Back in 1971, Bruce Iglauer, a 23-year-old blues fan, used his meager savings to record and produce his favorite band, Hound Dog Taylor & the HouseRockers. Following his heart, he quit his day job with Delmark Records and began promoting Hound Dog Taylor and his new record company full-time. Over 30 years later, that company, Alligator Records, is home to some of the world’s premier blues and roots rock talent and is regarded by fans and the media alike as the top contemporary blues record label in the world.
DEEP IN TO BLUES
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,” Iglauer recalls. After that show, Iglauer, a student at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, immersed himself in the blues. He hosted the blues show on his college radio station and began making regular pilgrimages to Chicago to see Muddy Waters, Magic Sam, Junior Wells, Otis Rush, Carey Bell and many other stars in the ghetto blues clubs. When the college’s activities committee was in need of a band, Iglauer convinced them to book blues legend Howlin’ Wolf. Iglauer was disappointed with the promotional push given by the university. He knew he could do better, so he offered to guarantee the costs of bringing in Luther Allison—out of his own pocket—in exchange for full control over the promotion. Luther’s two shows were completely sold out.
Bob Koester, founder of the prestigious blues and jazz label Delmark Records, was impressed with Iglauer’s promotion of Luther Allison, a Delmark artist. When Iglauer moved to Chicago for good at the beginning of 1970, Koester hired him as a $30-per-week shipping clerk. At night, Iglauer hung out at the South and West Side clubs, soaking up live blues almost every night of the week. He often accompanied Koester to the studio, where he watched blues greats such as Junior Wells, Roosevelt Sykes and Robert Lockwood, Jr. turn their magical sounds into classic blues albums.
Iglauer wanted a hand in producing classic blues albums as well. He had been spending his Sundays hanging out at Florence’s Lounge on Chicago’s South Side, where Hound Dog Taylor & the HouseRockers would jam all day long. Iglauer loved the band’s raw, high-energy bottleneck blues sound, and was convinced that aggressive marketing—much like his Luther Allison concert—could bring Hound Dog’s music to a whole new audience of younger record buyers like himself. He badgered Koester constantly, trying to convince him to record his beloved band. When Koester declined, Iglauer resolved to record the band himself, and Alligator Records (named after the way Iglauer clicks out rhythm patterns with his teeth when he likes a song) was born.
ALLIGATOR LEARNS TO CRAWL
Alligator Records was created to make one record, Hound Dog Taylor & The HouseRockers. Recorded live in the studio in just two nights during the spring of 1971, the album captured the band at the height of its powers. Hound Dog and his band simply plugged in and played the same beat-up guitars through the same raggedy amps they used at Florence’s. At a cost of $900, Iglauer produced a direct-to-two-track master tape—no overdubs—which he mixed as they went along. With the remainder of his money, he pressed 1000 copies of the album.
Iglauer loaded his brand new albums into the back of his Chevy and hit the road, visiting progressive rock and college radio stations and record distributors between Chicago and New York. “FM rock radio was pretty loose back then,” says Iglauer. “DJs were programming their own shows. As each DJ went on his or her shift, I would hand them a copy of the album and say something like, ‘This is a record I produced by my favorite band. Would you play it?’ And instead of having to get the word from the music director or wait for national chart positions, the DJ usually said, ‘Far out. Wow. Sure, man!’ Then I’d go to a distributor and say, ‘I’ve got two or three radio stations in your area playing this album. Want to sell it to the stores for me?’ Which, of course, they did.”
As response to the album grew, so did the amount of time Iglauer spent conducting Alligator business during working hours at Delmark. He became an all-in-one label, booking agent, business manager, roadie, promotion man, and publicist for Hound Dog. Nine months after the release of the album, the time had come to leave Delmark and to run Alligator Records full-time.
Full-time did not mean financial success during the early 1970’s. The company was a one-man operation run out of Iglauer’s tiny apartment, filled with stacks of record cartons and a shipping table next to the bed. 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.
During this time, the face of radio changed considerably. “Free Form Progressive Rock” was replaced by “Album Oriented Rock” stations where owners found there was big money to be made by trimming playlists to include only those artists with mainstream name recognition. By the end of 1973, the new AOR format was firmly entrenched, and blues was put on the back burner. Fortunately, many non-commercial stations (and a handful of commercial stations) continued to mix blues into their regular formats or featured dedicated blues programs. And, even without regular radio play, Alligator continued to be a favorite of print media everywhere. The small stable of Alligator artists toured heavily, enjoying more and more visibility outside of the Chicago area. Gradually, their schedules grew to between 150 and 200 shows a year, making live performance the primary means of exposure for Alligator artists and their music.
