sensed that she represented a dying art. It is fitting that her signature tune “Wang Dang Doodle” was one of the last blues records to make the RnB Top Five.
She is still best known for that one Willie Dixon composition and, bored as she must get with performing it, it is hard to argue with the association. For not only does it display all of her strengths, but it is one of those moments when every element is as good an example of its type as you can get. From Buddy Guy’s blistering guitar work to Gene Barge’s down-and-dirty sax, this was a take blessed by more than a little magic. Dixon was largely responsible for that session and for nearly all of the material on this album. The legendary bassist, songwriter and producer is best remembered for his work with Howlin’ Wolf and “Wang Dang Doodle” had been recorded by the gruff-voiced Wolf five years earlier. As it was impossible to attempt to reproduce the Howling Wolf sound, Dixon opted for a stricter, more dancefloor-oriented affair with each musician assigned a particular role. It could have been a very formulaic effort but the upping of the tempo and the exuberance of the playing resulted in one of the best loved and most instantly recognisable Chess singles.
On top of which Taylor attacked the song as if her life depended on it, barking out the legendary list of low-lifers that makes up the bulk of the song’s lyric with an enthusiasm and a gusto that matched the high-octane instrumentation blow for blow. The song became a winner with urban dancers from downtown Chicago to England’s Mod clubs and retains all of its appeal today. It was a hard act to follow and not the least of this album’s interest is in checking out how close to that track’s greatness the rest of Taylor’s ‘60s work came.
The answer is close but not quite close enough. No Urban Blues fan will be disappointed by this solid and atmospheric set. However, Taylor tends to have one approach only to a song—all out assault. While this is initially exhilarating, after a time one cries out for a little nuance and subtlety. She owns one of the most distinctive voices in the genre but a whole hour at one sitting is perhaps a little too much of a good thing. It is perhaps best is to treat this as a collection of singles (most tracks were intended as such) and to dip in here and there. Only then will the positive factors greatly outweigh any sense of repetitive strain. On top of this, the listener can also get a useful insight into a powerful genre trying to come to terms with a changing pop market.
Dixon was an inventive producer and varied his arrangements rather more than we associate with the Chicago sound. Straight-up (they come no straighter) blueswoman that Taylor is—Dixon, largely in an attempt to broaden her appeal, was inclined to experiment with quite a hybrid musical backdrop. It comes as something of a surprise, in fact, to find out how “old time rock and roll” many tracks are. “Love Sick Tears” is pure ‘50s jukebox fare, as is Barge’s sax work on “Don’t Mess with the Messer” or the backing vocals on “I Don’t Care Who Knows”. On the other hand, “Love You Like a Woman” has much in common with the Chess soul sound that was starting to edge out the older form. These frameworks are not entirely successful—the rocking rhythms must have sounded somewhat anachronistic even then (all these records were made between 1965 and 1969) and are now badly dated. The soul cuts are not up to the orchestral richness that other artists such as the Dells were getting from Chess’ new breed of producers. Yet the live, home-grown quality of both treatments probably suited Taylor’s no-nonsense style better than lush strings and a battalion of brass would have done.
Of the Chicago blues cuts “proper”, mention must be made of “Nitty Gritty”—the second best tune of the set. Johnny Shines lays down a more relaxed guitar pattern than is found elsewhere on the album and the (relatively) mellow funk of the number provides a rich back-drop for the singer who may have benefited from more outings such as this. The other stand-out track is “Insane Asylum”—surely one of the oddest records ever made. Seemingly deep in Screaming Jay Hawkins territory yet performed with absolute sincerity, it opens with Dixon visiting the local mental hospital wherein Ms Taylor is languishing—driven insane by a broken heart. Truly mind-boggling stuff.
This is not an absolute classic blues album but it is an important one nonetheless. It is likely that its enduring appeal will be as much down to the musicianship on display as to Taylor’s formidable lung power. People like Gene Barge and pianist Lafayette Leake have not really had their due, despite the influence their work has had. Barge is probably the great blues saxophonist and could do with being recognised as such. The guitarists involved are, as you would expect, consistently excellent. The blues may have been on the wane even as these sessions were being laid down but there is no tiredness in the execution, no sense of going through the motions. Mind you, with Taylor as front-woman—energy was always going to be available by the bucket-load. That, added to an emotional power few would even attempt, still gives this body of work value. If you find contemporary music either a little bland or overly sophisticated, this might just be the medicine you need.
// Notes from the Road
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