Alligator Records gives blues a bite

By Mike Greenblatt

Chicago’s Alligator Records has billed itself as “Genuine House Rockin’ Music Since 1971.” That’s because founder/owner Bruce Iglauer’s favorite band was Hound Dog Taylor & The Houserockers. With a dedicated staff of 15, many of whom have been with him for 20 years, Alligator has bestowed more than 300 albums on the world and stands today as arguably the leading blues and roots label of them all. With more than 40 Grammy nominations, 100 Blues Music Awards, 70 Living Blues Awards and international respect, Iglauer still says “the best is yet to come.”

Alligator's Bruce Iglauer. Photo by Chris Monaghan

Alligator’s Bruce Iglauer. Photo by Chris Monaghan

And to think all it took was one set of music by the legendary Mississippi Fred McDowell (1904-72) to rouse Iglauer from his humble folkie fandom into a voracious blues fanatic with a non-stop work ethic. He approached Hound Dog Taylor (1915-75) and basically devoted his life to him, working out of his ratty apartment as booking agent, business manager, roadie, promo man, producer, arranger and publicist.

That very first album with the Hound Dog man was made on a shoestring budget. Iglauer loaded up the trunk of his car with albums, selling them at gigs and pitching local radio stations. Money was so tight, he could only afford to make one album every year, but he still made Koko Taylor a star. He did the same for Albert Collins.

Persistence, passion and an iron will had paid off.

Goldmine: For a guy who doesn’t play an instrument or sing, you’re a real blues pioneer.

Bruce Iglauer: I used to try to play and sing a little bit. Luckily, I listened to myself and discovered that I was thoroughly devoid of talent.

GM: I understand your story is a classic American success story of you starting in the mailroom of a label and working your way up.

BI: I learned what to do right — and wrong — at Delmark Records. I walked in the footsteps of Bob Koester. Delmark’s survival in the industry (since 1953) is a total mystery because Bob is the worst businessman I ever knew. His philosophy of making records is finding musicians he’s excited about, asking them into the studio with their songs and recording whatever they brought. When it was Junior Wells, J.B. Hutto or many other Delmark artists, it was brilliant, wonderful, but not every artist can be their own A&R director and producer. So when I saw Bob doing sessions where he didn’t know what songs were being recorded when he entered the studio — and he was proud of that — it just wasn’t how I thought records should be made. I also walk in the footsteps of Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie (Records), both for the quality of his blues records and for his attitude of “if they don’t like what I record, then f**k ‘em!” He’s anti-commercial. I come from a different philosophy in that I believed in a larger potential market for blues artists than what was being reached by these specialized labels. I knew who the market was because they were people like me, essentially 1960s college students who discovered the blues either through rock ‘n’ roll, Paul Butterfield or the (1969) “Fathers And Sons” (Muddy Waters) album. But they were completely unaware of what was going on in the ghetto clubs. I wanted to reach these people. To do so, I knew I had to be much more aggressive than the Arhoolie or Delmark generation, more aggressive than other people who started labels around the same time as me, like my good friend Jim O’Neal at Rooster Blues, or Razor or Mr. Blues. All these labels were started by people who loved the music but whose entire goal was to get artists whom they cared about recorded, but not to create a marketplace for them. From where I sat, because I wanted to do this for a living, the only way I could manage to pull it off was to create a viable business entity, and, at the same time, record the music that I truly love. And that was tricky.

GM: You started out as a Delmark shipping clerk.

BI: Filling mail orders, unloading trucks, driving and working the counter at Jazz Record Mart.

GM: Is working your way up from a mail room still an option in today’s world?

BI: The better question would be: is there a viable thing called the record business anymore? Sales of recorded music are between 40 percent and 45 percent of what they were in 1999, with blues and jazz shrinking even further. So many of adult consumers were used to going into a record store to discover new music. That process has not been true for younger consumers. As a kid in Cincinnati, I used to go for hours reading liner notes, looking at packaging and, if allowed, listening to records in the hopes of deciding upon one LP to buy. That doesn’t happen anymore. Now, most consumers, when they buy online, know what they want beforehand.

GM: You’ve brought Alligator Records up to the point where I know as a fan that every album you put out is going to be good. There are very few labels like that.

BI: Alligator is a brand. Branding was my plan from day one. I just didn’t know the term. If you like one Alligator CD, you’ll like the next one. So you go to trust the logo. When I was buying folk records early on, I grew to trust Jac Holzman and his Elektra label. Now I know him and I admire him greatly. Jack once told me that there was not a single song released on Elektra during the time he owned the label that wasn’t personally approved by him. He would often send artists back to write more. He told me a story of Judy Collins coming in with what she thought was a finished record. “You need a few more good songs,” Jac told her. She wasn’t much of a songwriter, and that’s how she discovered Leonard Cohen.

GM: Judy Collins is the first major artist to record Cohen’s music and bring him to the attention of her huge audience. She also brought him onstage at her concerts when no one knew him.

