As 2018 ends, “Best Recordings” judgments are being brought forth from all quarters — and Alligator Records is once again making its presence felt on Blues lists. For instance, Elvin Bishop’s Big Fun Trio is up for a Best Traditional Blues Album Grammy for Something Smells Funky ’Round Here.
The Chicago-based Alligator, which was founded in 1971 by Cincinnati-raised Bruce Iglauer, gets a lot of credit for reenergizing Blues as vital, contemporary “genuine house rockin’ music,” to quote its motto. And now Iglauer, with co-writer Patrick A. Roberts, tells the story of how that happened in his new book Bitten by the Blues: The Alligator Records Story (The University of Chicago Press).
“I am not the savior of the Blues,” Iglauer says in a telephone interview. “The Blues itself is the savior of the Blues. I like to see myself as the bridge connecting the artists with their potential audience. But I’m not the only bridge, so that if I’m at some point unable to do this the music has too much strength to die.”
The success of Alligator is an inspiring tale, because Blues, considered one of the great American music forms, once was called dead as a vital contemporary style — replaced by Rock. But Alligator has proved that wrong, and in the process become one of the classic American Blues labels. It has released some 330 titles featuring more than 100 artists to date, as its definition of Blues evolves and broadens with time. Besides Bishop’s Grammy-nominated album, its other more heralded 2018 releases include America’s Child by Shemekia Copeland; Journeys to the Heart of the Blues by Joe Louis Walker, Bruce Katz and Giles Robson; The High Cost of Low Living from the Nick Moss Band featuring and Dennis Gruenling; and Rough Cut by Curtis Salgado and Alan Hager.
Iglauer was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1947. His father, John, was a Cincinnatian who worked there for the Michigan Municipal League. (He had met Iglauer’s mother, Harriett, in Chicago.) While next working in Grand Rapids as a deputy city manager, John died in 1953 as the result of a medical mistake during routine surgery. Because there were other Iglauer family members in Cincinnati, Harriett eventually brought Bruce and his sister to live in the suburb of Wyoming the summer before seventh grade. “And that began a period of great unhappiness for me,” he says. “I didn’t fit in at Wyoming High School. I was an eccentric kid with very poor social skills.”
But living here did afford Iglauer a chance to explore and discover music outside the Pop and Rock mainstream. In 1965, using his high-school newspaper press pass, he saw John Coltrane perform at the Ohio Valley Jazz Festival at the old Crosley Field. “Looking back, I realize his performance had all the raw passion that I later discovered in the Blues,” he writes in Bitten by the Blues.
One could say Iglauer has followed in the footsteps of Sydney Nathan, another Cincinnatian who started a successful independent record label: King Records. If so, it wasn’t intentional.
“Sadly, I did not have any contact whatsoever with King Records,” he says. “I wasn’t part of that at all. I didn’t know it existed and I feel horrible about that. I could have gone to a Freddie King recording session, but I didn’t.” (The Blues guitarist King recorded his classic “Hide Away” for King’s Federal label.)
Attending Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, Iglauer got interested enough in Blues to arrange a concert for his school’s homecoming with Howlin’ Wolf, a powerful and influential Chicago bluesman who recorded for that city’s Chess label. And on his own, he subsequently promoted a show by Blues guitarist Luther Allison.
Iglauer started coming to Chicago and befriended (and eventually worked for) Bob Koester, who operated the small Jazz and Blues label Delmark Records as well as the Jazz Record Mart. With Koester as a guide, he started attending African-American clubs on the South Side and West Side.
“So Bob opened doors to this music that a lot of white people didn’t have any idea existed at all,” he says. “Nothing in my life would have told me there were taverns all over the big cities of the country where people were playing Blues to people who grew up with the Blues.”
From there, Iglauer discovered Alligator’s first act, Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers, whom he loved for their energy. They became a surprise hit at colleges and on the FM Rock and Freeform stations of the early 1970s. (Taylor died in 1975.)
“I hadn’t planned much beyond trying to make my favorite band into something more than three guys who played for very little money on the South Side of Chicago,” he says of the decision to record Taylor. “The fact they were so raw reminded people of pretty edgy Rock & Roll — I’d say pre-Punk. There were heavily distorted guitars, driving rhythms … even I could dance to it. So I had great luck with the right band at the right moment.”
Iglauer’s book is observant about how the Blues now attracts many fans that have come to it from older Rock recordings, especially those of the “guitar heroes” in vogue from the 1960s-80s, like the late Stevie Ray Vaughan.
One of Alligator’s finest moments was helping the great Cincinnati-area Blues Rock guitarist Lonnie Mack stage a thrilling comeback with his 1985 album (with Vaughan) Strike Like Lightning. He had faded into obscurity after popularizing the use of a guitar’s vibrato-creating whammy bar on two 1963 instrumental hits recorded for Cincinnati’s Fraternity label, “Memphis” and “Wham.” (Mack died in 2016.)
Iglauer had first seen Mack when living in Cincinnati.
“I don’t think I ever saw Lonnie give a bad performance, even if playing for 20 people,” Iglauer says. “He didn’t take solos for that long, but when he would leap into the upper register and grab the whammy bar at same time, your heart would explode, it was so exciting.”
For more information on Bitten by the Blues: The Alligator Records Story visit press.uchicago.edu.