March 31, 2016

Alligator Records: A Brief History

Alligator Records recently announced their 45th Annivesary Compilation will be released on June 10, 2016.  Alligator has been one of our consistant new music pipelines and it seems appropriate to share a little of their history with our listeners.  I have read this info in various forms before, but it just hit me that label owner Bruce Iglauer’s spark to start his own label was Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers – a band that plays big into the  history of one of my favorite artists, Cub Koda of Brownsville Station and Smoking in the Boys Room fame.  So right from the Alligator’s mouth . . .

The history of Alligator Records, founded by blues-bitten Bruce Iglauer in 1971 for the express purpose of releasing an album by Hound Dog Taylor & The HouseRockers, reads like a history of contemporary blues and roots music. Iglauer, a native of Cincinnati, first fell in love with the blues in 1966. A live performance by the great Mississippi Fred McDowell struck him deep inside. “It was as if he reached out and grabbed me by the collar, shook me and spoke directly to me,” he recalls. After that show, Iglauer, a student at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, immersed himself in the blues. In 1968, he made his initial pilgrimage to experience Chicago’s thriving blues scene. His first stop was the famous Jazz Record Mart, where he met proprietor Bob Koester, also the owner of the prestigious blues and jazz label Delmark Records. With Koester as his de facto guide, Iglauer began making regular visits to Chicago to see Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Otis Rush, J.B. Hutto, Carey Bell and many other stars in the ghetto blues clubs.

 

Koester was impressed with Iglauer’s passion for the music and his promotion of two sold-out Luther Allison performances at Lawrence. When Iglauer moved to Chicago for good at the beginning of 1970, Koester hired him as a $30-per-week shipping clerk. Almost every night, Iglauer hung out in the funky South and West Side bars, spellbound by the blues men and women performing on their home turf. He accompanied Koester to the studio for every Delmark session, where he watched blues greats such as Junior Wells, Roosevelt Sykes and Robert Lockwood, Jr. create classic blues albums. Iglauer wanted Delmark to release an album by his favorite band, Hound Dog Taylor & The HouseRockers. But Koester wasn’t interested, so Iglauer gathered up what little money he had and decided to do it himself, soaking up everything he could learn about record production before heading into the studio with Hound Dog in 1971.

Iglauer became producer, booking agent, business manager, roadie, promotion man and publicist for Hound Dog. He ran Alligator out of his tiny apartment, filled with stacks of record cartons and a shipping table next to the bed. For years, each record had to finance the next one, which meant Alligator released about one record a year. Luckily, those records continued to impress fans and critics and sell enough to keep the label going. Albums by Big Walter Horton, Son Seals and Fenton Robinson all contributed to getting the fledgling company off the ground. When Koko Taylor came aboard in 1975, the label was taking larger steps, soon attracting giants like Albert Collins, Roy Buchanan and Johnny Winter.

Now, Alligator Records is the largest independent blues label in the world, and has been repeatedly honored for its achievements. Three Alligator recordings have won Grammy Awards, and 41 titles have been nominated. The label and its artists have received well over 100 Blues Music Awards and more than 70 Living Blues Awards. But even with all of the accolades, Alligator Records never rests on its laurels. According to Iglauer, “Alligator should be the label that’s exposing the next generation of blues artists and bringing their music to the next generation of blues fans. I want the future of the blues and the future of Alligator Records to be one and the same. I want to keep bringing blues and roots music to new fans and getting them as excited about the music as I am.” With those goals, Alligator Records is still fueled by the same principles that it first established in 1971. The staff continues to push forward, still bucking the odds, with everybody working long hours on a shoestring budget.

Throughout its history, Alligator has operated not only as a business, but also as a tight-knit family. Relationships between the staff and the artists are personal and run deep. It’s not at all uncommon for an artist performing a Chicago show to drop by the office for an unannounced visit. Musicians regularly call Iglauer at any hour, looking to have CDs shipped out at the last minute, or to discuss their upcoming recording sessions or sing new tunes over the phone. Iglauer has opened his house to musicians needing a place to live during times of personal trouble.

Let’s Get Funky’ from Cub’s compilation Welcome to My Job – recorded with the HouseRockers