Alligator Records: Pushing Blues Forward For 40 Years The influential label set up shop four decades ago, capturing the sounds of Chicago. Founder Bruce Iglauer chats with Scott Simon about the history of the label and the future of the blues.
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Alligator Records: Pushing Blues Forward For 40 Years

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Alligator Records: Pushing Blues Forward For 40 Years

Alligator Records: Pushing Blues Forward For 40 Years

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Back in 1970, a young blues fanatic named Bruce Iglauer walked into Florence's Lounge on the south side of Chicago, and the band he heard inspired a record label that endures to this day.



SIMON: Of course, that's Hound Dog Taylor and the House Rockers. It was the first record - that's what they called them then - ever released on Alligator. Some 280 releases later, Alligator Records is marking its 40th anniversary this year. Bruce Iglauer joins us now from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Bruce, thanks so much.

BRUCE IGLAUER: Thanks. The first 40 years have passed very quickly.

SIMON: Well, it brings us back to that Sunday afternoon at Florence's. What was it like?

IGLAUER: Well, Florence's was a little neighborhood tavern. They only had music on Sunday afternoons. I walked into the club, it was jammed with people. Everybody dancing, even the people in their seats dancing. And at the far end of the club - no stage, no PA system; they just moved a couple of tables - and there were these three guys just playing with such joy and such intensity that I fell in love with the band.

SIMON: Well, a lot of people do. What turned that experience into a record label?

IGLAUER: I was working actually for another record label, Delmark Records here in Chicago, who record jazz artists and blues artists. I went back to my boss and mentor Bob Koestor and tried to convince him he should record this band. And I had the nerve to say: And I should produce them. And I couldn't convince him. And so I thought, well, if he's not going to do it I'll show him; I'll do it myself.

And I took a little bit of money I inherited from my grandfather and went to a recording studio, and in two evenings recorded about 30 songs by my favorite band.

SIMON: Now, I've read that you produced some albums and you put them in the trunk of your car and brought them around to radio stations.

IGLAUER: At the time I started, commercial radio was just discovering rock and roll on FM and things were very loose. And the DJs were all kind of picking their own favorite songs, so I took a thousand albums, I drove from Chicago to Detroit - visited some radio stations, got some DJs excited and playing the record. Then I went to Cleveland and Buffalo and Albany and New York and Boston and Washington and Philadelphia and did the same thing. And within three weeks I had a bunch of distributors and a bunch of radio play just like that.

It would never have happened if I had started a few years later by the time that progressive rock FM radio began album-oriented rock.

SIMON: Yeah. To mark this 40th anniversary, Alligator's put together a double disc, and I'm just going to read some of the names of the artists that you have here: Koko Taylor, Albert Collins, Charlie Musselwhite, Professor Longhair, Son Seals, Lonnie Brooks, Elvin Bishop, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, James Cotton, Shemekia Copeland - that's almost a history of blues over the last four decades.

IGLAUER: It's a history of what has happened, but some of this album is what is happening now. I wanted to include all of our current 19 artists who are on the label as well as these wonderful giants who've honored me by recording for Alligator, and in some cases choosing me as their producer.

SIMON: Can you point us to a previously unknown performer - young, old - that you're especially proud of introducing to the larger world?

IGLAUER: I would mention Corey Harris, a very visionary artist who has started as a country blues band, playing on the streets of New Orleans, and over the years has developed into an artist who has combined blues with New Orleans brass band music, with reggae, with Latin music, with some African music and created something quite unusual.


COREY HARRIS: (Singing) Fish ain't 'bout it, fish ain't 'bout it, fish ain't 'bout it (unintelligible) no more, well, fish ain't 'bout it, fish ain't 'bout it no more. They're taking up the catfish and grinding up (unintelligible). Well, I...

SIMON: What's the vision of Alligator, Bruce? As you mentioned, you were working at Delmark. We think of Delmark and Chess as the great, you know, great Chicago jazz and blues houses. What makes Alligator different?

IGLAUER: When I started Alligator, all I wanted to do was capture the sound and the spirit of what was going on in the south side and west side clubs in Chicago - this raw Chicago blues that was hardly getting heard outside the city.

As the label grew over the first 10 years, I began recording some artists from out of town. I recorded Professor Longhair from New Orleans and Albert Collins from Texas and California. And I began thinking about being a national blues label instead of a Chicago blues label.

Over the last 10 years or so, I've spent a lot of time looking for those artists who are going to carry blues into the future, who feel the tradition, who are rooted in the tradition, but who are not repeating what's already been done.

I want artists who are writing lyrics, using beats, using instrumental textures that will make them relevant. I have no desire to have an historic label or record things that have been done to perfection in the past.

SIMON: Do you get any occasional pushback from people I'll refer to as blues purists?

IGLAUER: When I started, the blues purists loved me because I was recording authentic, raw Chicago blues from the black neighborhoods. As I've signed artists like Anders Osborne and J.J. Grey and Janiva Magness, who are certainly not pure, traditional blues artists but inspired by the tradition, some of those purists have kind of gotten on my case and said you're turning your back on the tradition.

My feeling is that when Muddy Waters came into the studio for Chess Records with his electric guitar, Leonard Chess did not say to him, you can't play that electric guitar. Robert Johnson didn't have an electric guitar. You've got to do it like it's been done. Instead, Leonard Chess said, OK, you have a vision. You've got something new to do with this music; let's try it. That's my feeling.

The blues are in a very difficult period right now. The icons of the blues world - and I think of particularly B.B. King and Buddy Guy - are well up in years. When they're no longer able to perform - and I hope that will be many, many years in the future - the world will look and say, is the blues dead? It's partly my job to bring forward those artists who will carry this music into the future, who will be the iconic artists of the blues of the 21st century the way B.B. and Buddy are the iconic artists of blues in the 20th century.

SIMON: Bruce, thanks so much for speaking with us.

IGLAUER: Thank you.

SIMON: Speaking with us from out of WBEZ in Chicago, Bruce Iglauer, the founder of Alligator Records. They are celebrating their 40th birthday with a double CD titled, appropriately enough, "Alligator Records: 40th Anniversary Collection."


THE ROBERT CRAY BAND: (Singing) Let your hair down, baby, let's have a night to ball. Let your hair down, baby. Let's have a night to ball. If you don't let your hair down, woman, we can't have no fun at all.



SIMON: I'm Scott Simon.

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