GENUINE HOUSEROCKIN’ MUSIC: Alligator Records Turns 40

Pure American roots music: a
classic creation myth. Only this one’s true.

 

BY TOM
CALLAHAN

 

Alligator
Records, the largest independent blues label in the world, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. And that is amazing when you consider that Chess
Records, home of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and headquarters of the postwar Chicago blues that became
the basis of rock ‘n’ roll, only lasted as a truly creative force for about two
decades. Other classic blues labels, like Vee-Jay and Stax, were around even
shorter periods.

 

But
Alligator has not only survived, it has prospered and kept the blues alive as a
creative force from the 1970’s on. Arguably, no label in history has had as
long lasting or consistent impact upon American blues. Yes, it recorded blues
giants like Koko Taylor and Albert Collins and Professor Longhair and James
Cotton. But the label has always been willing to take chances on younger, often
unknown at the time, artists whose concept of the blues might not fit any
classic style, such as Chicago, Texas
or Delta blues. The example of that now is artists like Anders Osborne, who was
originally from Sweden,
and JJ Grey and Mofro. Grey is a Florida
artist whose sound covers everything from Memphis
flavored R&B to swamp rock.

 

In other
words, Alligator was never afraid to take chances or piss off blues purists. It
reflected back in 1971, as it does today, the vision of its founder, Bruce
Iglauer. “I’d like Alligator to be seen as the label that both recorded the
blues tradition as it has been and is now, and found the artists and made the
records that would carry the blues into the future, keeping it fresh and honest
soul-healing music for contemporary audiences,” Iglauer says. “I’m trying to
make records that will be timeless statements. I definitely not interested in
making museum pieces.”

 

How
Alligator came into existence is a legendary story. There are few legends left
in a world where multi-media conglomerates dominate popular culture. But
Alligator is the real deal. Back in 1971, Iglauer, a 23-year-old blues fanatic,
was a shipping clerk for Bob Koester’s Chicago-based Delmark Records. He wanted
the label to release an album by his favorite band, Hound Dog Taylor & The
HouseRockers. Taylor was an 11 finger slide
guitar player virtually unknown outside of little bars in the Chicago ghetto. Koester wasn’t interested, so
Iglauer gathered up what little money he had – $900 – and decided to do it
himself.

 

“My dream
was just to record a single album by each of the bands I loved on the West and
South Sides of Chicago,” Iglauer says. “I never had dreams of out-of- town
musicians, of already famous blues names like Albert Collins, Professor
Longhair or Johnny Winter, or of 280 albums. I did dream of an employee so I
didn’t have to do everything myself.”

 

With a staff of only 15 working out of an old three
story house on Chicago’s
North Side, Alligator has the feel of a grass roots guerrilla operation that
would make any indie-rock label proud. But the label produced successful albums
that have sold well and received critical acclaim. Alligator recordings have received
three Grammy awards (as well as a slew of nominations), Indie Awards from the
Association For Independent Music (AFIM) and French Grand Prix du Disque
awards. Alligator and its artists have won many Living Blues Awards and over 100 Blues Music Awards, the blues
community’s highest honor.

 

The Alligator sound is not easy to pin down. It
encompasses Chicago blues, Texas blues, New Orleans zydeco as well as Southern soul
and rock ‘n’ roll. You name it, there is an Alligator album or artist who has
covered it. It is really American roots music. It views the blues not like
Dixieland jazz, which is genre whose best days are long gone, but as a living,
vibrant form of expression. The original and still slogan for the label is
“Genuine Houserockin’ Music.” On the liner notes to the recently released The Alligator Records 40th Anniversary Collection Iglauer explained what the slogan means:

 

” ‘Genuine’ because the music we record is deeply rooted
in the blues tradition (even when it pushes the standard definition of blues)
and is created by musicians who have honed their songs not on synthesizers in
their bedrooms but in front of real audiences, responding to the emotional
needs of their listeners. ‘House’ instead of ‘theater’ or ‘arena’ or ‘stadium’
because our music is ultimately intimate, even when it is big and loud. It is
not meant to be presented. It’s meant to be shared between the musicians and audience,
like everybody in Florence’s
(a long gone South Side Chicago bar) shared the music with Hound Dog Taylor.
And ‘Rockin’ because it’s designed to move you. Most of Alligator’s records
will move your feet or your body, but we have tried to make records that will
move that other part of you-your soul.”

 

And in a business known for being cutthroat to say the
least, Iglauer has done something else unique: he has run a successful music
company and managed to create a tightly knit family atmosphere around the
label. When Alligator started, the glory days of the post-war Chicago blues were fading fast. Artists like
Koko Taylor had no record label. But when Iglauer finally gave in and signed
her, Koko rewarded him by becoming “the Queen of the blues” and stayed with
Alligator for the rest of her life, 35 years.

 

“Alligator Records, Bruce Iglauer, was what started my
career,” says Lil’ Ed Williams, a West Side Chicago slide guitarist who is the
nephew of the late great JB Hutto and has been on the label for a quarter
century. “I was only playing locally and only in little juke joint clubs and
really not that regularly. Bruce helped me to get known worldwide and he also
helped me become more professional in the way I presented myself. He and the
rest of the Alligator family treated me like family.”

 

Harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite’s career predated
Alligator by a decade. He recorded with Paul Butterfield in the 1960 and had a
hit record on Vanguard-another classic blues label whose lifetime was far
shorter than Alligator-but when Musselwhite came to Alligator in the early
1990, he saw an immediate impact.

 

“It was a huge boost to my career,” he says. “On my
first Alligator Release (1990’s Ace of
Harps
) it raised my profile world-wide: more shows, more pay, more
air-play, more fans. My entire career improved dramatically.” Musselwhite
concludes, “I don’t think anybody or anything has had a bigger impact on
keeping the blues alive than Alligator Records. And that’s the truth!”

 

After 40 years in business, Iglauer has no plans of
changing or slowing down. As to the future of the blues, he is guarded,
acknowledging that few younger artists have the charisma or creative force of a
Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf. He adds,

 

“I continue to both nurture the artists who are with us
and search for new ones who have something fresh to say. I am sure that new and
future blues can’t just sound like old blues. The lyrics, the rhythms and the
attitudes have to be contemporary while at the same time having the tension and
release and healing quality that blues have always had. So we need some new,
charismatic and visionary champions of the blues. Some of them won’t be
perceived as blues artists now, but will be in the future. I feel I have some
visionary artists on the label now. I want more.”

 

The Alligator story is far from done. And that is good
news for blues fans everywhere.

 

 

Get
genuinely houserocked:
www.alligator.com

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