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Cream of The Crate: Album # 172 - Koko Taylor: What It Takes


  • Cream of The Crate: Album # 172 - Koko Taylor: What It Takes

    Her singing is full of raw growls and grunts, her voice often building in intensity until it explodes."(LA Times)

    "Raucous, raunchy, good humored Chicago-styled blues…she unleashed like a hurricane. She attacks her material like a pitbull, ripping through the lyrics with a vengeance."
    (Jazz Times)

    "She was one of the last of the greats of Chicago and did what she could to keep the blues alive" (Willie Dixon)

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    This is album review number one hundred and sixty eight in the series of retro-reviews of both vinyl and CD albums from my collection.

    The series is called Cream of The Crate and each review represents an album that I believe represents significant musical value, either because of its rarity, because it represents the best of a style or styles of a music or because there is something unique about the music, the group or the particular production. The first fifty reviews were based on vinyl albums from my collection, with the following fifty on CD albums from my collection. Links to all these reviews can be found at the bottom of the page.

    In last week's COTC I featured a blues singer from the 60's/70's, who was white and had a fantastic voice, and that was Janis Joplin. This week I have again looked inside my crate for a females blues singer who is not as well known as Janice, but had an amazing voice and is credited as being the last of the original Chess female blues singers.

    I am talking about Koko Taylor and the CD album I'm featuring is titled - What It Takes. It was originally released on vinyl in 1975, and the CD version of the vinyl album was released in 1990. Chess re-released it again in 1997 with an additional seven tracks.

    This is a more recent Limited edition release on the Geffen label under the sub-title of the Chess Years in 2009. I
    t has the identifying code of B0013186-02. The original versions had 11 tracks. This Limited Edition version is also labeled as the Expanded Edition as it has 24 tracks - the same as the Chess CD release, plus an additional six tracks and it runs for a little over 1 hour and 12 minutes.

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    Track Listing:

    1. I Got What It Takes - 3:08
    2. Don't Mess with the Messer - 2:45
    3. Whatever I Am, You Made Me - 2:28
    4. I'm a Little Mixed Up (Betty James, Edward Johnson) - 2:42
    5. Wang Dang Doodle - 3:01
    6. (I Got) All You Need - 2:18
    7. Love Me - 2:48
    8. What Came First the Egg or the Hen - 2:28
    9. Insane Asylum - 4:22
    10.Fire - 2:35
    11.I Don't Care Who Knows - 2:13
    12.Twenty-Nine Ways to My Baby's Door - 3:13
    13.Blue Prelude (Joe Bishop, Gordon Jenkins) - 3:32
    14.I Need More and More - 2:44
    15.Um Huh My Baby (Harold Barrage, Willie Dixon) - 3:52
    16.Bills, Bills and More Bills - 2:52
    17.Let Me Love You Baby (Willie Dixon, James Ingram) - 2:48
    18.I Got What It Takes (feat: Muddy Waters) - 6:24
    19.What Kind Of Man Is That? (Koko Taylor) - 3:02
    20.Blues Heaven (Willie Dixon, Dick LaPalm) - 2:21
    21.Tell Me The Truth (Johnnie Mae Dunson) - 2:03
    22.Good Advice (J. B. Lenoir) - 2:27
    23.Separate Of Integrate - 3:06
    24.Tease Your Man - 4:20

    [All songs by Willie Dixon except where indicated]

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    The release is on a three leaf foldout that features a front cover picture of Koko, the rear cover is the track listing, and inside is a double gatefold picture of Koko singing and the CD, and the rear of the CD cover is a mock picture of Koko's best known track - Wang Dang Doodle. The design is excellent and the quality is very good, but not excellent as I can see it wearing badly as the years go on.

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    Inside the CD case

    Another part that is excellent is the accompanying booklet. The cover is identical to the cover of the CD and the producers of this album have thought about what the listener/reader might want, and have delivered.There are some great plates in the 8 double pages, and a decent bio and expanded track listing with recording details and details of the musicians playing on the tracks and the obligatory acknowledgements. On a pale green semi-gloss background, the overall presentation doesn't reek "quality - but the contents are, and overall it is a package that exceeds many other CD releases with similar packages.