In 1975, Alligator got a shot in the arm when the label began its long association with the Queen of the Blues, Koko Taylor. Taylor had been a sensation at Chess Records with her version of Willie Dixon’s Wang Dang Doodle. “Bruce helped me as much as I helped him,” recalls Taylor. “It was a very small company at the time, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me. My career didn’t start until I got with Alligator.” Her debut Alligator album, I Got What It Takes, won the label its first Grammy© nomination. Alligator hired its very first employee in 1975 and Iglauer moved himself and his label into an old three-bedroom house on Chicago’s North Side, where he also lived. Records were warehoused in the basement and kitchen. In 1976, Alligator received another Grammy© nomination, this time for Hound Dog Taylor’s posthumously released Beware Of The Dog! album.
1978 saw the release of the first three volumes of the critically acclaimed, six-volume Living Chicago Blues series (three of which received Grammy© nominations), albums that featured the cream of the crop of Chicago’s un-or under-recorded blues artists. Rolling Stone called the series, “the definitive modern blues collection...these albums should not be missed.” Included artists were Jimmy Johnson, Eddie Shaw, Left Hand Frank, Carey Bell, Magic Slim, Pinetop Perkins, Johnny “Big Moose” Walker, A.C. Reed, Scotty & The Rib Tips, Lovie Lee, Lacy Gibson, Billy Branch, Detroit Junior, Luther “Guitar Jr.” Johnson, Queen Sylvia Embry, Big Leon Brooks, Andrew Brown, and also Lonnie Brooks, who would go on to record seven full albums for Alligator and become one of the label’s shining stars.
CHICAGO AND BEYOND
Also in 1978, guitarist Albert Collins joined the Alligator family. Collins was the first non-Chicago artist signed to Alligator and the first to come to the label with a big reputation and high visibility. Collins had been signed to major labels and profiled in Rolling Stone. “Because of Albert Collins,” recalls Iglauer, “the media perceived Alligator had become a major blues label.” Collins’ label debut, Ice Pickin’, earned yet another Grammy© nomination for Alligator. In all, six Alligator recordings received nominations between 1975 and 1978, representing almost half the records the label released. Within the music community, Alligator had developed a reputation as an aggressive and businesslike independent label, but for the most part mainstream record buyers remained unaware of the label’s existence.
As Alligator made its way into the new decade, more and more people were paying attention to the small blues label. In 1982, the label won its first Grammy© award with zydeco pioneer Clifton Chenier’s release, I’m Here!. Two years later, Alligator signed legendary guitarist Johnny Winter. Winter was better known as a rock star, but came to Alligator to get back to his blues roots. While Koko Taylor and Albert Collins were famous among blues fans, Winter was the first Alligator artist with mainstream rock radio name recognition. His first album for Alligator, Guitar Slinger, won the label yet another Grammy© nomination. The recording went on to become the first Alligator album to break into Billboard’s “Top 200” chart.
Blues-rock guitar heroes Lonnie Mack (along with guest/producer Stevie Ray Vaughan) and Roy Buchanan joined Alligator’s ranks soon after Winter came aboard. These big-name artists gave radio, press, and retail credibility to Alligator that hadn’t existed before. For the first time, Alligator was a major player outside the hard-core blues market.
Alligator’s upward trend continued when Albert Collins joined forces with guitarists Johnny Copeland and Robert Cray (who was almost unknown at the time). Together they recorded the now-classic Showdown!. The album earned Alligator its second Grammy© award and remains one of the label’s top-selling recordings ever.
By 1985, the time had come to move the label’s headquarters out of Iglauer’s house and into a nearby building. With only seven full-time employees, Alligator was exerting major label-scale promotion efforts, sending over 3000 promotional copies of each album to radio stations, retail outlets and press contacts all over the world. The label maintained its own promotion, publicity and marketing departments. International manufacturing and distribution deals brought Alligator’s releases to dozens of countries including Canada, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Argentina, and throughout Europe. Alligator artists stayed in the international spotlight, playing at major festivals worldwide. Alligator had grown from releasing one or two albums a year to an average of about ten a year, with a majority of the studio production responsibilities handled by Iglauer personally.
