Koko Taylor and Bruce Iglauer . Photo by by Marc Norberg

Over the years that I’ve been doing what I love, I’ve developed a special affection for a blues label out of Chicago called Alligator Records. So when it came out that the guy who created this company was releasing a special triple-CD set called “Alligator Records — 50 Years Of Genuine Houserockin’ Music” and was available for interviews, well, I just had to chat with Bruce Iglauer about the special milestone his company’s achieved. I reached him in Wisconsin where he was riding out the pandemic with his wife.

Q: Let’s get to the matter at hand, Alligator Records is turning 50, congratulations, man!
Iglauer: Yeah, but it just started the other day, Lucky! (Laughter) I sent a text to the co-producer of Hound Dog Taylor’s first album, Wesley Race, who is a great friend of the band and a good friend of mine, and just reminded him that Monday (May 24th) was the anniversary of the first session. And it’s hard to believe because I can remember it so clearly.

Q: Well, back when I started out, I worked with a lot of blues record labels like Blind Pig, you guys, the Rounder/Philo Records’ Bullseye…Iglauer: And then Virgin {Records} had their blues series, Point Blank, and Atlantic had a very brief series, then Sony opened OKEY and something with a number on it. So there’s been a lot of them.

Q: And Telarc had Randy Labbe doing some blues stuff for them.
Iglauer: Oh, Telarc had a number of things. When Shemekia Copeland took her vacation from Alligator, as we like to think of it, she went to Telarc. They have a lot of blues releases.

Q: So those are the labels I’ve worked with over the years, and now, to be honest, I’m only working with one.
Iglauer: I don’t like the idea of being the last man standing, it’s a huge responsibility.

Hound Dog Taylor Photo by Diane Allmen

Q: (Chuckle) Hey, look, I think you’re up to the challenge, man, if the last 50 years are any indication. I think that you really have nothing to worry about. Now, don’t get cocky but you have a good handle on what you’re doing.
Iglauer: Well, when I started I had $2,500 and that was my entire bankroll and it was enough to record Hound Dog Taylor direct to two-track and to package and manufacture a thousand copies of the record. And I knew that if I didn’t sell most of those thousand copies that was it for Alligator, we were gone. So I figured very early on that even though I had no training in business, I also had no training in music, by the way, that I had to make it work as a business. I think back to records that were released by friends of mine on labels that disappeared, rather quickly in some cases, because they were huge blues fans but they thought that making the record was the hard part, and making the record was the easy, fun part where it’s selling the record and getting the public aware of the record that is the battle. And I decided early on that I was going to need to have much more media presence especially because I came up during the golden era of progressive rock radio. I can’t remember how old you are, but you’re not a kid, I remember that.

Q: (Chuckle) I’m 72.
Iglauer: Okay. Well then, you remember progressive rock radio very well.

Q: Oh, yeah.
Iglauer: And there was a golden moment from about 1969 to 1974 before we got AOR — Album Oriented Rock — and Kent Burkhart said, “Black music is the kiss-of-death to rock ‘n’ roll radio,” I’m pretty sure that’s a verbatim quote. So as AOR came in and play lists came in and national advertisers came in, radio stopped being an exciting foreground form of radio. I was lucky enough to start during the best years for radio probably in American history, and without that Alligator might not have succeeded, I was very aware that I had to get airplay on a ton of progressive rock stations and I had to do it very quickly and all over the country. In addition, I knew that there was a lot of rock ‘n’ roll press at the time, there were plenty of weekly entertainment papers, usually free, that did music stories and record reviews and I was prepared to give away more promotional copies of the first Hound Dog Taylor, and any other Alligator records, as years have gone on, than anybody else in the blues world. That was the gamble that I took in trying to establish the company as visible and viable.

Q: And it worked.
Iglauer: It did work. If I had started with a different artist, not Hound Dog Taylor, not somebody who made people laugh and smile, but somebody who was, perhaps, more serious or more traditional, Hound Dog was traditional but it was not the tradition people think of when they think of traditional blues, the don’t think of up-tempo boogie and people getting happy. So if I had started with Big Walter or even with Son Seals I might well have failed because their music wasn’t as immediately recognizable and infectious as Hound Dog’s was. So I started at just the right time, I started with just the right artist, and started with a determination that I wasn’t going to fail.

Shemekia Copeland Photo by Mike White

Q: Now, about this 3-CD set you’re releasing,how did you go about picking the material that’s on it?
Iglauer: Well, the CD set has 58 tracks and the 2-LP vinyl sets in a gate-fold packaging and it’s the best of the best with 24 tracks. Choosing the tracks was very difficult, some of them were obvious, I had to choose the iconic artists on the label: Hound Dog and Koko and Son Seals and Lonnie Brooks and Johnny Winter. So I looked at all the artists who had three or more albums, that list was pretty easy, not necessarily in choosing the tracks but at least in choosing the artists. Then I began looking at the artist who weren’t part of the first group that we released, one’s who didn’t have quite the same legacy and who were released primarily in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. I tried to figure out which of them I could include because the worst part was I knew I had to leave artists out, and I have an emotional attachment to virtually every record on the label for various reasons. And a lot of these artists were my friends or acquaintances, or are, so it was a very personal decision in some cases. Then I wanted to show our current roster and especially because we’re aiming for not on the present of the blues but the future of the blues, so the third disc is almost entirely artists who are presently with Alligator. So that was kind of how I thought of it; it was weeks and weeks and weeks of decision making and then, after I decided on the artists, I had to decide on the tracks.

Q: Oh, good grief! (Chuckle)
Iglauer: So choosing tracks and sequencing was very hard but I definitely wanted to show both the legacy and the commitment to the future. You know, I’m a year older than you are and I’m thinking a lot about the careers that need to be launched and nurtured of the artists who will be carrying this music on for the next 30, 40, 50 years. My intention, of course, is to continue running Alligator for the next 50 years.

Q: Well, alright (chuckle)!
Iglauer: But just in case that doesn’t work out, I need to have a fall-back of launching artists careers so those artists will be carrying the blues forwards for the next 50 years and inspiring the next generations.

*Q: Look, Bruce, I just want to take a moment before we end this chat to say thank you for sponsoring me for that “Keeping the Blues Alive” award back in 2018, that means the world to me.

Iglauer: (Laughter) As I said to you at the time, I didn’t do it to make you feel good, I did it because you deserve it, I hope you’re very proud of it because you should be and I might have pushed the door open but that was only so you could walk through it.

Q: Well, I appreciate it more than words, and is there anything, sir, that you’d like me to pass on to the folks reading this article?
Iglauer: It’s something I’ve already expressed and that’s my commitment to the future of blues, to finding the artists who are going to define this music for the next 50 years just like I found the artists who defined it for the last 50 years. My mission goes beyond making entertaining records or even showing off young musicians, but to recording and releasing music that’s in the best sense therapy that takes your pain away, not by hiding from it but by dealing with it, that’s why they say the blues makes you hurt so good. alligator.com

Lucky Clark has spent more than 50 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.

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