Last night in the studio, I put the final touches on the long-awaited new album by the Queen of the Blues, Koko Taylor. It’s called “Royal Blue” and will be on the streets on June 6. It’s been one of the longest projects I’ve ever worked on—-over two years in the making–because we had to squeeze rehearsals and sessions into Koko’s very busy touring schedule. As with her previous two albums, the amazing guitarist/ arranger Criss Johnson co-produced with Koko and me. Criss plays gospel full time; I wish he’d be willing to apply his huge fretboard and arranging talents to the blues more often. He and Koko are cousins, and she’s the only person with whom he’ll play secular music.
Koko wrote four new songs for this album, and all kinds of blues luminaries stepped up to make guest appearances when they heard the Queen was in the studio. B.B King, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Keb’ Mo’ and Johnnie Johnson all joined Koko, along with Chicago’s own Ken Saydak and Matthew Skoller and a terrific Windy City rhythm section. Koko can still pour on the energy, even after four decades of singing the blues on the road. She jumped with all four feet into straight Chicago blues, funky R&B, and powerful blues-rockers, but brought it way back to the Delta for a lovely and subtle acoustic duet with Keb’ Mo’. Koko has earned her status as the best loved and most popular female blues artist in the world, and “Royal Blue” will be a treat for her legion of fans.
Speaking of female artists, I was also just in the studio with our rising young starlet, Shemekia Copeland, cutting seven more songs (including a duet with Ruth Brown)for the followup to her very successful debut album, “Turn The Heat Up.” Shemekia just keeps growing as an artist, and her overwhelming live performances have won her raves from the media and fans alike. She’ll be working festivals all over the U.S. and Europe this summer; if you haven’t seen her live, you need to now! Shemekia just turned 21 in April, so we know the future of the blues is in good hands.
Now we return to those thrilling days of yesteryear, specifically 1984, when Dick Shurman and I were producing Johnny Winter’s Alligator debut, “Guitar Slinger.” We were “down in the basement” at Red Label Studios in Winnetka, Illinois, cutting tune after tune in a few takes, with moody Johnny going from elated to frustrated at a moment’s notice. Johnny liked to cut very quickly. We’d arrive at the studio early each evening, spend an hour or two just jamming on grooves, and then, about 9 p.m., Johnny would suddenly get inspired and pour out four or five brilliant performances in the course of a couple hours. He usually cut rhythm guitar parts to keep the band in the groove he wanted; he planned to cut solos and final vocals later. In fact, in a few cases, he just wanted to record the groove and figure out the song later! We cut songs he loved, from the songbooks of Bobby Bland, Clifton Chenier, Earl King, and Danny Williams (whose ballad “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” may be the most beautifully restrained performance that Johnny ever recorded.)
Things were progressing, but I was becoming more and more annoyed at being pretty much trapped in the basement of a mansion, in a small studio a long way from anywhere. And from time to time the rich guy who owned the place would just drop by (as though he owned the place!). Finally, my temper, frustration and hard-headedness led me to one of the stupider moves of my career. Johnny was struggling on our last night of recording with a version of (I think) Magic Sam’s “Feelin’ Good”. It just wasn’t coming together, and the tension was rising.
More next time,