Chicago blues legend Koko Taylor died Wednesday from complications after a gastrointestinal surgery, leaving the blues community reeling.
Grammy Award-winning Taylor, 80, underwent the surgery in May, and never fully recovered.
“What a loss for the blues world,” said Buddy Guy, also a Chicago blues legend. “She was one of the last of the greats of Chicago blues and really did what she could to keep the blues alive here, like I’m trying to do now,” Guy told Medill Reports through his spokesperson.
“We go way back,” said Guy, who sang with Taylor on her trademark 1965 hit song “Wang Dang Doodle.”
“She was very shy and so was I; so we hit it off. Willie Dixon and I had to get her out of her shell for ‘Wang Dang Doodle.'”
Marc Lipkin, Taylor’s publicist at Alligator Records said of her, “Koko was a giant of the blues, never to be replaced. She was an inspirational entertainer. She was born into the blues and sang with all her heart.”
Taylor, born Cora Walton on Sept. 28, 1928, was raised on a sharecropper’s farm just outside Memphis. She fell in love with music at an early age, according to Alligator Records. Inspired by gospel music and blues disc jockeys B.B. King and Rufus Thomas, Taylor began singing the blues with her five brothers and sisters.
“She has been an icon in the blues scene for many years,” said Lenin “Doc” Pellegrino, owner of Kingston Mines, a Chicago blues club. “She was a great performer, a warm, loving woman. The people who work with her enjoy her; her audience enjoys her. I knew her personally and loved her.”
In 1952, Taylor and her soon-to-be-husband, the late Robert “Pops” Taylor, traveled to Chicago with nothing but, in Taylor’s words, “35 cents and a box of Ritz Crackers.”
“She played with us many times until she became a super star, but she stayed friends with us until the end,” Pellegrino said.
Over the course of her 40-plus-year career, Taylor received every award the blues world has to offer, according to Alligator Records. On March 3, 1993, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley honored Taylor with a Legend of the Year Award and declared Koko Taylor Day throughout Chicago.
In 1997, she was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame. A year later, Chicago Magazine named her “Chicagoan of the Year” and, in 1999, Taylor received the Blues Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In January, Taylor performed in Washington, D.C. at The Kennedy Center Honors honoring Morgan Freeman.
“I’ve never seen her give anything but 100 percent,” said her publicist, Lipkin. “She never once phoned-it-in. She’s just a remarkable performer and singer. It will be a long time until we see the likes of her again.”
Taylor’s final performance was on May 7, 2009 in Memphis at the Blues Music Awards. She sang her trademark song after being awarded Traditional Blues Female Artist of the Year.
Taylor is survived by her husband Hays Harris, daughter Joyce Threatt, son-in-law Lee Threatt, grandchildren Lee, Jr. and Wendy, and three great-grandchildren.