It was at Silvio’s around 1962 that the famed producer and songwriter Willie Dixon heard Koko Taylor guesting with Howlin’ Wolf’s band. After producing her first 45 for the USA label, Willie brought her to Chess, where he had produced classic blues hits (many of which he had written) by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson II, and many more.
Between 1964 and 1968, Dixon produced nine Koko Taylor 45s for Chess’ subsidiary, Checker. She scored one monster hit on Checker in 1966 -- “Wang Dang Doodle,” written and produced by Dixon. The single reached #13 on the national black radio charts, and she toured across the country with multi-artist R&B caravans and with her own band. But she never had a follow-up song that did nearly as well as “Wang Dang Doodle.” Songs from Koko’s Dixon-produced sessions were later collected on two Chess LPs, Koko Taylor and Basic Soul, but neither album received much promotion.
By the end of the ‘60s, Chess had been sold and blues was disappearing from black radio. No longer in demand, Koko returned to her day job, working as a cleaning woman and nanny for well-to-do white families while making guest appearances with established bands.
I first met Koko at Chicago’s Wise Fools Pub, probably in 1972. She was sitting in with Mighty Joe Young’s band, and her roaring, growling voice and bigger-than-life stage presence filled the room. Joe introduced us. Although Alligator had only two or three releases at that point, almost immediately she said, “I know you’re making records. What about recording me?”
Most fans now assume that when I met her, Koko was already famous as “The Queen of the Blues,” but that was years in the future for her. At the time, she didn’t have a band of her own and wasn’t yet able to draw well, even local clubs. However, she had appeared at one of the Ann Arbor Blues Festivals and her two Chess albums were still available. So, hardcore blues fans knew her name.
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At first, I hardly considered recording Koko. I saw her as a one-hit wonder with a strong but not very subtle vocal style—all power all the time. She didn’t have a band and thus wasn’t touring. She didn’t seem to have a repertoire beyond blues standards and her Chess recordings. Also, I doubted my ability to promote a female artist in the male-dominated blues world. I was especially afraid of trying to promote a standup singer who didn’t play an instrument. The young white blues audience that was buying Alligator releases expected their blues artists to be guitar or harmonica heroes as well as singers. Recording a vocalist like Koko would also mean challenging myself as a producer. I couldn’t play an instrument and I was a mediocre singer. I was keenly aware of how my own musical limitations might hurt my ability to produce a vocalist’s record. I would have to become more involved in directing arrangements and shaping the music, and I wasn’t sure I could do it.
But Koko was persistent. At our first meeting, I had given her my phone number. She called me frequently, always asking politely about recording. After hearing me say, “I don’t think so,” “No, not right now,” “I’ll think about it,” or “I’ve got other priorities” quite a few times, Koko finally asked, “Could you help me get some gigs?” This was a different question. I was booking the Alligator artists and had established relations with some clubs. “Sure,” I told her, “I’ll try getting you some gigs, but you need a band.” A week later, she called back. She told me she had a band in rehearsal and had made a down payment on a van. I was impressed. Koko was a taking care of business. I booked a few dates for her that went well. At her gigs, I began to hear in a few songs (especially slow blues) that she could do more than growl and holler. Perhaps I could bring out that subtlety in the studio. So I crossed my fingers and committed to making a record with Koko. It was one of the smartest decisions I ever made.
As far as the songs--Koko wasn’t a very confident songwriter at that time in her career, so we mostly relied on Koko-ized versions of songs that had been previously recorded by other artists. We featured songs first recorded by artists like Ruth Brown (“Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean”), Bonnie “Bombshell” Lee (“Trying to Make A Living”), country singer Webb Pierce (“Honkey Tonkey”), Jimmy Reed (“Big Boss Man”), Otis Spann (“Blues Never Die”), Elmore James (“Happy Home”) and Magic Sam (“That’s Why I’m Crying:”). Koko also re-recorded the title track--it was one of her original singles on Chess written by Willie Dixon--and she also brought another Dixon composition (“Be What You Want To Be”) to the album. The only Koko original was “Voodoo Woman,” the last song she recorded--in one take-- for the album.
I Got What It Takes was released in early April of 1975. It wasn’t an immediate success, and didn’t dramatically relaunch Koko’s career. That happened with her second Alligator album, 1978’s The Earthshaker. I Got What It Takes earned more road gigs for her, but she still needed to make money from day to day. When she was in town, she would go to day labor agencies and ride out to clean hotel rooms near O’Hare Airport.
Eventually her talent, charisma and indomitable spirit won her an intensely loyal audience. She went on to cut seven more Alligator albums and tour all across the U.S.A., as well as playing throughout Europe and even touring New Zealand. I Got What It Takes was a major step toward her becoming blues royalty.
*You can listen to I Got What It Takes below, and read the full Listening Notes by signing up for Classics: