The Story of Alligator Records and its Blues-Centric Label

The act that started it all: Hound Dog Taylor & The HouseRockers, 1974. L to R: Hound Dog Taylor, Ted Harvey, and Brewer Phillips.EXPAND
The act that started it all: Hound Dog Taylor & The HouseRockers, 1974. L to R: Hound Dog Taylor, Ted Harvey, and Brewer Phillips.
Photo by Bob Keeling/Courtesy of Alligator Records.
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Bitten by the Blues: The Alligator Records Story
By Bruce Iglauer and Patrick A. Roberts
336 pp.
University of Chicago Press

Music business entrepreneurs start record labels for all sorts of reasons, but few have the story of Bruce Iglauer and the blues-centric Alligator Records. Iglauer – in the late ‘60s a white, hippie-ish, bespectacled guy from the Midwest with long hair, a beard, and a passion for contemporary blues just wanted to have a document of his favorite band. 

From the first moment he stepped into Chicago’s small club Florence’s Lounge and heard the raw, minimalist blues rock of singer/guitarist Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers (with Brewer Phillips on second guitar and Ted Harvey on drums), he knew he wanted to get that music down on vinyl. From that single revelation nearly 50 years ago, Alligator Records has grown into the best-known and a much-cherished blues-centric label with over 300 album releases since Hound Dog’s 1971 debut.

Iglauer is particularly evocative when describing his forays into the heart of Chicago’s blues clubs where he was often the only white face in places with names like Big Duke’s Flower Lounge, Necktie Nate’s, and the Rat Trap. And while many of them were located in sketchy neighborhoods, Iglauer says he never had any serious problems and patrons and musicians he had befriended would even walk him out to his car.

He also writes about the rich history of independent – often blues and jazz-oriented – record labels and the very old school approach that he and others would have to take to get their records heard and sold. Iglauer recalls loading his car up with hundreds of copies of his early releases and driving around the country to visit radio stations that would play it, records stores that would stock it, and music distributors who would carry it while trying to learn a business with no handbook.

Today’s technology has all but eliminated that wheels-on-the-ground approach, but it shows the kind of passion, time, and dedication that the Record Men of Yore put into their business. Iglauer is frank about today’s technology and methods of music distribution (and money making) and what it means to especially independent labels, how some of his favorite records were the label’s commercial flops, and the coming and going and returning of some Alligator artists.

Throughout, Iglauer regales the readers with stories of Alligator artists in the studio and on the road, from their earliest musicians (Hound Dog Taylor, Son Seals, Koko Taylor), the mid-era performers (Johnny Winter, Albert Collins, Luther Brooks), up to their roster today (Shemekia Copeland, JJ Grey and Mofro, Tommy Castro). Though there is a bit of “and then…and then…” about the narrative.

He was also personal friends with many of his artists. However, sometimes the line crossing of the friend/label owner line caused some problems. I was disheartened to read about the wasted potential and self-sabotage of my favorite Alligator act, the Kinsey Report. And I do have to agree with Iglauer that Marcia Ball’s record covers leave something to be desired – which put him at odds with Ball herself.

But no reader could come away doubting – or even questioning – Bruce Iglauer’s passion for the blues, its practitioners, and his mission to not only record and preserve it, but make it contemporary music for contemporary listeners. And that’s a lot to bite off.

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