BI: Right. So I learned from that and very rarely will I let an artist just deliver a record. Sure, there are exceptions when I’ve grown to trust an artist’s sensibility, but for the most part, I, like the bigger labels, want mutual approval on every song, the producer, the engineer and mixes. I may be a niche marketer but I’m running a commercial business. I want to make sure my artists put out a record that has the maximum amount of commercial potential.

GM: In doing so, didn’t you famously butt heads with Johnny Winter?

BI: Yes. Johnny did three records for Alligator, and by record number three (1986’s “Third Degree”), I was no longer co-producer and went from being Johnny’s pal to being the big bad record company man. Most of it was over mixes — funny in retrospect because our philosophy of mixing wasn’t that far apart. I think we were both just itching for a fight. I still approved every song and every mix of “Third Degree,” although it was tense and it affected our relationship. He had been my houseguest. We had hung out together. We listened to music together. Gone to clubs together. We were pals. It got to the point where I’d be saying, “Johnny, you promised me you would do these interviews and you got to do them! You cannot back out because you don’t feel like it today. And you have to greet the store people after the gig whether you feel like it or not. So we began fighting about business, too. We also had battles over cover photos. It was all really pretty silly. Luckily, by the end of his life, we got to make up but we were never really friends again.

    I have had more than one situation where artists decided that I had too much control over their music, specifically what songs will be chosen. When I sign an artist, I like what an artist is doing. I don’t sign artists expecting to change them. Usually, I will go to as many gigs as I can, and listen to whatever previous recordings they’ve done. I like to get inside what they already are. So the battles have usually been over material or when I send an artist back out to rewrite. “That song isn’t done,” I’d say. Artists don’t like to hear that.

GM: How do you tell an artist like James Cotton or Elvin Bishop something like that? You have to walk a fine line, right?

BI: You do up to a point. For instance, on the first record Elvin did for me, he did a song called “She Puts Me In The Mood,” which I thought was too simple lyrically. We wound up putting it on the record but it certainly wasn’t one of my favorites. By the time I came to do an Anniversary Collection, I had grown to like the song, included it and Elvin teased me about it. So when I tell a James Cotton or an Elvin Bishop that I think they could do better on a particular song, I come from the perspective of “I’m not always right but you’re not always right either.” Sometimes I need to push artists outside their comfort zone. Yet, I have maintained close relationships with many of my artists. I’ve gotten some of them through rehab or out of jail. I’ve been at their weddings. I was with Koko Taylor when she died.

GM: Your roster is so eclectic now what with Jesse Dee, Anders Osborne, Selwyn Birchwood, Jarekus Singleton, The Holmes Brothers, Joe Louis Walker, Tommy Castro, Rick Estrin and the Nightcats and Marcia Ball. There’s a lot of rock ‘n’ roll and a lot of solid soul. Was there a point when you made a conscious decision to stray away from the blues?

BI: Good question. The start of that was when I signed (jam band) JJ Grey and Mofro. “Country Ghetto” in 2011 was that conscious decision. When I came to Chicago in 1970, there were 40 or 50 clubs in the ghetto where great blues was being performed for neighborhood residents on weekends. A huge number of these artists, including my favorite band Hound Dog Taylor & The Houserockers, weren’t on the radio at all. I had stumbled into a musical treasure trove: dozens of excellent musicians totally under-recorded or not recorded at all! That’s how the “Living Chicago Blues” series came about. I realized I couldn’t do full albums on everybody like Pinetop Perkins or Left Hand Frank, so the only way I could get them heard was by doing anthologies. But as time went on, even into the 1980s, a number of these artists got chances to record. Magic Slim was an unrecorded artist when I got here. By the time he died, he had over 20 albums on various labels. Then I went looking outside Chicago, bringing in Professor Longhair and Albert Collins. So we went from being a Chicago blues label for nine years, to a national blues label for another 20 years, to being a blues and roots label for the last 15 years. There was a time when I didn’t even listen to white musicians. But, over a period of time, I realized that white people did have something unique that I wanted to record, as long as they stayed away from trying to imitate black people – very common with the early generation of white blues artists who were trying to sound so much like their inspirations that they weren’t making a statement of their own. Hey, I could listen to pure three-chord blues all day but we’re not ever going to get a Muddy Waters or a Hound Dog Taylor anymore because the culture that fostered those artists simply does not exist.

GM0615The above article originally appeared in Goldmine‘s Hall and Oates issue (June 2015, Volume 41, No. 7, at left). If you would like a digital copy of the issue — for more photos, more info, etc. —  click here. It’s only a $4.95 download! Or if you would like a print copy (the cover itself is worth framing!) call 1-800-726-9966, Ext. 13369, or e-mail missy.fenn@fwcommunity.com.

About Mike Greenblatt

A longtime music journalist, Mike Greenblatt is a contributing editor with Goldmine magazine.

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