    Of course as you might expect with an album that covers so many tracks and years, the list of contributors is mighty impressive, hell it's almost overwhelming:
    *Koko Taylor - Vocals
    *Willie Dixon - Bass, Vocals
    *Muddy Waters - Vocals
    *Gene Barge - Tenor Sax
    *Fred Below - Drums
    *Bob Crowder - Drums
    *Dillard Crume - Bass
    *Al Duncan - Drums
    *Rufus Grume - Guitar
    *Buddy Guy - Guitar
    *Donald Hankins - Saxophone
    *Big Walter Horton - Harmonica
    *Clifton James - Drums
    *Lafayette Leake - Keyboards, Piano
    *Jack Meyers - Bass
    *Dennis Miller - Guitar
    *Matt "Guitar" Murphy - Guitar
    *Dave Myers - Bass
    *Louis Myers - Guitar
    *Robert Nighthawk - Guitar
    *Louis Satterfield - Bass
    *Sunnyland Slim - Piano
    *John Williams - Guitar

    The story of Koko Taylor is the story of a woman born Cora Walton in 1928. Now as a quick aside, the booklet, which I have said is well produced, has her listed as being born as Cora TAYLOR and in 1935. This is a major error and one that should have been detected and corrected - shame on the Don Snowdon who wrote the story of her in the booklet.

    It is the story of a young woman almost born to sing blues and certainly everything in her early life encouraged her. She was brought up singing gospel in the local church and her parents always had blues programs from local stations in the local Tennessee area of Millington.

    In what can only be thought of as the "classic" upbringing of a black child born into what was close to poverty, she started working picking cotton and learning first hand the traditional songs of the black Americans and the blues that were adapted from those traditional songs. She met and married Robert "Pops" Taylor and together, in 1953, at the age of seventeen she made the trek northward to Chicago with "Pops" and found work as a domestic on the then affluent North Side of Chicago, while her husband toiled away in the local steel mill.

    Together they became regulars in the growing Chicago blues clubs, where on occasions she would get up and sing, and attracted the attention of customers and musicians alike. In fact within a relatively short time Taylor was sitting in with the likes of Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Howling Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson II, JImmy Reed and J.B. Lenor. Now that's some company as these men were already the cream of the City's blues singers and really, formed the core of the Chess roster.

    But at this point despite "hanging" with the best, music was still only a casual enjoyment for Taylor until a Chicago DJ - Big Bill Hill, introduced her to Willie Dixon. Dixon immediately saw the potential in Taylor's huge voice and delivery style and signed her to a management/production deal that would last her entire eight year stay with Chess.

    A feature of the Taylor/Dixon working relationship was that it wasn't just a case of Willie Dixon helping to direct (rather than mould) the raw and amazingly powerful voice of Koko Taylor, but her influencing him! She pushed Dixon outside his usual writing scheme of things toward more uptempo songs and introducing a soul-tinged, horn flavoured arrangement, which was not in Dixon's usual style of writing/production. Her "presence" and power even relegated the great voice of Willie Dixon to functioning as a 'second voice" on many tracks.

    Other arrangements spread from strident shuffles such as demonstrated in (I Got) All You Need, through to what is best described as harrowing melodrama in tracks such as Insane Asylum (talked about in the booklet as "Insane Asylyum" - another undetected error), and powering on at a racehorse tempo as demonstrated with Fire, to a soul imbued track in Don't Mess With The Messer.

    Koko Taylor arrived at Chess at a time when Blues was waning in the face of the push for a more solid soul sound, moving away from strict blues. Her work is considered as some of the best blues being recorded during this transitional phase.

