The Women of Chicago Blues

She kept the framed posters, the wedding album, the CDs, the videotaped performances, hidden in her closet for two-and-a-half years. Now it all lies tumbling about Dawn O’Keefe Williams’ cluttered apartment, memories unfolding on the stereo, the television and the coffee table, and her future wrapped like guitar string around it all.

Koko Taylor

“I thought it would be okay to see all of this again if someone else was here,” she says, as a videotape of her husband, Emery Williams Jr. singing – emaciated, two months before his death from lung cancer in 1996 – plays on before her.

Even before she met Emery, who shared the stage with greats from Eddy Clearwater to Koko Taylor, Dawn dreamed of making a living singing the blues. Emery gave the dream focus.

Now Dawn is on her own, both as a blues singer and in life. She is a 45-year-old mother of two grown children from a previous marriage. She smiles easily, gestures nervously, offers oatmeal raisin cookies to the visitor in her Des Plaines home. There is a vulnerability in her countenance — something not present in the eyes of well-known Chicago blueswomen who, unlike Dawn, make more than $50 a night for a performance. Who, unlike Dawn, have regular gigs at clubs downtown.

And that difference will tell you more about the blues than any song ever could, for this is a story about women, and their men, and the songs they sing. This is the story that begins with Koko Taylor.

Born and raised among the cotton fields of a sharecropper’s farm in Memphis, Tenn., 67 years ago, she loved a man once. So much, in fact, she followed Robert “Pops” Taylor to Chicago in 1953 and married him not long after. He got a job at a slaughterhouse, and she convinced a family in Wilmette to let her clean house for them. Every day, she boarded the El and made the commute to Howard Street, where she took a bus to the suburbs, did her job well, collected five dollars and went home to her husband.

For fun, Koko and Pops would play music and sing together, first at home, and then in clubs on the South Side, where they went just to hear others play the blues. Koko began to sit in with the bands, belting out tunes like “I Idolize You” by Tina Turner. One Sunday evening, in 1962, Willie Dixon of Chess Records happened to hear her singing with a West Side band.

“My God,” he said to her, “I never heard a woman sing the blues like you sing the blues. Are you under a contract with anybody?” She wasn’t then, but several days later, Dixon had solved that problem.

Still, it wasn’t until after her 1965 hit “Wang Dang Doodle” had sold one million copies and established her as the world’s number one female blues talent that Koko quit her cleaning job.

Thirty years, a Grammy and numerous hit records later, Koko, whose husband died in 1989, still tours the country, still gets up at the crack of dawn, still does her own ironing – but does it knowing she has paved the way for women in blues.

“I feel like I did, and I’m very honored to have,” she says. “We look for positive things, we women who succeed. Even today, I still think positive that things are going to work out. I still have the same faith. But I don’t go ‘round saying, ‘Oh, I’m gonna get this, I’m gonna get that. Oh, I’m gonna get the Grammy.’ No. You just work hard.”

And there’s one other little thing Koko doesn’t accept: The notion of blues being a man’s world.

“First of all, every woman has mo’ going on than the mens, anyway. You know, there’s that old story, where there’s a good man, there’s a good woman behind him. That’s the truth in singing too. I always try to let my light shine, that I might be able to be a role model to someone else. It’s nice to know that someone says, ‘I just love Koko Taylor. I’d love to be in her shoes.’”
This is the story of Shirley Johnson. Shirley married early, and in a church, of course. Listen, when you’re a six-year-old girl with a voice that’s going on 42, that’s where it’s at. Church choir. Those high-arching ceilings rise to the heavens and take your voice with it, and there’s no reason to say “I do,” ‘cause all those heads nodding up and down with approval in the pews are doing it for you. No, Shirley wasn’t interested in a traditional marriage, the kind that unites two people forever. Those don’t last, and no man satisfies like singing from your toes satisfies. No ma’am. Shirley’s marriage was to music, was out of necessity, ‘cause her soul told her this was how it would be.

And you can leave a man at that altar, honey, but you just can’t walk out on the blues.
Shirley would get up in front of the congregation at Holiness Church in Franklin, Va., and sing so as to make a thousand goosebumps stand at attention. She was made for gospel. And for the first 37 years of her life, she was content to sing just that, with a little pop on the side. But her soul was in the blues, that sound she had heard as a little girl on the radio programs on Sunday nights, the sound she knew there was only one place to go and learn.

“I came to Chicago because that’s where the blues be happenin’” she syas. That was 12 years ago. Unlike Koko, she came to Chicago alone. She got up at 4 a.m. each day after singing in a club all night, in time to get to her job at the laundry at 6 a.m. “And I prayed every day that the Lord would take me out of that day job,” she said.

