Over 50 years ago, Bruce Iglauer, 23, walked into Florence’s, a blues club on the south side of Chicago, and was mesmerized by a three-piece group led by Hound Dog Taylor. Iglauer, a $ 30-a-week record store shipping clerk and blues enthusiast, decided to take his meager savings and record the band.
Thus, the start of Alligator Records. Over the next 50 years, Iglauer would travel with his groups throughout the United States as well as Canada, Europe, South America, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Greece, Serbia and Turkey. “I love being in foreign countries and experiencing different cultures,” Iglauer says, adding, “one thing about being a roadie – you don’t have much time to be a tourist”.
Thousands of kilometers and over 350 titles later, Alligator has grown into one of the world’s most respected record companies. Today 18 Junee is the alligator 50e Anniversary and the label comes out 50 years of authentic house rock music, a collection of remastered modern blues and blues-based songs. Iglauer’s book, Bitten by the blues, the story of Alligator Records, delves deeply into the history of the company, the albums and the artists of the label.
From iconic blues stars Hound Dog Taylor, James Cotton, Koko Taylor, Johnny Winter, Marcia Ball and many more to modern giants like Mavis Staples, Elvin Bishop, Charlie Musselwhite and Rick Estrin to contemporary young voices Shemekia Copeland, Selwyn Birchwood and Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Alligator remains faithful to the roots of the blues while innovating. Recently at the Blues Music Foundation Awards, Alligator artists and albums won nine of the 15 categories in which they were nominated.
Alligator artists unanimously say Bruce Iglauer has a good heart and loves music. “Bruce can be stubborn, infuriating and difficult to deal with at times, but only because he cares,” says world-class musician Rick Estrin. “If it weren’t for Bruce, there’s a good chance I would sleep on a cot in my sister’s basement.”
I met Iglauer by Zoom in Mequon, Wisconsin, where he has lived since the onset of Covid.
Some of your employees have been with you for over 30 years and some for over 40 years. What is holding them there?
For them, it’s not a job, it’s a mission. If they don’t get this great story or this great broadcast, it’s always their fault, and their head is on the block. I have a very simple philosophy for this: at the end of the day, it’s on me.
You get the impression that record companies don’t pay artists or pay them royalties. Does Alligator handle business differently from other record companies?
When I started I knew I had to avoid being the bad record holder, so I got scrupulous about royalties, I have to make sure the artists get paid. When I gave Hound Dog his first payment in 1971, I only had part of the money; I came back a few weeks later to give him the rest. The word has circulated among the blues community in Chicago, “the hippie pays royalties.”
At what point after 1971 did you realize you weren’t going to look for another job?
I started with $ 2,700, all the money I had, but the first record had to pay for the second record, the second had to pay for the third. It was when I got Koko Taylor’s second record, The earthquake, which was quite successful. And then in 1978, Albert Collins joined the label with the Ice picking album, so, it was seven years before I thought, okay, I think I’m going to do it.
Until 1978 you only featured artists from Chicago, but then signed your first non-Chicago blues artists. Albert Collins. Why?
I saw Albert live once in 1974 and was completely devastated. He wasn’t playing with his hands in his arms, he was playing with his chest up. For me, recording Albert Collins was more than I imagined for my little record company, which by that time I had moved from an apartment to a rental house and was illegally running the label out of town. House.
In the 80s, you signed Professor Longhair who engraved his last album with you. How was it ?
He was speaking very quietly and it took him a while to figure out that I was a real fan. We were recording with his band and the guest was Dr. John, who came to play guitar, his original instrument. But he had a fingertip that had been cut off perhaps in a crime-related situation, or perhaps by his drug dealer, and he had quit playing the guitar. Butt [Professor Longhair] had big ears, and said he was more proud of Crayfish festival than any record he had ever made, because he was more in control.
You signed Johnny Winter who wanted to find his blues roots. How was it ?
Johnny was manic, very hip. We cut a lot of trails. He decided what he wanted to end because he heard the song in his head. He drank a lot, he smoked a lot of weed, but that was because he was so hardwired without her, that he could barely hold himself in place.
You also recorded Lonnie Mack produced by his number one disciple, Stevie Ray Vaughan?
Lonnie’s career really fell apart and Stevie wanted to be the engine that brought Lonnie back. Stevie’s job was to lend his name to the project to give it credibility and to perform on a few songs. Every solo he recorded, he wanted to do it over and over again because he wanted to please Lonnie so much.
What was it like working with James Cotton?
James was so unpretentious, and he was having so much fun playing music. He was like a big kid and a big group leader because he could show the group what to do. He was full of energy, and everyone was so excited and happy to be with him, that we were able to do this recording session, maybe two takes of each song because he brought such mind at the studio. He had been in the presence of giants but had never seen himself as such. He thought, “I can play with Sonny Boy, I have to play with Muddy, is that cool? How lucky am I?” Never, “how talented am I or deserved it.”
Koko Taylor arrived in Chicago in 1951 in the back of a Greyhound bus with 35 cents and a box of Ritz crackers. Only Wayne Dang Doodle sold nine 45s that she took out. How did Alligator acquire it?
When I met Koko, Chess had been sold and Koko was back to what she had done before she sang: a maid. On weekends, if her friend Mighty Joe Young was performing, she would come and sit. She was just huge. She asked me if I wanted to record it. I thought Koko was a stand-up singer but a singer who didn’t perform. How could I produce someone who can’t show the band what to play?
I said, “Koko, I would like to try, but you don’t have a regular group. And I don’t think you have a vehicle.” She called me the next week and said, “I have my band’s rehearsal, here’s who’s in the band, and I just made a deposit for a van. Now, please give me concerts.
The first record I made with her luckily her friend Mighty Joe Young played on the record. Koko was talking to him and he was explaining to the group what Koko was saying in more musical terms. Koko was very strong and grew up in such adversity. I have learned so much from people who never finished third year.
So many artists would kill to record with Alligator. What are you looking for? And is it true that you won’t take an artist if they’re not ready to tour?
The first thing is passion, whether it’s a recording or a live performance. Then, originality. Does the artist have something unique to say? Are they trying to do something to push the boundaries? I am looking for those artists who want to have a foot in the tradition and a foot in the future. Along with the passion and originality, I want people who understand that they are not just artists and creative performers, but that they are in the entertainment business. And that means they show up on time. They advance their dates in advance. They do all the necessary maintenance
Do you think there is a future in the Blues?
The future of the blues depends on the continued evolution of music. If the blues continues to sound like it did in 1965, then it will become an artefact, like New Orleans Jazz, essentially frozen in amber. The blues has to keep pace and follow the stories it tells, but it still has to have that tension and that release and that healing quality that the best blues have. If this happens, the blues will continue to survive and to some extent thrive, as it serves basic human and emotional needs.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I want people to say, he recorded the music as it was. He encouraged the musicians who took it forward and made it more contemporary and to speak to more contemporary audiences. And he launched the careers of the artists who will carry this music for the next 50 years.