Hound Dog Taylor, Koko Taylor, Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials, James Cotton, Lonnie Mack, Roomful of Blues, Coco Montoya, Tinsley Ellis and Eric Lindell all get the best-of treatment from the venerable blues label. Call their singular takes on Genuine HouseRocking Music essential listening.
BY TOM CALLAHAN
It is the story that became a legend. In 1971, 23 year old Bruce Iglauer was a shipping clerk at Chicago’s Delmark Records. He wanted to record is favorite band, Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers. Delmark said no, so he took $900 and did it himself, recorded Hound Dog live in just two nights. Alligator Records, the most successful independent blues record label in history, was born. Earlier this year they issued Best of, digital-only releases of nine of their artists. The resulting compilations are nothing short of essential. Let’s take a look/listen to them, three at a time…
Hound Dog Taylor: Taylor was an obscure Chicago electric guitarist playing in bars when Iglauer first saw him. There was nothing remotely commercial about him. He played the most ferocious slide guitar since Elmore James on a cheap Japanese guitar. His band consisted of a second guitarist and drummer. They used raggedy amps. And banged out—the right words—some of the greatest sounding blues in history. With six fingers on his left hand and sitting in a beat up chair, keeping time with his feet, Taylor was the definition of house rocking music. And listen to his classics here like “Give Me Back My Wig” “Sadie” and “It’s Alright.” And they are every bit as exciting today as they were 44 years ago. There is not a weak track of these 18.
Koko Taylor: When Koko Taylor walked into Alligator offices in 1975, the same year Hound Dog (no relation) died, she had had one hit years before on a Willie Dixon song but had long been out of the spotlight. Iglauer was reluctant to take on a vocalist. But over the next three decades, with her powerful voice, charisma and nonstop touring of the world, no artist became more associated with Alligator. And a woman who had been a one hit wonder became the “Queen of the Blues.” Listen to her on Best of sing “I’m a Woman” or classics like “I’d Rather Go Blind” and you will hear one of the greatest blues singers in history.
Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials. Like Hound Dog and Koko, Lil’Ed Williams is another Alligator success story that may never have happened without Iglauer and the label. A west slide of Chicago slide guitarist, Williams was working in the Red Carpet Car Wash and was known mainly as the nephew of classic slide guitarist, J.B. Hutto. Williams had never before been in a studio when Iglauer brought him in to cut two songs. Lil’Ed treated it like a live gig cut loose and did 30 cuts in three hours with no overdubs and only one second take. Now one of the last living examples of west side Chicago slide blues, Lil’Ed is famous for his fez and incendiary live performances. Check out “Pride and Joy” and “Midnight Rider” and “Icicles in my Meatloaf” and you cannot help but move your body.
But Alligator was not just a label dedicated to finding little know Chicago blues artists and bringing them to a wider audience. Iglauer signed well known artists like Albert Collins and Johnny Winter to the label and released albums by New Orleans legend, Professor Longhair, and zydeco pioneer, Clifton Chenier. The latter brought the label its first Grammy Award. And the Best of digital series also spotlights three of the more famous Alligator artists.
James Cotton: Now 80, James “Mr. Super Harp” Cotton is probably the most legendary blues artist still active. Cotton had recorded in Memphis in the famous Sun Studios of Sam Phillips. In 1955, he was recruited by Muddy Waters himself to join his band. His cuts for Vanguard in the 1960s are some of the best blues harp ever recorded. In 2013, he released his latest for Alligator, “Cotton Mouth Man.” His entire Best of collection is a must for blues fans and harp fans. Highlights include classics such as “Black Night” and “Superharp.”
Lonnie Mack. Modern rock’s first guitar hero, Mack burst onto the national stage in 1963 with lightning fast picking, soaring solos and a wild whammy bar. He had a tremendous influence on a guitar player named Stevie Ray Vaughn. His 1984 comeback album on Alligator, Strike Like Lightning, was co-produced by Mack and Vaughn. Six tracks from that album are on Best of and this entire release showcases one of the greatest rock guitarists who ever lived.
Roomful of Blues: This legendary swing band had been acclaimed and around for over three decades before signing with Alligator in 2003. And their mixture of jump and swing and rock and roll and blues mixed in with those rich horns show that Alligator was always more about great music than labels. Alligator’s sound grew far beyond the Chicago city limits. Listen to any track on their Best of and you hear the direct descendants of Count Basie, Louis Jordon and Big Joe Turner. The music was great then; it is great now.
With a catalog of over 300 titles, Bruce Iglauer’s has kept his label alive and independent to this day in a difficult, if not impossible, business. His label is arguable the greatest blues label ever, lasting two decades longer than the venerable Chess. It has been done by keeping true to Iglauer’s vision of genuine HouseRocking music. And now, as the music itself is finally endangered as the last of the postwar blues greats finally leave the stage, Iglauer has gone out and done what he has always done: find the future of the blues in young dynamic artists like Jarekus Singleton and Selwyn Birchwood. Who, you ask? Funny. Nearly half a century ago that is exactly what they said about Hound Dog Taylor and Koko Taylor.
COCO MONTOYA: Montoya is part of Alligator’s long history of signing great guitarists. Indeed, Montoya was a protégée of the legendary Alligator artist, Albert Collins, and a member of John Mayall’s Bluebreakers. Over a 37 year career, he is known for his explosive lead guitar work and soulful vocals and nonstop touring. Best of features blues rock gems like “You Don’t Think About That” and “Enough is Enough.”
Tinsley Ellis: Ellis first hit the national scene when Alligator signed him in 1988. And his roots were not the gritty streets of Chicago, but the Southern blues rock of artists like Duane Allman and Freddy King. Another road warrior, Ellis’s eight Alligator records are fiery, intense blue rock. Outstanding showcases of Ellis’s talent on Best of are slow burners like “Early in the Morning” and soaring blues like “A Quitter Never Wins.”
Eric Lindell: When Lindell joined the Alligator family in 2006, he illustrated perfectly the diversity of the Alligator sound. Lindell, originally from Northern California and finally settling in New Orleans, is a roots gumbo of blue eyed soul, R&B, swamp, funk and blues. But his singing is soulful and his writing exceptional. On Best of, listen to “Casanova” and “Josephine” to hear a great young artist evolving. The blues will never die but all music must transform and grow to be vibrant. Lindell is a perfect example of a label doing just that as it approaches almost a half century of Genuine HouseRocking Music.