In addition to battling the strong cliques that define Chicago blues club owners, Shirley struggled to get noticed once she did get on stage. Her booming voice consistently took a back seat to male performers, always co-starring, never performing as the front-man.
All that changed in 1994. Shirley walked into a club called Blue Chicago with a friend, blues musician Professor Eddie Lusk. Eddie knew the owner, Gino Battaglia, and knew he’d want to meet Shirley. She walked out with a regular gig, a way to pay her bills, and one glorious reason to quit that day job. “And I’ve got a little left over, too. Gino, he’s the one who Gave me my first break.”

Gino, who now runs two Blue Chicagos, both on Clark Street, and a third, family-oriented show in the basement of the club’s theme store, could be the best friend Chicago’s blues women have ever known. The kind of guy who could help Dawn escape the shadow of Emery’s memory.

“When Koko Taylor hit the scene, she was really the only female blues singer working,” Gino says. “Not that there weren’t any – they were out there, they just weren’t working. She was more persistent. But the others couldn’t get a job because of this bias toward male performers. For a number of years early on – and there are still some musicians like this – men didn’t want women on the stage with them.

“Here, we’ve forced the issue. If you work with Blue Chicago, you have to work with a female vocalist that we plug into the show.

“I’ve just always loved women singing the blues. To me, blues tells a story. It’s a woman telling a story about her life, her relationship with her man. Every song tells you something. They get at the basics, the truth, and they say things in these songs that none of us want to admit. And to me, that’s really the blues.”

Shirley’s songs are authoritative, as is her stage presence, and she’ll lecture the audience via her music. “People not treatin’ each other right. Didn’t pay the rent. Couldn’t get dinner last night. Man’s been cheatin’ on you. That’s the blues, honey. That’s what everyday life is all about.”

Over the past five years, Shirley says, the blues scene in Chicago has developed a feminine face, sweet and salty lyrics and bulging audiences to build on Koko’s foundation. “Now, we women are getting so tough, that men got to get out of the way, ‘cause we can lead, too. And we are.”

As for her own personal life, Shirley is content to remain single, uncomplicated, saying that very few women blues singers are juggling marriage in addition to their careers. “And if they are, they won’t be for long.”
This is the story of Liz Mandville Greeson. A bohemian from Wisconsin. A white woman! She wanted to sing the blues. No, she would sing the blues. She was always drawn to the sound, even when she didn’t know what it was, even when she wandered into Kingston Mines one night after moving to Chicago in 1979 and nearly jumped up on stage to join the musicians. She was 21. She was buying the Stones because that’s what she thought she was supposed to be listening to. She didn’t know. Hell, she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life.

What she did know was this: She’d been kicked out of some of the finer colleges in Wisconsin, and she’d tried every other job out there. She tried to be a bookbinder and an office worker, but couldn’t figure out how to dress or how to get up in the morning or how to get there on time. She worked in a factory. She was a bartender. A cocktail waitress. A sign teacher.

And then she found the blues.

One night, cursing the boyfriend she was living with, she sat alone in a bar, looking at the drink before her. “You know, Liz,” she told herself, “you can drink this drink and 20 more like it, and you’ll wake up in the morning and he’ll still be crazy. So you better take some action.” She had always been stubborn like that, always quick to turn anger into action. And so her fortunes turned as quickly as her heels. She walked out of the bar and down Lincoln Avenue, and, for some crazy reason, her green eyes spotted her future in the help wanted sign of a pizza parlor.

Her future was the busboy. Willie Greeson – rather, Willie Phillips, for she told him to change his name – was also a blues guitarist. When he asked what she did when she wasn’t hostessing, she told him she played guitar, sang. He said they should jam sometime.

They moved in together, got married. Willie would listen to Liz play the guitar, listen to her sing, and then shake his head and say in his Southern drawl, “Nope. That ain’t it.” He taught her to listen, really listen, to the blues artists out there, because she just didn’t have it quite right yet. “Go back and listen, Liz. You’ll find it,” he told her. “You’ll hear it. And then you will sing it.”

So she did. She played Willie’s Muddy Waters and Magic Sam and Albert Collins albums, flooded the apartment with their sounds. She learned the standard 12-bar measure. She took the 20 bucks she had left over each week from her job du jour and burrowed through bins at thrift record stores, bought ‘em clean of every album relative to her quest, as concerned about outrunning failure as she was about catching success. She formed a band, The Supernaturals, and Willie played in it.

“We logged hundreds of thousand of miles, went through a couple of vans, because we had a real hard time getting booked in Chicago,” Liz recalls. “The club owners have a real color blindness. I couldn’t get a singing job in the city to save my life. I could make $80 for the whole band in a night. But I didn’t want to be a waitress on the side anymore. I wanted to be a blues singer.”

