Jumpin' with Junior/Cookin'
Two people that helped warm our long cold winter here in soon-to-be sunny Ann Arbor were Junior Walker, Motown 's hottest saxophone player and Koko Taylor, who can sing the shirt off any bluesman in Chicago Junior boogied down at the lately lamented Primo Showbar for a few nights, and Koko made it a good long weekend of rockin ' and shoutin ' the blues', both at the Blind Pig and a special party at Carpenter Hall. The SUN got to talk to both of t hem while they were here, and Jim Dulzo and Elaine Wright found them friendly and easy to talk to.
SUN: One thing that really impressed me seeing you at the Primo Showbar was the way you thanked the audience. I think you said that if it wasn't for the crowd, you wouldn't be here. How do you feel about that?
JUNIOR: I feel wonderful. That's why I always include the audience. because if it hadn't of been for them we would have never got our start. Those people are buying our records, pulling for us and pushing hard. All entertainers should feel that way.
SUN : It 's nice to see that your act hasn't developed into a super-slick, super-commercial thing. It 's still just as honest and you're working just as hard.
JUNIOR: Yeah. We go along with the things that are happening today, and do the best we can. We really enjoy ourselves. That's why I come here, it's a drag just to work for money. I likes to have fun. Some people you work tor just want you to entertain them and don't want to see you have as much fun. This way, everyone works hard, including the audience, and everyone has fun.
SUN: Are you from the Detroit area?
JUNIOR: Mostly from just outside of Detroit. I came from Indiana, but I got famous in Michigan recording for Barry Gordy in Detroit.
SUN: When did you start recording?
JUNIOR: That was around 1962, I recorded "Twist Like a Woman" and "Willie's Blues." Also "Moonlight in Vermont" ano "Cleo's Mood." "Monkey Jump" and "Satan's Blue's," then, too, but none of them took off... the company I was working for couldn't promote it enough. Then we did "Shotgun," and that's when we broke it loose. That was around 1964.
SUN: How did you hook up with Motown? Was "Shotgun" a hit for Motown?
JUNIOR: I was recording with Harvey Fuquior, and he was married to Barry's sister. His company folded and he got a job working with Barry, so we were kinda left out in the cold. So I went up and talked to Barry Gordy, and that's when I signed with Motown.
SUN : What kind of record sales have you had outside of the Detroit area?
JUNIOR: We've done good all over, I can't complain. Even in London. Germany, Paris we've really had alot of success; probably just as much as here. "Shotgun" was a really good seller, "What Does it Take to Win Your Love" was a big one. "Home Cookin" and "These Arms"... there 's so many now I can't count them all. .
SUN : You 've seen alot of chances go down in the Music industry. Motown's turned into a real giant, and has pioneered alot of fancy production techniques. But your albums haven't changed that much, not much heavy production on thein, just good, straight, simple stuff. What do you think of all of those big production numbers?
JUNIOR: It's all right in it's place. Some of that stuff is good. I prefer that simple funk, because that's what everybody likes. But so many other different people are getting into it you have to kinda give yourself around to everybody. But alot of that other stuff I really like, too. I like the O'Jays. I like 'em all. I like the old-timers that sing the blues, too. Alot of the blues that's being done now I listened to a long time ago. Country and Western, too! I know alot of them, like Eddy Arnold, Nat King Cole, I really dug them cats. They really worked! I've listened to Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf for years. I used to listen to Lester Young, Illinois Jacquet, and the cat who used to play "Yakety-Yak" with the Coasters.
SUN : What do you think about Motown moving out to the West Coast?
JUNIOR: It shook me up a little. I really don't care for California too much. I guess you have to look forward, and so maybe they done the best thing. They seem to be doing pretty good. And Diana Ross did a great movie. If they stayed in Detroit, alot of that wouldn't be happening. Motown put Detroit on the map stronger, it was of the biggest things there, like Ford's of people worked for Motown, and the move left them. without jobs because some of them couldn't go out there. They didn't want to lose their homes, the job wasn't worth that.
SUN: Has your audience changed much?
JUNIOR: It started out with more white kids comin' to the gigs, but by the time Roadrunner happened, everyone was into it. After that record came out, all the kids were putting "I'm a Roadrunner" stickers on the back of their cars. Some of the wives would come up to me and say , "I'm having trouble with my man since that record's come out... he's got that sign on the back of his car and that's all he does now: he just roads and runs all the time." Right after that they carne out with that Roadrunner car, and then the Roadrunner cartoons.
SUN: Did you write the tune "Peace and Understanding is Hard to Find?"
JUNIOR: Yeah, I wrote that. It's a hard thing to find. I had it with just "'Peace,' but someone suggested "Peace and Understanding." I wrote it in the studio. There's alot of truth in that song. Today 's young kids are looking for understanding. Alot of people don't understand how they want to live or what they want to do. Alot of older people want them to come up like they did, but times have changed. The older people have lived most of their lives, but they need help, too. The younger kids, if they could get a better understanding of life and some help, it wouldn't be so hard on them. But some parents just don't give it to them, even though experience, which they have, is such a good teacher.
SUN: What about your band? Your bass player knocked me out.
JUNIOR: That's Ronnie Harville. we picked him up in Baltimore. Robert Lovett was sitting in on organ, more or less trying out to see if he can fit with the group, Arnold Langley's been with us for three years on guitar. Then there's Jerome Teasley on drums. My son Archie's been playing drums tor about two years. We've had two drummers for about three years.
SUN: Did you enjoy playing the Blues and Jazz Festival?
JUNIOR: I had a real good time, it was d the first time I ever got to hear Howlin' Wolf live. They got down. But I like to play all different kinds of places. As long as I'm having a good time. I just like to get with people, we're all just people. As they say. "Get with the Crowd and get loud!"
