You might think that you’d do a lot to support your favorite artists, but chances are your story wouldn’t match that of Bruce Iglauer’s. When he wanted to hear an album by his favorite Chicago blues act that didn’t actually exist, he created an entire record label just to have something to put on his home stereo and to spread the word on the artist.
Now, more than 350 releases later, Alligator Records will mark its 50th anniversary this month with a 3-CD label anthology 50 Years of Genuine Houserockin’ Music. It comes out on June 18, the same day that Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has declared “Alligator Records Day.”
“When the blues first reached out to me and slapped me around and said ‘Wake up!’ I didn’t know it would turn into this!” the jovial Iglauer says from the label’s Windy City office. “Where I was living in Wisconsin, there were so few blues records available, every one was its own separate voyage of discovery, a revelation to me.”
Iglauer first caught the blues bug while still a teenager after seeing a live performance by Mississippi Fred McDowell in 1966. McDowell was of the wave of older bluesmen like Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, and Son House who were “rediscovered” in the era by white enthusiasts. Iglauer’s obsession to dig deeper led him to make music scouting trips to Chicago before deciding to settle there for good.
That’s where he got a job at the Jazz Record Mart and affiliated label Delmark Records (both owned by Bob Koester) during the day, which allowed him to roam freely at south side blues clubs at night. As a hippie-looking longhaired young white guy, he kind of stood out.
It was a 1970 show at Florence’s Lounge where he first encountered the gritty trio of Hound Dog Taylor & the HouseRockers, who not only recorded that 1971 first Alligator release, but lent its name to the label’s motto of providing “Genuine Houserockin’ Music.” Iglauer and the label’s often hardscrabble and seat-of-the-pants-operation stories were recounted in his engaging 2018 memoir written with Patrick A. Roberts, Bitten by the Blues.
Blues music — like jazz — is sometimes weighed down by the Past Giants of the Genre. And when you’ve got names like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, and John Lee Hooker who’ve been down the road before, selling contemporary blues artists could prove challenging. Though it was always Alligator’s mission to look ahead rather than behind.
“I’ve always seen the blues as a living music. So I want to record blues that speaks to a contemporary audience in a contemporary world. While the love and loss songs are universal, the things that Muddy and the Wolf sang about are sometimes lyrically out of date now,” Iglauer says.
“And you can’t just record shuffles from 1952 over and over. You have to have one foot in tradition and one in the future. And Alligator artists have different sizes of feet.”
He brings up the song “Bluesman Next Door” from Alligator’s current multi-racial act Cash Box Kings. In it, Black vocalist Oscar Wilson offers that while his audience loves to hear him on stage and applaud him, how would the same people react if he moved in next door to them?
“The entire genre of the blues was created by African-Americans in times of great oppression,” Iglauer says. “And when it’s performed by white people, hopefully they’re filtering their lives through that tradition and making statements of their own, not trying to do the same things that Muddy Waters was doing in 1955. It’s not ‘just enjoy this stuff.’ It’s about recognizing it’s a statement of a culture and respecting that.”
Over the years, the artists who’ve called Alligator home — whether for a single release or their entire careers — include Koko Taylor, Son Seals, Professor Longhair, James Cotton, Lonnie Brooks, Roy Buchanan, Katie Webster, Lonnie Mack, Lonnie Brooks, Little Charlie and the Nightcats, Marcia Ball, Roomful of Blues, Li’l Ed and the Blues Imperials, Shemekia Copeland, and Tommy Castro.
Iglauer calls Chicago the “toughest, most confrontational, and sometimes most dangerous” place he’d ever lived as a young man, having grown up a “safe, suburban kid.” He recalls one of the first nights in his first apartment ($70 a month including utilities), he was awakened by gunshots. But the Chicago-style of blues was hands down his favorite.
“The aggressiveness of the blue collar city and the music spoke to me,” he says. “West Coast blues was more laid back and Mississippi blues tended then to be less gritty. But Chicago was loud. The reason that Hound Dog Taylor played with so much distortion and amplifiers is that he had to be heard over the traffic or all the hubbub in the club!”
In 1978, Alligator signed their first non-Chicago act, Texas bluesman Albert Collins. He was later joined by Lone Star Staters Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Guitar Shorty, and Marcia Ball. Iglauer notes that Texas blues stands out to his ears because it’s “texturally more open” and swinging with a propulsive move forward—before humming some examples into the phone.
The label’s current stars — some still in their 20s — include Toronzo Cannon, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, and Selwyn Birchwood. Iglauer says they represent a generation that didn’t necessarily grow up with blues all around them or as part of their daily culture and community, but still found their way to the music.
“The blues is not everywhere in their lives and they’re constantly exposed to it. When Selwyn was first introduced to music, his sister was listening to classic rock bands and hair metal bands. And he went from that to blues rock to Hendrix and read that Hendrix liked Buddy Guy,” Iglauer says.
“So he went to a Buddy Guy show when he was a teenager and loved it. That’s how he [found] the blues and it spoke to him. Christone started with the blues when he saw an old Muddy Waters clip on television. Not hearing it from the guy on the front porch next door. It came to them intellectually rather than by absorption. Christone’s friends were listening to hip hop and gave him a real hard time because he liked this weird, old folks' music.”
When asked what the 2021 Bruce Iglauer would have told the 1971 version of himself, it would be to “take more risks.” With an early business model in which the profits from one record would literally fund the creation of the next, he had to play it very conservative financially. But he says he would have signed some artists who were unknown or asked for more money upfront and just worked out the finances.
Finally, what Iglauer feels sets Alligator apart from other labels goes back to relationships. Over the years, many of Alligator’s artists have had Iglauer’s phone number and not hesitated to use it. He tells a story about buying a used van over the phone when one artist’s transportation broke down in the middle of two gigs—and it took two wire transfers because Iglauer didn’t have enough money on his credit card to pay the full price.
Then there’s this 60th birthday which he spent in Cook County Jail when one of his artists had been arrested and jailed for a nonviolent offense. In between the bail hearing and eventual release, the process took 14 hours. Iglauer then took the performer to get something to eat and then to his guest room at home to sleep in. The artist’s van had broken down as well, so Iglauer got him a plane ticket to go home.
“I’m not just saying this so you know what a cool guy I am, I just thought ‘This is what I do,’” Iglauer offers. “And that’s the difference between an Alligator contract and a regular record contract.”
During the pandemic, Iglauer has also helped his artists whose finances have tanked with no live shows (the primary source of CD sales), even though the company itself has also taken a huge hit. He’s even contributed to funerals for artist’s family members.
“I’m interested in their careers. But I’m also interested in them as people,” Iglauer sums up. “We make a commitment to the artist, and they make a commitment to us. It’s a two-way street.”
For more information on Alligator Records, go to Alligator.com