In the wee hours of Feb. 4, 1988, a van carrying the “Queen of the Blues,” Koko Taylor, and her band moved along a two-lane highway in the mountains of rural Tennessee. A combination of rain, fog and the twisting road — with “more turns than a rattlesnake,” Taylor recalls — caused the vehicle to plunge 40 feet off a cliff.
“I was as wide awake as I am now, and I saw it coming,” Taylor says softly. “I saw it happening . . .” Koko suffered fractured ribs, a broken collarbone and injuries to her mouth. It took her several months to recover from the injuries, and she now sports a new set of teeth.
Then, one year ago, her husband and business associate of 35 years died.
To ease her personal burdens, Taylor has tossed herself completely into her music, a vocal tour de force of down-and-dirty blues. The 55-year-old grandmother from Chicago – who will perform two 45-minute sets at LincolnFest Sunday – just released “Jump For Joy,” her first album of original material in five years.
In August, she’ll appear (as a blues singer, of course) in the David Lynch film “Wild At Heart,” which already has won top honors at the Cannes Film Festival in France. Taylor performs two songs in the film, both penned by Lynch – “real slow, weird-sounding tunes,” she says.
That contrasts sharply with Taylor’s usual musical style.
“I love making people happy with my music,” Taylor says. “When people walk up to me after a concert and mention a tune I did – ‘Hey, Bartender’ or `I’m a Woman’ – then say, `You just made my day.’ Well, that makes my day.”
She pauses, then proceeds without any prodding, to defend the reputation of blues music.
“So many people think blues is downright depressing music. My music isn’t designed like that. It’s happy music.”
In addition to a horde of music writers, Taylor’s biggest fans remain her peers.
Shortly after the 1988 accident, a who’s who of blues artists — including Robert Cray, Lonnie Brooks, Albert Collins and the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Kim Wilson — performed a benefit concert to cover the enormous medical expenses of Taylor’s band.
A sharecropper’s daughter from Memphis, Taylor sang with her siblings while doing chores. Her love of the blues – especially the music of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters (“My No. 1 idol,” she says) and Bessie Smith – came from listening to a radio show hosted by disc jockey B.B. King, who hadn’t yet achieved fame as a musician.
“I’d sing gospel on Sunday in church and blues on Monday to Saturday,” she says.
At age 18, she moved to Chicago with her future husband and hung out with blues performers in various clubs. “I kept sitting in with local bands and doing a tune here and there – for no money,” she says. “That went on until (blues legend) Willie Dixon heard me sing.”
Dixon, a blues legend, hooked up Taylor with the renowned blues label Chess Records, where she recorded the million-selling hit “Wang Dang Doodle” in 1964. “I still get as many requests for that song today as I did then,” Taylor says.
In 1975, she signed with Alligator Records and has gone on to earn a Grammy Award as well as five Grammy nominations. While her record sales are among the best in the blues genre, they’re still light years from gold-record status of 500,000 copies.
Nevertheless, Taylor remains a viable touring act, performing across the country and Europe. Before her appearance in Springfield, she’ll perform for the thousands of revelers at Taste of Chicago Saturday.
“In the last few years, my audience has been 95 percent white,” Taylor says. “I get a mix of ages, too. I just performed at a club in South Carolina with a lot of young people in the crowd because there was a university nearby.”
She continued: “If blues had the proper (radio) airplay, it would have a bigger audience.”