TWENTY YEARS YOUNG
The late 1980’s and 1990’s marked a period of enormous growth for the label. With a steady stream of recordings by world-class blues veterans like Koko Taylor, Son Seals, Luther Allison, Charlie Musselwhite, Lonnie Brooks, James Cotton, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Albert Collins, Carey Bell, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Elvin Bishop, Katie Webster, Billy Boy Arnold, Long John Hunter, John Jackson, and Cephas & Wiggins, Alligator’s roster read (and still reads) like a Who’s Who of traditional and contemporary blues. By 1991, with 125 releases in the catalog, one thing was clear: Alligator Records was the biggest and most successful blues label in the world.
Alligator turned 20 years old in 1991, and to commemorate the anniversary, the label released the best-selling compilation, The Alligator Records 20th Anniversary Collection. The celebration continued when Iglauer loaded Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks, Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials, Katie Webster and Elvin Bishop into a bus and hit the road for a cross-country tour. The Grammy© nominated live album, The Alligator Records 20th Anniversary Tour, documented the all-star caravan. And noted filmmaker Robert Mugge (Deep Blues) produced a film about Alligator and the tour, the critically acclaimed Pride & Joy: The Story Of Alligator Records.
Since 1991, Alligator has continued to grow and produce some of today’s finest contemporary blues albums, as well as reissuing a few gems from the past. In 1993 and 1994, the label released a series of reissues of vintage material from the Jackson, Mississippi-based Trumpet label, including sides by Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Joe Williams, Willie Love and Jerry McCain, as well as deep gospel sides by The Southern Sons and other harmony groups. New releases by younger and emerging artists like Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials, C.J. Chenier, Maurice John Vaughn, Sugar Blue, Michael Hill’s Blues Mob, Dave Hole, Little Charlie & the Nightcats, Saffire–the Uppity Blues Women, William Clarke, Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin, Tinsley Ellis, Kenny Neal and The Kinsey Report continually broke new ground and attracted more and more fans.
Recognition for Alligator artists continued to swell, with Koko Taylor leading the pack. Her 1993 release, Force Of Nature, earned another Grammy© nomination and widespread critical and public acceptance. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, recognizing Koko’s contribution to the music world, declared March 3, 1993 “Koko Taylor Day” and presented the Queen of the Blues with a coveted “Legend Of The Year Award.”
A giant leap forward came that same year when Alligator signed Luther Allison, whose label debut, Soul Fixin’ Man, marked the reemergence of this blues legend (who was originally a vital factor in Iglauer’s decision to pursue the blues). Allison quickly rose to national prominence, appearing on public radio’s "All Things Considered" as well as on "Late Night With Conan O’Brien." Allison made two more albums before his untimely death in 1997, earning a Grammy© nomination for Reckless. His posthumously released Live In Chicago earned another Grammy© nomination in 1999.
1996 marked Alligator’s 25th anniversary. The two-CD set, The Alligator Records 25th Anniversary Collection, featured 38 songs (over 146 minutes of music) from throughout the label’s history, including previously unreleased songs from Hound Dog Taylor, Roy Buchanan, and Albert Collins & Johnny Copeland (from the famous Showdown! sessions).
THIRTY YEARS OF BLUES
As the 1990’s drew to a close, the emergence of young singing sensation Shemekia Copeland, the groundbreaking, visionary work of Corey Harris, the addition of blues rocker Coco Montoya and first-generation blues songster John Jackson kept Alligator Records at the top of the blues world. Soul/gospel greats The Holmes Brothers (with multi-million selling artist Joan Osborne producing) kicked off Alligator’s 30th anniversary year with their label debut, Speaking In Tongues. Almost immediately upon release, Chicago Tribune rock critic Greg Kot labeled the album, “the first great release of 2001.” The addition of singer/pianist Marcia Ball to the Alligator roster brought even more attention to the label, as sales soared and Marcia performed live on the public radio programs "Whad’Ya Know?," "A Prairie Home Companion" and "Mountain Stage" to a radio audience numbering in the millions.
To mark the company’s 30th year in business, Alligator released the Alligator Records 30th Anniversary Collection, another stellar two-disc set, but this time with a twist. The first disc contained studio material from the label’s archives, while the second disc featured all live tracks— including some previously unreleased barn-burners from Albert Collins, Little Charlie & the Nightcats, C.J. Chenier and Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials. As an extra bonus, the second disc also features a CD-ROM section containing almost four minutes of rare live footage of the great Hound Dog Taylor & the HouseRockers.
