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She Keeps Smiling Through the Blues

TIMES STAFF WRITER

You can’t beat the blues if you’re looking for music that’s down to earth and true to life.

But that doesn’t mean a blues singer can’t take a bit of imaginative license.

When Koko Taylor sings tonight at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, she’ll bring with her a repertoire heavy on good-time celebrations, such as her signature song, “Wang Dang Doodle,” the Willie Dixon composition that could serve as a national anthem for serious partyers. But Taylor also turns her trademark lioness’ growl to songs about taking one’s lumps on the battlefields of sex and romance. She’ll turn that withering voice against a two-timing man who has done her wrong (Lord help him) or roar triumphantly about bouncing back from the pain an untrustworthy guy can inflict.

These are true stories, Taylor said. They’re just not her own.

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“Whatever the lyrics are about, it doesn’t mean I lived it,” Taylor, 66, said over the phone last week from her home in Chicago. “At the same time, every song I sing relates to somebody, but who that is I have no idea. That’s what makes people like certain songs.”

Taylor said she has been lucky in love, starting with her long marriage to Robert “Pops” Taylor, who was her husband, manager, tour van driver and constant on-the-road companion until his death in 1989.

“I always feel every song that I do, every lyric that comes out of my mouth. I could not perform a song if I didn’t feel it,” Taylor said. “But so far as me living what I was singing--no, I did not. I had a beautiful 35 years of marriage and didn’t regret none of it.”

Now Taylor has more reason to fall back on her imagination when singing about the need to put bad-timing men in their place. One could almost feel the glow over the telephone line as she spoke about her marriage June 9 to Hays Harris, a Chicago businessman she had known for many years and began dating three years ago.

“I never dreamed, I never thought it would happen again, but it did, and I’m really proud that it did because it gives me a new life, something to cherish, something to live for,” said Taylor, who has a daughter and two grandchildren. “When I go out on the road now singing the blues, I can always think about and know I got somebody to go home to.”

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Taylor said her wedding, attended by almost 500 guests, included a sizable chunk of Chicago blues society. This time, she left the singing to others.

“No, I couldn’t have sung if they’d have paid me,” said Taylor, who has long kept up a performing regimen of 200 or more dates per year. “A big, nervous, excited day like my wedding day, I’m going to sing? That’s my day for everybody to entertain me for a change.”

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Taylor fell for the blues when she was a farm girl living near Memphis, where she tuned in to the blues radio show of B.B. King. She started singing with her brothers, who backed her on a makeshift guitar with strings made of baling wire and a harmonica fashioned from a corncob. Her ability to belt out a song with a trenchant growl was, she said, “a natural, God-given talent” that defined her singing from the start. Born Cora Walton, she was nicknamed “little Koko” because of her fondness for chocolate.

Taylor moved to Chicago with Pops in 1953. She cleaned houses for a living, and they would haunt the blues clubs for fun on their nights off. Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf and other Chicago blues notables would invite her onto the bandstand to sing, and when Willie Dixon heard her one night in 1962, it led to her first record deal, with Chess. “Wang Dang Doodle” became a huge hit for her in 1966.

Taylor started her own band, the Blues Machine, in 1972. In 1975, she signed with the fledgling Alligator Records. “Force of Nature,” from 1993, is her seventh and most recent album for the label; Taylor said she is almost ready to make another.

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Now that she is married again, and past the common age of retirement, Taylor certainly has reasons to scale back her performing schedule if she wants to. But that is emphatically out of the question.

“Why should I?” she asked. “I mean, [with] all the fans I got out there enjoying what I’m doing? They’re looking forward to the date you’re writing about now. I got fans like that all over the world. Now why should I retire?”

“I love what I’m doing,” Taylor continued, stretching out “l-o-o-o-v-e” to show just how much she means it. “And there’s nothing going to stop me from kicking it.”

* Koko Taylor and Her Blues Machine, along with Blue Highway and the Kari Gaffney Band, play tonight at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $15-$17. (714) 496-8930.

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