American Routes Shortcuts: Koko Taylor and Wanda Jackson

May 26, 2017

Each week, American Routes brings you Shortcuts, a sneak peek at our upcoming show. Each year, American Routes honors National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellows. This week, host Nick Spitzer bring you conversations blueswoman Koko Taylor and rockabilly Wanda Jackson.

KT: When I was 18 years old, I left Memphis, I went to Chicago. They had this big show going on one Sunday - whoever got up to sing that sound the best, they would win a prize. And the prizes was a fish sandwich, chicken sandwich or chitlin dinner. Now that was a big deal, you know. So Muddy Waters made the announcement, you know, he says “we got little Koko in the house,” we gonna see can we get her up here to do a tune for us.” So I did, I got up there, I sung a Big Mama Thorton song, “Sittin’ by My Window”. When I came down, here this big man met me, he say, “who is you,” I say, “who is you?” “I’m Willie Dixon, and I wanna know where did you get that voice from you got, because I ain’t heard no woman sing the blues like you sing the blues.” He said, “I would like to take you down to Chess Records.” So Dixon started working with me, rehearsin’, one of the first ones was, “I Got What it Takes,” written by Willie Dixon.

NS: The late Koko Taylor. What a great singer. We had her on American Routes some years ago, she was a 2004 National Heritage Fellow. Oklahoman Wanda Jackson was named a fellow a year later, in 2005. Wanda shocked the Grand Ol Opry in the late 1950s with her bare shoulders and rockabilly music.

WJ: 1955, I began working with Elvis, touring with him. You know, he had been encouraging me to try this rockabilly stuff, I mean that’s what we called it- we were hillbilly singers but doing this new stuff. And that was the first name we were known as: rockabillies. But I can see by working with Elvis that this music was sweeping our nation, you know. And it was my generation’s music, I loved it. So I wanted to do this stuff, but I didn’t know exactly how to go about it. My daddy, being my number one fan, he just said, just rear back and sing it - so that’s the way it came out: A little bit country, and a little bit rock.