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Really The Blues

An American Original, This Music Born of Heartbreak But Full of Joy Is Ultimately Simple Yet Hard to Define
T. Brooks Shepard
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

(continued from page 2)

The four-time Grammy Award winner, composer, musician and showman Robert Cray is a master of the blues and a dedicated American intellect who has a deep understanding of and commitment to his art. "Blues is the basis of all American music and the backbone of the rock-and-roll thing," he says unequivocally.

Although his parents dug the blues, Robert didn't appreciate the music immediately. "I was about 16 years old and found a Howlin' Wolf record in the house. It was called "Smoke Stack Lightnin'" and it scared the hell out of me. He was doing his Wolf Moan. After that, I got into listening to other records that I found in the house, like Muddy Waters and B.B. King. Then I tried to learn more about the history of the music and started reading books. I became a fanatic after that," he says. The blues knows no generational boundaries.

"The reason why I like to associate myself with the music is because when you're singing a blues song about a sad situation, it brings it to the forefront and, by sharing it with everybody, makes them feel better," the Georgia-born, Mercury recording artist says.

Born in 1935, Koko Taylor is the reigning "Queen Of The Chicago Blues." The Memphis native grew up listening to B.B. King on the radio. "When I was growing up, there was blues and gospel--that's all there was," she says. "My inspiration and encouragement all came from Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie."

When Koko arrived in Chicago in the '60s, she found a job as a domestic worker for "some rich white people" on the city's North Shore. At night, she and her old man would hang out where the music was. "They started calling me up on stage. And, this was for my own enjoyment. I was having a good time," she says.

The late, great composer-arranger-producer-blues bass-playin' archetype Willie Dixon "took me by the hand" and made Koko see blues as a business. Dixon wrote "Wang Dang Doodle" for Taylor in 1964. She kept her day job "until 'Wang Dang Doodle' went gold and I knew it was time for me to put that mop bucket down. And I hit the road and I been on the road ever since."

The outspoken Alligator Records recording artist, who has played for George Bush and Bill and Hillary Clinton, has one Grammy and nine nominations, 14 W. C. Handy Awards (named for the father of the blues) and is a member of the Blues Hall of Fame, has a beef with black radio stations. "The young people never have a chance to hear the blues, and you can't blame them for that. They only know about what they hear, and if you don't advertise nothing but steak and chicken, how do people know about neck bones and pig ears?" Koko declares.

It's a position she shares with Guy, who says, "You can put out a rock record or a rap record and you can hear it on any radio station. But you can't drive down the street and hear Muddy Waters or the Wolf or John Lee Hooker on those stations. But I don't give up easy, and hopefully, something might happen and this music will never die."

It's always gratifying when one of your musical heroes gets a Grammy. You feel as if you got one, too. After 40 years in show business and nine nominations, Taj Mahal finally won the Grammy for best blues album, in 1997, for his compact disc, Senor Blues, on the Private Music label. The man's whole life has been about music.

"I grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, listening to the blues," Mahal says. "Back then, people traveled with the music inside them. You weren't dependent on the radio to play what you liked. When you went into the record store John Lee Hooker was up front, Muddy Waters was up front, Jimmy Reed and B.B. King were up front. And when my parents had a party, people would bring their records and you had everything from Count Basie to Wynonie Harris" (a blues shouter who is not related to today's pop singer).

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