Koko Taylor more than once said she hoped that when she died, it would be on stage, doing the thing she loved most: Singing the blues.
She nearly got her wish. The Chicago musical icon died Wednesday at age 80 of complications from gastrointestinal surgery less than four weeks after her last performance, at the Blues Music Awards in Memphis, Tenn. There she collected her record 29th Blues Music Award, capping an era in which she became the most revered female blues vocalist of her time with signature hits Wang Dang Doodle," I'm a Woman" and Hey Bartender."
Taylor died at Northwestern Memorial Hospital 15 days after her May 19 surgery. She appeared to be recovering until taking a turn for the worst Wednesday morning, and was with friends and family when she died.
“Koko Taylor’s life and music brought joy to millions of people all around the world and Chicago is especially honored that she called our city her home for more than 50 years,” Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley said. “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. She was an ambassador for our city and truly was the queen of a kind of music that makes people think of Chicago whenever they hear it.”
Among those with her Wednesday was Bruce Iglauer, owner of Chicago-based Alligator Records, who was her producer, manager and friend since 1974.
He recalled that Taylor had a similar surgery in 2004 and was on a ventilator for nearly a month. “The doctors were very discouraged then about her coming back, and she willed herself back to life,” Iglauer said. “We were hoping she would do the same this time.”
Born Cora Walton in 1928 in Memphis, Tenn., Taylor literally got up off her knees to become a blues icon.
Growing up on a sharecropper's farm outside Memphis, young Cora and her three brothers and two sisters slept on pallets in a shotgun shack with no running water or electricity. By the time she was 11, both her parents had died. She picked cotton to survive, and moved to Chicago in the early '50s to be with her future husband, Robert Pops" Taylor, who died in 1989. She found a job working as a domestic, scrubbing floors for rich families.
She had sung gospel music in church while living in the South, and on weekends would attend the blues clubs on Chicago’s burgeoning South Side scene, the heyday of Chess Records and such stalwarts as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon. She would occasionally sit in and caught the ear of Dixon, who approached her in the early ‘60s about recording one of his songs, “Wang Dang Doodle.”