Robert Downes 6/8/09
Tell Automatic Slim, to tell razor-totin Jim, to tell butcher-knife totin Annie, to tell fast-talkin Fannie,
We gonna jump and ball, down at the union hall,
...We gonna wang-dang doodle, all
-- Willie Dixon, Wang-Dang-Doodle
I saw Queen of the Blues Koko
Taylor about 10 years ago or more at the Turtle Creek Casino, with her band perched up in a corner window, playing behind a row of slot machines.
She could belt the blues to make your hair stand straight up, but even then, Koko looked like she had barely a shred of tread left on her tires. She appeared leathery inside and out, and possibly as old as the pyramids.
But you had to hand it to her, because Koko was still doing that Wang-Dang Doodle, her hit song from 1965, and reportedly she kept performing close to 50 concerts per year right up to the age of 80.
She died last week, one of the last of the Chicago blues musicians who still recalled the days of performing with Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Willie Dixon, and the kind of sidemen who used to blow harp through the borrowed microphones of Windy City cabs, or pack .45s in their guitar cases.
Born near Memphis in 1928 and nicknamed Koko for her love of chocolate, she was a sharecroppers daughter (ie. virtual slave) who began singing the blues as a kid, but was orphaned at the age of 11. Like many poor, rural southern blacks, she moved to Chicago, which was an incubator for the blues after World War II. She was discovered by songwriter Willie Dixon in 1962, and released the then-scandalous Doodle song about partying that made her a national hit.
One can only imagine that more has been written about Koko Taylor since her death than in the two decades leading up to it. A pity, because she probably would have appreciated more publicity to help make ends meet in her winding-down years.
But thats the way things tend to skew in the media, where youth is celebrated and age is ushered into the closet. At a recent concert, Claudia Schmidt mentioned that most urban weeklies across the nation won‘t even consider doing a story about performers over the age of 30, and that Northern Express is the rare exception.
But even here, I have to admit that I cringe when a writer wants to do a story about someone in their 60s, 70s or 80s, because like all of the other urban newsweekly editors across America, I know that people tend to like youthful faces in their newspaper, magazine, or on TV.
Even elderly people like reading about younger people. I recall my grandmother in her 80s, who loved to read the trashy National Enquirer for all of its scandalous details about stars and starlets. She wouldn‘t have dreamed of reading one of the appalling seniors publications printed by most mainstream newspapers today, which are filled with ads for nursing homes, hospice appeals and graveyard services.
On the other hand, Ive known many people in their 60s, 70s and 80s who are a good deal livelier than people in their 20s, and intend to get my own Wang-Dang Doodle on when Im that age. For some, growing old gracefully sucks.
So we tend to throw the oldies in with the youngies here at the Express at our peril, under the notion that youre really only as old as what‘s going on between your ears (if not your legs). Im proud to say that we ran a story or two about Koko Taylor even when she was almost two times over the hill.
I saw a funny sign at a local business recently, and it made a good point about life‘s finish line. You can eat well, go to bed early, forego drinking and smoking, live a quiet life and arrive at your casket looking wonderful. Or, you can drink the wine, eat the chocolate, go to all the parties and use your body like a jackhammer, arriving at your grave looking like hell because youve had a pretty darned good time at lifes big show.
Thats what Koko Taylor taught us, and somehow rest in peace doesnt sound like a fitting farewell for an original party girl.
How do we save the newspapers of America from getting killed off by the Internet?
That‘s one of the questions well discuss at a forum on the Fate of the Print Media this Wednesday, June 10 from 6-8 p.m. at the Oleson Center on the NMC campus.
In my view, the damage to American newspapers is largely self-inflicted and is easily remedied. I will unveil my master plan for saving Americas newspapers (which no one will pay a lick of attention to) in the august company of fellow panelists Mike Casuscelli, publisher of the Traverse City Record-Eagle; Alan Campbell, publisher of the Leelanau Enterprise. Gregg Smith, former owner and publisher of the Antrim County News, will moderate.
So please, come on down and join us. Can‘t promise any popcorn, but its a free show and may produce a thought-provoking idea or two.