BLUES FOR THE NEW MILLENIUM
Since its inception, Alligator has always been committed to new technologies. In the 1970’s, the company produced LPs, cassettes and 8-track tapes. In the 1980’s, Alligator was the first blues company to produce CDs, and in the 1990’s, Alligator was among the first blues labels to market its catalog over the Internet. At www.alligator.com
, Alligator fans can read the latest news, check artist bios and tour dates as well as listen to a 100-song jukebox and purchase CDs and other blues-related merchandise. Alligator is also deeply involved in the legal downloading world, as the label works closely with almost all of the legitimate download services, making thousands of Alligator tracks available for online purchase.
Even now, after 30 years, Alligator Records is still fueled by the same principles that established the label in 1971. Although the staff size has increased, the focus hasn’t changed. Iglauer is as driven as he ever was. “I just want to keep bringing the blues to new fans and getting them as excited about the music as I am.”
Iglauer is always looking and listening to the future of the music. Recent signings of major blues artists Roomful of Blues, Guitar Shorty and W.C. Clark brought the label an even wider mix of blues sounds and styles, keeping the blues alive and well for fans all across the country and around the world. The 2004 signing of gospel/soul legend Mavis Staples, and her groundbreaking album Have A Little Faith brought a new round of national and international recognition to the label, as outlets from public radio’s "All Things Considered" to USA Today to Billboard to Rolling Stone lined up to spread the word.
With a catalog of over 200 titles, Alligator Records is the largest independent blues label in the world. Its recordings have won more awards than any other contemporary blues label, including a total of 34 Grammy© nominations (two wins), 18 Indie Awards from the Association For Independent Music (AFIM) and three Grand Prix du Disque awards. Alligator and its artists have won a total of 70 W.C. Handy Blues Awards, the blues community’s highest honor. Between 1996 and 1998, Luther Allison won 12 W.C. Handy Blues Awards—including three consecutive Entertainer Of The Year awards. Koko Taylor holds an astonishing 24 W.C. Handy Blues Awards—more than any other blues artist. In 2004 she received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Shemekia Copeland won two W.C. Handy Blues Awards in 2001 (Blues Album Of The Year for Wicked and Contemporary Female Artist Of The Year). Both Koko Taylor and Shemekia Copeland received Grammy© nominations in 2000, for Royal Blue and Wicked respectively. In addition, both Roomful of Blues’ That’s Right! and Marcia Ball’s So Many Rivers received Grammy© nominations in 2003.
Alligator’s recordings consistently top many critics’ “Best Of” lists and readers’ polls and Alligator artists often find themselves on national television and radio. New Yorker Michael Hill’s groundbreaking debut album, Bloodlines, was named Debut Blues Album Of The Year by Living Blues magazine. The Living Blues Critics Poll named both of C.J. Chenier’s Alligator albums, 1995’s Too Much Fun and 1996’s The Big Squeeze, as Best Zydeco Album Of The Year. Young Shemekia Copeland appeared twice on "Late Night With Conan O’Brien" and was the subject of a seven-minute feature story on the CNN program "Entertainment Weekly." She also appeared on "The Late Show With David Letterman," "The CBS Saturday Early Show," "Austin City Limits," and can be seen in the Martin Scorsese-produced concert film, "Lightning In A Bottle." And the national spotlight continued to shine on Alligator, as The Holmes Brothers performed on "The Late Show With David Letterman," public radio’s "A Prairie Home Companion," "Weekend Edition" and "The CBS Saturday Early Show." Mavis Staples sang at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and was greeted with radio features on public radio’s "All Things Considered," "On Point" and "The Tavis Smiley Show," as well as print features and reviews in The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The New York Daily News, USA Today, the Associated Press newswire, No Depression, DownBeat, Rolling Stone, Billboard and many others.
As much as anything else, these artists and their respective awards and high-profile media attention help tell the Alligator Records story. From the early days of recording only Chicago blues artists to the addition of national and international artists to the label’s commitment to younger acts, Alligator has continually taken chances and looked toward the future. “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,” says Iglauer. “I want the future of the blues and the future of Alligator Records to be one and the same.” If the last three decades are any indication, the future for Alligator and for the blues looks very bright indeed.