    This album covers those Chess years so we will stick with that period. It is a great collection of her better known and lesser known tracks recorded as early as her first release in June of 1964, through to a live performance in June 0f 1972. Tracks 1 to 18 have been listed chronologically which is to be applauded. This is a constant bugbear of mine with similar "complete" sets, that often they are listed in all sorts of orders except chronologically, which allows the listener to easily follow the development of the singer. Tracks 19 to 24 are "bonus" tracks and are likewise chronologically listed from 1964 through to 1971.

    We start with track number 1 - I Got What It Takes which you will recall was Koko Taylor's first single for Chess. Written by Willie Dixon and recorded in June of 1964 it features a fantastic line-up of support musicians, a feature of almost all Taylor's recordings at Chess. It had "Big" Walter Horton on harmonica, Lafayette Leake on piano, Buddy Guy and Robert Knighthawke on guitars, Jack Meyers on bass and Clinton James on drums.

    This mighty lineup was the icing on a blues cake" that was seriously good. It may have been Koko's first recording with Chess but she announced herself with a powerful and emotive voice that would forever be her trademark. Willie Dixon had total control over the choice of musicians, the arrangement and had sole say in all aspects of the recording. As Taylor said of these sessions in later years, "My job was to sing, and that's what I did, no more and no less."

    It is a classic blues track and the hair should be standing up on the back of your neck from the moment her voice breaks through. This is a seriously fantastic example of Chicago blues, of the brilliant playing of musicians like Guy, Nighthawke,Horton and Leake. If it is the first time you have heard Koko Taylor, then this track is a great introduction indeed.

    I Got What It Takes

    We move to track 5 - Wang Dang Doodle which is possibly her best known and maybe, just maybe the best track sher ever recorded. Recorded in December of 1965 it featured the great man, Willie Dixon, joining Koko on vocals, Gene Barge and Donald Hankins on saxes, Buddy Guy and Johnny "Twist" Williams on guitars, Jack Meyers on bass, and Fred Barlow on drums.

    Released early in 1966 it was the Chess labels very first and last Top 10 R&B hit in that year. The collection of musicians on this track is best described as a raffish bunch and she was the perfect person to get the best out of them. Again it is her huge, rough-hewn roaring voice that just brings such an additional power to this song, and indeed any song. Let us not forget that in this period of 1966 the R&B world was being "seduced" by either the demure propriety of the sweet singing Supremes or the more "grass-rooted shout" style of Aretha Franklin.

    Koko Taylor was ballsy, while the "pop" world was being over run in the USA by delicate folkies and chirpy girl-group harmonies, this woman crashed through the niceness of the industry in a way that would only be taken up by one other woman - who was a leather lunged, whiskey drinking blues/rock mama - that being Janis Joplin a few years later

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    A plate from the CD booklet

    This is a masterful track on every level and should be high on the "Curriculum of Listening" for all who wish to learn of the blues/r&b styles of this period.

    Wang Dang Doodle

    Leaping through some pretty fine damn music we pause at track 9 - Insane Asylum. Another Willie Dixon composition - hell, they are all Willie Dixon compositions except four - anyway it was recorded in August 1967 with most of the usual 'suspects" backing Koko. Gene Barge on tenor sax, Lafayette Leake on keyboards, Buddy Guy and Johnny Williams on guitars, Willie Dixon adding extra vocals but, the bass player and drummer are unknown.

    It does have elements of St. James Infirmary Blues about it but it is sufficiently it's own piece just to have that comparison made for interest. A very melodramatic piece, it actually kicks off with Dixon taking the vocal lead. It's one of those great arrangements that has so much space in it that allows each musician a place to do their thing, without trampling over someone else. And aren't there some seriously slink riffs being played? When Koko jumps in, in a retort to Willie, she just takes command, her voice just sends tingles down the spine. They sing individually and in duets and this is simply a damn good track!

    I went out to the insane asylum
    And I found my baby out there
    I said "Please come back to me darlin'
    What in the world are you doin' here?"

