An Evening in the Blues Hotel



MiMi Yeh

What makes a true diva? The word itself is thrown around a little too loosely these days to spotlight young wannabe singers who had a candy-coated sleigh ride to fame. Being a diva takes a certain combination of sassy, sexy, self-assurance, and most of all, experience. KoKo Taylor has just that. This Memphis born lady declares herself to be “right off the cotton farm.”

Born the daughter of a sharecropper, Cora Walton gained the name “KoKo” for her love of chocolate. Her first introduction to music was church gospel and B.B. King’s daily radio show. “I’m not ashamed of that. I’m proud that I came from the place that kept me.”

Citing influences such as Big Mama Thornton, Bessie Smith, and Muddy Waters, her voice has a wide variety of ranges and flavors capable of transforming from a soft growl to a full-bodied siren ringing out from beneath her silver lamé robes. With the sun at her back, her sparkling outfit and powerful voice left the listener overwhelmed, blinded, and hypnotized.

With 19 W.C. Handy Awards, a Grammy, and a place in the Blues Hall of Fame, KoKo shows no sign of slowing down. Fierce and feminine, she describes her version of the blues, “My blues isn’t designed for people to look down, but for people to get up and dance.” As Saturday’s spotlighted performer of the Sixth Annual Boston Folk Festival, the stifling heat was forgotten and she had the sedentary, lawn-chair crowd moving around.

The introduction from the band alone was enough to induce some life back into the sun-baked, mosquito-riddled throng as her guitarist opened with a blend of Willie Dixon’s “I Want to Make Love to You” and a question-and-answer session. Encouraging both sexes to purr and growl, he went through a tale of a fifty-cent rose and a $1.50 bottle of wine with various musical sounds to imitate noises, ending with him simulating oral sex on a guitar.

Although this famous Queen of Blues, leader of KoKo Taylor & Her Blues Machine, ended up nearly 20 minutes late to perform, her band provided some blush-inducing entertainment before she graciously began wailing at the crowd to “let the good times roll.” No introduction was used as the listener was tossed into KoKo’s rhythmic, warbling world fraught with enough pleasure and pain to show even a neophyte what blues can be. After one particular song of lament that artfully used baseball analogies, she remarked, “Took me a long time to get that rascal out of my mind.” Even her speech is redolent of Chicago style blues.

Once she finished with yet another tongue lashing for and ex-lover that broke her heart, she launched into “Blues Hotel” from her album The Royal Blue, swearing that she and B.B. King would party all night at the “Blues Hotel.” This was one of the more adrenaline-rushing numbers that brought the crowd to their feet, twirling and shaking away.

After one song, KoKo summed it up best and in the simplest manner, “That’s what we call the blues. The bottom of the barrel.”