Books for the News

Remembering Koko Taylor and the real Chicago Blues

With yesterday’s passing of legendary blues singer Koko Taylor Chicago has lost one of it’s most endearing and authentic blues masters whose career spanned the golden era of the Chicago blues all the way to the present. Though born in Tennessee, Taylor relocated to Chicago in 1952 and called the Windy City home for the rest of her life, releasing her first hit single “Wang Dang Doodle” on Chicago’s famous Chess Records alongside other blues icons including Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), Little Walter Jacobs and Muddy Waters. And though most of the aforementioned musicians passed on years ago, for many Taylor’s passing is another reminder of the passing of an era when one could still seek out and find the real Chicago blues—when run-down dimly lit clubs were a matter of necessity and not aesthetics, and the heartbreak and loss were real and not feigned for the amusement of high tipping tourists.
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In his book Blue Chicago David Grazian undertakes a fascinating study of this sea change in the Chicago blues scene, uncovering how the “authentic” blues experience is today manufactured and sold to contemporary music fans and audiences. Drawing on countless nights in dozens of blues clubs throughout Chicago, Grazian explores the ways in which professional and amateur musicians, club owners, and city boosters define authenticity and dish it out to tourists and bar regulars. He also tracks the changing relations between race and the blues over the past several decades, including the increased frustrations of black musicians forced to slog through the same set of overplayed blues standards for mainly white audiences night after night. In the end, Grazian finds that authenticity lies in the eye of the beholder: a nocturnal fantasy to some, an essential way of life to others, and a frustrating burden to the rest.
From B.L.U.E.S. and the Checkerboard Lounge to the Chicago Blues Festival itself, Grazian’s gritty and often sobering tour in Blue Chicago shows us not what the blues is all about, but why we care so much about that question.
Find out more about the book and read an interview with the author on the press website. Or, for an interesting retrospective on Koko Taylor’s life and career, check out this article published today on Rolling Stone‘s Rock & Roll Daily blog.