    Then the little girl raised up her head
    Tears was streamin' down from her eyes
    And these are the things
    That the little girl said

    "When your love has ceased to be
    (Lord have mercy)
    There's no other place for me
    (Mmm mmm)
    If you don't hold me in your arms
    (Oh child oh child)
    I'd rather be here from now on"

    "Some people have it halfway fare
    Without your love I ain't nowhere"

    "Oh I can't eat and I can't sleep
    (Oh child oh child)
    Lord I can't even live in peace
    (Mmm mmm)
    Please take me baby for your slave
    (Oh oh)
    And save me from that early grave"

    "Some people have it halfway fare
    Without your love I ain't nowhere"

    And then sorrow struck my heart
    Tears began to stream down from my eyes
    The only woman that I ever loved in all my life
    Out here in a place in a condition like this

    And I began to thinkin' about
    What my mama told me when I was a little boy
    She told me when I couldn't help myself
    To get down on my knees and pray

    Then I fell down on my knees
    And these are the words that I said

    "Save me save me save me, babe
    Save me save me save me, dear
    Whoa, I don't know just how I made it
    But I'm so glad our love is here
    But I'm so glad our love is here
    But I'm so glad our love is here"

    Insane Asylum
    (released as a single)

    By now I feel overwhelmed with the choice of material, there is so much, and it is ALL great. I stopped at track 12 - Twenty Nine Ways (To My Baby's Door). The year is 1969 and by now Janis Joplin is commanding attention with her voice and delivery style. ironically Koko Taylor is still recording and doing a great job, and while I'm not going to get into a "who is the best" debate, suffice to say Koko is raising musical hell, but not getting the attention Janis was. In what is probably a give-away to my attitude toward these two great singers, i think if Janis had lived longer and kept singing she would have easily been on the same level as Koko.

    With the amazing combination of Matt "Guitar" Murphy and Buddy Guy laying down the guitar lines (and that's a guitar combo made in heaven), Big Walter on harmonica, Meyers and Bellow on drums, and the liner notes say it's either Sunnyland Slim or Lafayette Leake on piano - my money would actually be on it being Lafayette - it just has a feel that I recall on some Chuck Berry tracks that Leake played on. It kicks along at quite a tempo and is most definitely a great dance track. Kick up your heels and have a listen.

    Twenty Nine Ways (To My Baby's Door)

    Track 14 - I Need More And More demands a playing. In a later session for her 1972 album Basic Soul, actually had the horns stripped away (largely). This track, recorded late in 1971, was on that album and it is a great example of her uptempo soul delivery style, with the horns very much in dominance.

    By this time her backing muso's had changed quite a bit. On guitars were Joe Young and Reggie Boyd, Louis Satterfield on bass, Bob Crowder on drums,and, the only member of the "old gang" left is Lafayette Leake on piano. It's not a complex piece, in fact in some ways it's back to basics.

    I Need More And More

    Track 18 is technically the last track on the album, the original re-released album as the following six tracks were added specifically for this particular release of Koko Taylor's album - What It Takes. The track is a second version of track number 1 - I Got What It Takes. However there are some vast differences. This version was recorded eight years after that first single, it is a live version and it features Koko sharing the vocals with Muddy Waters.

    It was recorded in Switzerland in June of 1972 and features (and that is an appropriate description) - Muddy Waters on vocal, Lafayette Leake on piano, and Dave Meyers on electric bass. Incidentally Dave Meyers and Jack Meyers are brothers but do not appear to be related to Louis Meyers who plays guitar on this track along with Willie Dixon on acoustic bass and Fred Bellow on drums.

    The track was never planned! It was the result of an impromptu jam that formed an encore at the Montreaux Festival with Koko Taylor brilliantly trading verses with Muddy, and with Leak and Little Walter's original backing band - The Aces, it formed a completed circle in regard to the original release.

    I Got What It Takes [with Muddy Waters]

    Sometimes we can quite rightly wonder why in re-releases of albums, extra tracks are added - often they are poorly recorded, out-takes and material the artist would groan at if they had known. However in adding the additional six tracks, covering the period 1964 - 1971, the producers have done us a favour. These tracks were only ever released as singles and some, as B-sides but when we listen, we nod in agreement with their being added.

    I agonised over which one to use in this retro-review and one of the earlier recordings really called to me - but in the end I have pumped for the very final track on the CD - track 24 - Tease Your Man. The track oozes sexuality, both in the playing and absolutely in Taylors delivery. A nice gentle tempo, it just allows her to open her soul and let it just pour out, all over us. There are two guitarists - Joe Young and Denis Miller, I don't know who plays the lead break, but brother, give the man a cigar!

    As the track plays through just remember this is getting toward the end of Koko's stay at Chicago, and it truly epitomises all that was right with that relationship.

    Tease Your Man

    Even as this compilation was being prepared the great Koko Taylor passed away. the date was June 30th 2009. The previous release had been deleted from the sales catalogue and the people at Chicago believed it was time for it to be revived, and with the news of her passing added those bonus tracks. Those bonus tracks are not the tribute to this great singer, this great woman - the entire album is.

    When Koko Taylor stepped into the recording booth, the meters on the desk would hit red, and the engineers would have to dive to lower the volume in a panic unmatched except for when the also late and great, Jimi Hendrix recorded.

    Koko Taylor never tried to sing any other way than she normally sang. As the liner notes declare, "It was just that she had a blues-driven roar that was beyond compare!"

    In my opinion this CD album represents the definitive work of Koko Taylor. Great care has been taken in the production and there is absolutely not one track, that you would skip over. Brilliance is as brilliance does - and Koko was brilliant. You would not have read this far if you were not either a Koko Taylor fan, or a blues fan that wanted to garner more info on this woman - so I say to you . . . . Buy this CD! I don't care how big or carefully put together your music collection is, without this album it IS incomplete.

    The What It Takes album is readily available on eBay for around Au$30 which includes postage. Be aware there are copies of the earlier release without the additional tracks and the great booklet, and even though a lot cheaper - why? Go for this edition it is the best and you will not be sorry!

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    VIDEOS - Here a few video clips of Koko, and I'm leading off with a track I have featured in the body of the review, but really is such a fabulous track and features some of the great artists that supported her, like Willie Dixon and Little Walter. Sadly it appears to be the only live performance recorded from those early years so I have also included clips that are far more recent than her years at Chess.

    Wang Dang Doodle

    I'm A Woman

    I'm Ready

    If you are interested in checking out the first fifty vinyl albums reviewed, just click here

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    If you are interested in checking out the first fifty (50) CD's reviewed by me, just click here

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    If you are interested in checking out reviews 101 to 150 (Vinyl & CD) as reviewed by me, just click here

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    Past album Reviews - Numbers 151 onward:

    Number 151 - The Shaggs: Philosophy Of The World

    Number 152 - The Animals: The Animals

    Number 153 - Omar Khorshid: Live in Australia 1981

    Number 154 - Alan Parsons Project: Tales of Mystery and Imagination (Edgar Allan Poe)

    Number 155 - Billy Thorpe: Tangier

    Number 156 - Aretha Franklin: The Best Of

    Number 157 - Big Bill Broonzy: Big Bill Blues [His 23 Greatest Songs]

    Number 158 - The Supremes: Where Did Our Love Go

    Number 159 - The Band: Stage Fright

    Number 160 - Ray Brown & The Whispers: Hits and More 1965 - 1968

    Number 161 - Guitar Junior: The Crawl

    Number 162 - Jimi Hendrix: Radio One

    Number 163 - Memphis Minnie: Queen Of The Blues

    Number 164 - Eno: Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)

    Number 165 - The Loved Ones: Magic Box

    Number 166 - Various Artists: On The Road Again [An Anthology Of Chicago Blues 1947 - 1954]

    Number 167 - Janis Joplin: Greatest Hits

    Number 168 - David Bowie: Ziggy Stardust

    Number 169 - Red Hot Chili Peppers: Californication

    Number 170 - Chain: Two Of A Kind

    Number 171 - Bob Marley and The Wailers - Legend
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