A lioness that tears into her material with brash, brassy intensity, Koko Taylor has been hailed by many as the Queen of Chicago Blues. Even at the seasoned age of 79, she still puts any up-and-coming vocalists to shame. Earlier in the decade, it was questionable whether Taylor would return to the stage. In late 2003, she underwent surgery for gastrointestinal bleeding, and endured a particularly difficult recovery. With Taylor placed on a ventilator, few could have foreseen that by the next spring, she would be back.
Many would have retired, or at least slowed down, but Taylor is the type who looks mortality in the eye and scoffs. In fact, she downplays her road to recovery as a mere phase in a long life.
"I had a little life experience, that's all," she says. "I was back on stage and still on stage, and I'm doing fine now."
As a consummate blueswoman, Taylor, who moved from Memphis to Chicago in 1954 and still lives there today, couldn't see herself doing anything else.
"Touring's no problem," she says. "I'm doing what I like doing. ... When I go out there to different cities to work, it's inspiration for me. I'm doing what I like doing most of all."
Playing for blues aficionados who know her legendary songbook like Scripture, Taylor could easily resort to a hit-filled revue and coast on her classic discography. However rare for an artist of her age and stature Taylor remains as active a songwriter as ever. She penned half the tracks on her critically acclaimed 2007 release Old School and keeps her ear to music developments of the times.
"I'm always working on new songs," she says. "I take my time. I don't believe in no hurry. There's no one to rush me. I keep up by listening, to people talk, to new music. You know what's happening from the change in the sound.
"You have to be into it with the fans, find out what they like ... If I'm on stage, singing [in a style] that was played back in the day, people don't want to hear that. You don't want to get lost in the shuffle."
But though she continues to develop as an artist, Taylor is keeping signature songs like "Wang Dang Doodle," her Willie Dixon-produced 1966 hit for the Chess label, decidedly old-school.
"I'll still be doing some old ones so many of my fans still want to hear those old tunes. I sing songs the way I know to sing them, if people like 'em, they have to like 'em how it is.
"My songs," she adds, laughing, "if they started out old, they're going to stay old!"
Crackling with a spark that defies her years, Taylor continues on with a tenacity that makes musicians decades her junior seem lazy. She's still prepared to take on any comers.
"I'm an old woman, not a youngster," she says. "I have bad spells sometimes but I turn around the next day and I'm well enough to fight Joe Louis."