SUN: What kind of future plans do you have?
JUNIOR: I guess I'll keep touring and recording and stick with Motown. If I can get a better break, then I'll take it. But as long as I'm recording and making some money. that's all that matters.
SUN: I think alot of people were turned on to you by your appearance at the Blues & Jazz Festival. Where had you been playing prior to that?
KOKO: I'd been working all over. Boston, Cambridge, Connecticut, alot of different places. I do small clubs, concerts, colleges. I was doing it all before the Festival, and I've been doing it since then, too. It's been a real steady thing. The only problem has been not getting proper exposure for my records.
SUN: Where did you get your start?
KOKO: I got started in Chicago. It was back in '62 or '63, with Buddy Guy. My first recording was "What Kind of Man is This" and "I Got What It Takes." I'd been singing for a long time, though. I guess Memphis is where I started. That's where I grew up. I used to sing there with local groups, gospel groups. But I never sung professionally until I recorded in Chicago. I just started going around to different bars, singing this and that and finally I just decided that I wanted to do something different. So I went over to Chess Records, cause I'd been messin' around with Willie Dixon a little. So I started recording, signed a contract and I've been with them ever since. This first LP, with "Wang Dang Doodle" on it, came out a few years ago. "Basic Soul" carne out about a year later.
SUN: What was Memphis like when you were living there?
KOKO: It was like I wanted to get away, you know what I mean? I'd been there all of my life and all of my folks was there. I didn't know nothing about no other place BUT Memphis, and I wanted to get away. When I was there. none of the music scene that Memphis is famous for was going on. Stax Records is the big thing there now. They've made alot of people famous. But when I was there, there was no such thing as Stax. Howlin' Wolf and people like that were still livin' down south in places like Alabama, and once in awhile they'd come by our town and play at one of the local clubs. I'd go see 'em when they were around but what I'm saying is that when they recorded, they went to Chicago.
SUN: Is that what made you decide to move to Chicago?
KOKO: No, I came to Chicago because my husband came to Chicago. Once I got to Chicago and saw what was going on, I got interested. I was a little reluctant, but Bob kept taking me around to all the clubs to see Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Sonny Boy, Williamson, Robert Junior Lockwood, all of 'em. I was singing in church at the time, and I had to pay twenty-five dollars a month for my uniform. So we figured we could beat that if I started to sing somewhere else. The first time I sang, Bob had to lead me up to the stage, in Milwaukee.
SUN: So by the time you started to record, had you had much experience with singing?
KOKO: Yeah. I had done quite a bit of it. It was really nothing new. I used to sing the blues to my brothers and sisters, we'd be singing to each other in the cotton fields. But it was always something that I liked. It makes a big difference when you do something that you like.
SUN: I really noticed you enjoying yourself last night. When you sang "Wang Dang Doodle, " I half expected you to be tired of it but you ripped right into it and seemed to be having a great time.
KOKO: I'm not even close to tired of it! I wish I had a few more like it. I got some ones just as good as that on the "Basic Soul" album, but like I said, no matter how good an artist is, if you're not really exposed on record and your material isn't pushed, the people won't know about you. They really respect the ones they hear every day on the radio, or read about in the papers all the time. Like you were saying before, I was exposed quite a bit around Michigan because of the Blues & Jazz Festival. Alot of people might have heard "Wang Dang Doodle" but they never saw me or read about me outside of that. They just knew that Koko Taylor sang "Wang Dang Doodle" somewhere, okay, but what else can she do? A company in New York, GRT, bought Chess records out after Leonard Chess died, and I've recorded enough material for maybe five more albums But it all just lays on the shelf. They don't care.
SUN : I saw your name on an album from the Montreaux, Switzerland Blues Festival. What was that like?
KOKO: Beautiful! It was real nice. I've made four trips over there, people in Europe really like the blues more than here. I'm not sure why that is, but it seems like just about everybody over there digs the blues. It seems like they have more concerts and festivals for the blues there than here.
SUN: What is happening in Chicago now that Chess has pretty much moved to New York City?
KOKO: It's really hurt the music scène in Chicago, because Chess for a long time was the only company doing anything there. Since Chess has stopped promoting the blues, none of the other companies have gotten into it. I know alot of guys that have gone to the other companies, like Mercury, ABC, but they haven't gotten any promotion. They've done alot for other kinds of groups, but not for blues artists
SUN : You said you grew up on a farm. Did you get to listen to many blues records there?
KOKO: Yeah. If I heard any music at all that's all I heard was blues. Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Magic Sam, Bobby Blue Bland, B.B. King, they were all real popular down there. They were trying to make it then like I am now.
SUN: Did you listen to many women blues singers, like Bessie Smith or Lil Greene?
KOKO: I don't remember alot of their records. I remember their names. I remember Memphis Minnie and Big Mama Thornton. Big Mama is a rough mama!
SUN: Have you ever thought about getting out of the blues bag and getting into soul music or R&B?
KOKO: No. I'm really glad to be singing the blues. I really like the blues, I feel what I sing. And there aren't that many women singing the blues, so there's less competition. If Gladys Knight or Aretha Franklin were getting promoted for singing hard blues, I wouldn't have a chance. So for me, it's great.
SUN : You got any favorite places you like to play?
KOKO: No, just anywhere where I'm appreciated. Like here in Ann Arbor at the Blind Pig. I always enjoy coming to the Pig because everybody makes me feel a part of them. When I walked in the door yesterday everybody was really glad to see me. They love me and I love them. It makes me feel good.
Interview with Junior Walker by Jim Dulzo
Interview with Koko Taylor by Jim Dulzo and Elaine Wright