She did, though, and the song became a crossover pop hit for Chess Records (hitting the number-58 slot on Billboard's pop chart), helping to establish Taylor as the mightiest of female singers in male-dominated Chicago blues. She would never again hit the pop or R&B charts, but Taylor has managed to forge one of the most successful careers in contemporary blues via her 25-year association with Alligator Records, for which she has cut seven albums, in the process earning thirteen Grammy nominations, one Grammy Award, fifteen W.C. Handy Awards, critical hosannas in the mainstream press, countless TV appearances, and a turn on the big screen in David Lynch's 1990 film Wild at Heart. Through it all, however, the 64-year-old Taylor remains surprised at her good fortune, appreciating her rewards yet mindful of how rare such success actually is.
"I'm just honored to make people happy with my music and to receive all the nominations," she professes during a morning phone interview from her home in the Chicago suburbs. "You can't win if you're not in the race, and I've had the chance to win. That means just as much to me as if I win."
You can probably trace Taylor's humility to her meager upbringing in Bartlett, Tennessee, a once-rural, now-bustling town near Memphis, where she and her family worked the farm and the cotton fields. "I was born way out in the country," she recalls. "We'd chop cotton; we had hogs and cows. I grew up singing gospel along with the other kids in the children's choir, but I would also listen to the blues all the time on the radio. Rufus Thomas was a DJ at WDIA at the time, and B.B. King was on the radio then [on WDIA] in West Memphis, Arkansas. My dad always said that everybody in his household had to go to church on Sunday, and we did. The blues was always called the devil's music then, but he didn't know I was in love with all these records we'd hear on the radio."
Using rustic, homemade instruments, Taylor and her brothers would sing and play behind their shotgun house while their father was away in the cotton fields. "My older brother made him a guitar out of baling wire that he wrapped around some nails that he had put [on the wall] behind the house. My younger brother made himself a harmonica out of a corncob. Of course I didn't need anything but my mouth because I was singing. Back in those days, we didn't know what electricity was, because we sure didn't have any. But we'd sit back there and play our own little music. That was our recreation then."
Taylor cites the seminal blues singer/guitarist Memphis Minnie as her first source of secular inspiration, in particular Minnie's "Me and My Chauffeur Blues" and its flipside, "Black Cat Blues," both widely played hits in the early Forties. "I'll never forget the first time I heard that record," she says. "It just stuck to my ribs. I fell in love with those songs and they just stuck with me. They were the first blues records I heard that I really listened to and paid attention to. They just struck something in my mind."
At age eighteen she married Robert Taylor, and in 1953 the couple moved north to Chicago to escape the poverty and racism of the South. "He wanted to go up there and find a good job, and I said, 'Well, if you go you ain't gonna leave me down here to chop cotton.' So I came up to Chicago with him. We took a Greyhound bus, had 35 cents and a box of Ritz crackers between us. We didn't know what was going to happen to us in Chicago, but when that bus got to 63rd Street and I saw all of those lights and everything just lit up, I said, 'Good God, this must be Heaven.'"
While her husband worked at a packing house, Taylor landed a job as a servant for a wealthy white family who lived in Chicago's North Shore area. At night the couple would hit the South Side blues clubs, catching gigs by masters such as Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James, and Magic Slim. After sitting in with the Wolf during a Sunday-afternoon jam session, Taylor was ushered into the Michigan Avenue studio of Leonard and Phil Chess, who paired the gravel-voiced chanteuse with songwriting ace Willie Dixon. After a few unsuccessful singles, Dixon fitted her with "Wang Dang Doodle," singing and playing bass on the song as well.
"I remember a few weeks after [the session], Dixon coming to me and saying that the song was a hit," Taylor says, laughing. "I was lost! I'm thinking, How? What does this mean? What happens next? A lot of folks thought I got rich on that song, but I was as poor after it came out as I was before I stood in front of that microphone. [The Chess brothers] didn't do anything for me as far as money, but I was able to accomplish some nice things because of that record."
Nice things like building a solid fan base by touring nonstop, appearing in the 1970 documentary The Blues Is Alive and Well in Chicago, and, following the dissolution of Chess Records, attracting the notice of Alligator, an independent Chicago blues label that was formed in the Seventies to document the contemporary blues scene in the Windy City. Her seven albums for Alligator (from 1975's I Got What It Takes to the most recent, 1993's Force of Nature) have been uniformly fine updatings of Taylor's pile-driving style, and have featured cameos by some of the most respected blues players, including guitarists Son Seals and Buddy Guy, as well as harp wiz Carey Bell. Five of those albums have racked up Grammy nominations, and the 1984 multiartist collaboration Blues Explosion earned Taylor one of those gold Victrola statuettes for herself.
But like nearly every blues artist, Taylor makes her living on the road, performing about 200 shows per year, an exhausting schedule she hopes never stops. "I'm not out there because I have to be; I'm out there because I love it," she declares. "It makes my day that my fans are out there waiting for me to come to town. It's what I feel good doing. It means something to me. People always ask me when I'm going to hang it up and retire. I say, 'Whenever God gets tired of me being out there, he'll retire me.'"