Alligator Records: 45 Years of "Genuine Houserockin' Music"
Bruce Iglauer today: A blues fan's passion for one act led to the founding of a label.
Photo by Chris Monaghan/Courtesy of Alligator Records
In 1971, Chicago resident and blues fanatic Bruce Iglauer really liked this hot band that played south and westside clubs, Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers. I mean, really liked them. So much that, when he couldn’t convince his boss at Delmark Records to record their vibrant and unique material, he started his own record label to do just that.
Forty-five years later, Alligator Records has grown to become one of the most successful independent labels in the country and a powerhouse for blues music. It has also earned a peerless reputation for recording a surprisingly wide variety of acts across its nearly 300 releases. As in the past, Alligator is releasing an anniversary anthology of material. The 2CD Alligator Records 45th Anniversary Collection contains 37 tracks than span material from a 1973 Son Seals record to a 2016 effort by Moreland & Arbuckle.
The five albums Alligator's Bruce Iglauer highlighted in our interview, plus the label's brand-new 45th-anniversary compilation (top center).
Other artists included are Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials, Charlie Musselwhite, Rick Estrin and the Nightcats, Lazy Lester, James Cotton, Koko Taylor, Elvin Bishop and Luther Allison. Houston and Texas are well-represented by acts such as Marcia Ball, Delbert McClinton, Guitar Shorty, Smokin’ Joe Kubek & Bnois King, Johnny Winter and Albert Collins. For this article, we asked Iglauer to select and elaborate on five tracks from the compilation that have special meaning either for him or for Alligator's history as a whole.
HOUND DOG TAYLOR & THE HOUSEROCKERS, "Take Five"
I first heard them in 1970 at a little bar called Florence’s on the South Side of Chicago, a neighborhood club in the middle of the black community. Their music was so raw, so joyful, so full of energy and fun and soul, that I knew it had to be recorded. I went back to my boss, Bob Koester of Delmark Records (where I was a shipping clerk) and tried to convince him that he should record them (and that I should produce the record). But Bob had seen Hound Dog sitting in at jams, and never with his own band. Sitting in, Hound Dog could be a disaster. It was very hard for other musicians to follow him. With the Houserockers, he was magical. I’m looking forward to many more years of recording “Genuine Houserockin’ Music” (our slogan).
SON SEALS, “Cotton Picking Blues”
Son was the artist that Alligator introduced to the world. When I first saw him, he was playing at the Expressway Lounge, filling in for Hound Dog Taylor, who was on the road. Son was only 30 years old, recently coming to Chicago from Arkansas. He was playing very tough blues on a borrowed guitar on a borrowed amp, backed by a barely competent pickup band. But there was a tension, an attack, a release of anger in his voice and playing that reached an essential part of me. I had a lot of internalized anger, and he helped squeeze it out of me, so his music made me feel drained, but in a good way. “Cotton Picking Blues,” about his upbringing in the South, was one of those. He spent the next 30 years releasing the anger and soothing the souls of audiences around the world. I often said that if I had been a bluesman, I would have wanted to be Son Seals.
SELWYN BIRCHWOOD, “Don’t Call No Ambulance"
One of the missions of Alligator is to bring forward the men and women who will be the blues giants in future decades. I didn’t discover Selwyn in some little juke joint — he was competing in the International Blues Challenge in Memphis in 2012, and his confidence, mature vocals, original songwriting and searing guitar work immediately attracted my attention. I sought him out after the competition (he didn’t win) and we started corresponding. He was clearly smart (the first Alligator artist with a master’s degree), driven and serious. He had already developed an active club circuit in his home state of Florida, but was unknown elsewhere. The next year, he won the IBC contest and I signed him to Alligator. Selwyn is a symbol of the future of the label.
MICHAEL "IRON MAN" BURKS, “Empty Promises”
Unfortunately, one of the truisms of my career has been that, with so many artists older than I, I would have to deal with a lot of deaths. Those deaths are unusually hard when artists die before their time, or when they haven’t yet reached their full potential. Michael Burks, from Camden, Arkansas, was on the way to being recognized as one of the finest and most exciting blues artists of his generation. Although he launched his career in his forties, after raising a family, he was creating thrilling, passionate blues recordings and tearing up club and festival stages worldwide. He died at the age of 54 from a blood clot, just after completing his third Alligator album. His best music was yet to come, but I’m very proud that Alligator was the label that brought him worldwide attention.
LUTHER ALLISON, “Will It Ever Change?”
The beginning of my career was producing a sold-out Luther Allison concert at my college. After causing a sensation in the blues world in the early ‘70s with his high-energy stage presence, soul-infused voice and firebrand guitar, Luther had moved to Europe, where he felt he had a larger audience than in the USA and developed into an impactful songwriter. Some years later, Luther took the opportunity to re-launch his American career, barnstorming the country and playing wildly energetic three-hour shows (with no intermission) followed by 90-minute encores, ending each night soaked in sweat and with the band and audience exhausted.
In 1997, he was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 57. On the day he was diagnosed, I flew to see him in Madison, Wisconsin. It was the second to last show of his career, and in a few weeks, he had died. This song, from his live set at the 1995 Chicago Blues Festival, is one of his most intense social commentary songs. Had he lived, I’m sure that Luther Allison would be among the best-known and most acclaimed blues artists in the world.