In 1992, road-weary, Liz put up a small fortune of her own money, $2,500, to create a demo tape of her and the Supernaturals. It was well received, and led to interest from Alligator Records and bookings at Buddy Guy’s Legends. Finally, it seemed, she was on her way.

And then the music stopped.

Willie’s talents were beginning to catch steam, and he left the Supernaturals – with Liz’s blessing – to join the Legendary Blues Band, which was begun by musicians who had worked for Muddy Waters. Liz disbanded the Supernaturals and got a job as a shot-pourer at Excalibur to support Willie’s dream. But while he spent much of his time on the road, when he returned home, he sulked. He wouldn’t talk. And Liz didn’t know what to do.

“I would buy his favorite chocolate, rub his feet. I thought he was tired of the way I looked, so I went to a health club. Went on a diet. Lost 20 pounds. I looked fabulous. Even that didn’t do any good. So finally, after a year of this, I sat him down and said, ‘The only thing I can figure out is that there must be someone else.’”

There was. After fourteen years of marriage, Liz told him to leave.

“And I got really mad on a fundamental level. I said, he will regret the day he walked away from playing with me. I’m going to get a record deal, I’m going to play the Chicago Blues Fest, I’m going to get a regular gig in a club downtown, I’m going to do my own tunes, and he will be sorry.

“Well, I dug in and you see what I’ve done: I have a regular Tuesday night slot at Blue Chicago, had it for four years. I’m on their CD. I’ve recorded my own CD and I’m working on another one. I have an international mailing list. I’ve sung in Europe. I’ve been invited to the Blues Fest. I’ve done all these wonderful things – and,” she says, her words now slow and deliberate, a satisfying smile crossing her lips, “it all came from him screwing up.”
This is the story of Patricia Scott. Nobody was better than Pat and her husband Buddy Scott when they took the stage on the South Side. They thrilled audiences. Together, they opened a restaurant, sang and served and cooked together, in the kitchen and on stage. And they sang at Blue Chicago regularly. But Pat stood slightly to the back of Buddy, always, out of respect to him. That’s the way it was with blues couples. There was a patriarch, and then there was his wife. She was good, but she never knew how good until she was forced to sing alone.

Buddy died in 1992 of liver cancer. Pat kept the restaurant, the “After 5 Lounge” on 119th Street, and Gino signed her on as a solo act at Blue Chicago. Once out of her husband’s shadow and into the limelight, she developed into a powerful entertainer. Shirley Johnson describes Pat this way: “She’s got no shame in her game.”

These are all the stories of Dawn Williams: She is a white woman, like Liz. She is a widow, like Pat. She is on her own, like Shirley. But she still has a day job. And, it seems, she still feels Emery’s strength more than she feels her own.

Liz and Shirley and Pat and Gino, they all remember Dawn – but only after they remember that she was Emery’s wife. “Oh god, Emery was so gifted,” Liz recalls. “What a voice. He could sing like Al Green and then turn around and sing like Otis Redding. I mean, he was brilliant.”

“Emery, there’s never been any man who could like him, not since I’ve been in Chicago,” says Shirley. “I used to love to listen to the two of them together.”

Dawn grew up singing to Connie Francis along with her parents’ stereo in their Harwood Heights home, and spent her teenage years singing with rock bands. But in 1988, Dawn stepped up to an open mike at a blues club and walked out with the confidence that she could make it as a blues singer. The respected Sharon Clark, a petite but powerful performer with a voice that could easily fill a cathedral, eyed her as she headed off the stage. “I expected her to ask me what I thought she was doing,” Dawn recalls. “But all she said was, ‘You don’t have to look so serious up there, you know?’” It was the start of a mentorship, and the start of a new career.

Ten years later, Dawn is still paying her dues, but she is closer than ever to getting that regular gig at a downtown club. Closer than ever to getting the courage to quit her job at Ameritech. She is talented, having won Billboard’s Certificate of Achievement in 1993 for the song she wrote, “Stone Cold Fool.” And she sings regularly now, though mainly in the suburbs. But she’s tired of burning the candle at both ends, as Koko Taylor and Shirley Johnson did. She’s tired of turning down singing opportunities during the week. She has a choice to make.

She has to come from behind Emery’s shadow. She has to heed Koko’s advice.

“A woman has to be strong. A woman can’t be no weakling kitten. You can’t be no cauliflower. I would tell her, if this is what you want, you got to be determined. You got to have the willpower to hang in there and do what you got to do. How do you survive? By being a woman. It’s as simple as that.”

Published in Urban Explorer, Chicago 1999