By Mark Guarino
The brick three-flat that Alligator Records has called home since 1985 survived the rats in the alley. Also the drug deals, the underground strip club next door and the gangbangers. Today on West Devon Ave., business at the Chicago blues label carries on at a swift pace. And its undesirable elements in the neighborhood have since been driven out, cleaned up or razed completely.
The label’s durability can well be applied to the music industry, where some say a majority of the world’s rat population thrives. Today, the Chicago label celebrates its 30th year and can confidently claim it is the largest independent blues label in the world.
But for Alligator’s president, whose desk is still a piece of plywood laid out across two file cabinets, the distinction is taken in stride.
“It’s kind of like ‘tallest midget’,” Bruce Iglauer said in his office last week, laughing. “Or ‘king of the anthill’.”
But since the blues is at its core a roots music, its sales will never likely match the most mainstream of its offspring, rock and roll. That makes Alligator’s stature in the late century blues world even more significant. Not only did it release seminal late career albums from blues touchstone artists as Hound Dog Taylor, Professor Longhair, Luther Allison and Albert Collins, it also jumpstarted the careers of long-time labelmates Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks and Son Seals.
Its roster over the years has included the majority of contemporary blues’ major talent, evident by the framed certificates lining the label’s second floor hallway. In 30 years, Alligator has scored 32 Grammy nominations with two wins.
The label’s rise is keyed into the timeliness of its origins. When Iglauer released his first Alligator record in 1971, the blues was in the midst of a major split. Years earlier, the sons and daughters of the generation that followed the blues from its rural origins in the South to its urban electrification in the North, wanted nothing to do with their elder’s music. It was considered too old school and as a remedy, the music was infused with elements of soul music — softer production values, and grooves that were more dance-oriented.
The white audience, however, was just discovering the blues through British rockers like the Rolling Stones, Creem and soon, Led Zeppelin. It was played to them through screaming guitar feedback, long jams and singers that showed little restraint. It was the way the audience heard it first and the way they expected it later. “White fans tended to want a lot of energy, really exciting (guitar) soloing, much less emphasis on the vocals and were not necessarily worried about dancability,” Iglauer said.
Alligator was primed to provide. It helped that by the time Iglauer started his label, the legendary days of “Record Row,” the stretch of labels down South Michigan Ave., was mostly dried up. Chess, Vee-Jay, Universal and many others were out of business or were sold to bigger labels and the artists on their rosters either became big stars or were sent to pasture.
So Iglauer — a 23-year-old blues junkie from Cincinnati who scoured South and West Side clubs on his nights and weekends — went into business eyeing a new market with limitless potential. He first experienced the blues five years earlier in the guise of a performance by the rural bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell at the University of Chicago’s annual folk festival. “When I saw him, it was that big moment — wake up!,” he remembered.
Iglauer returned to Appleton, Wis., where he was a student at Lawrence University, and ordered McDowell’s only album from the local record store. That was February. The album arrived in October. “Not only did I learn about the blues, I learned something about independent blues record labels,” he said. “Which was, they’re tiny and they have lousy distribution.”
After college, he worked the counter at the Jazz Record Mart which was also the home of Delmark, the label that was in operation since the ‘50s, recording Chicago traditionalists like Junior Wells, Big Joe Williams and Roosevelt Sykes. In a fortuitous move, Iglauer approached Delmark president Bob Koester with the prospect of recording slide guitarist Hound Dog Taylor and his band the Houserockers. When Koester passed, Iglauer used a $2,500 inheritance and did it himself.
That first record defined Alligator’s future sound: fiery and raw electric blues by a performer who was just as promising live. “I choose artists for their ability to put the music over to a live audience. I want artists who are exciting on the bandstand and I want the recording sessions to be as close to the bandstand as I can,” he said.
The faith in live energy is connected to Iglauer’s early days when he was a regular on almost every club on the South and West Side. Although still has “more blues clubs than any other city in the country,” he sees neighborhood joints more and more being replaced by flashier tourist clubs.
“We’re living in a homogenized atmosphere where we’re all responding to the same entertainment,” he said. “Too many people sit home watching television. They say baseball’s the national pastime? Television’s the national pastime!”
The emphasis on winning an audience over in person and on record was a formula that made a star out of Koko Taylor and reintroduced Albert Collins to a new audience, but it also made purists, who thought Alligator was just making simplistic party music, cringe.
“A lot of people say I make too many party-type records, but then I see how the artists perform and it’s very happy, up music,” Iglauer said. “I try to make records that are true to the artist. I mean, ‘the serious side of Lonnie Brooks’? You go see Lonnie and he has a grin from ear to ear. He’s serious about life, but he wants to make people feel good. Koko Taylor always talks about wanting to make people feel better.”
No one can deny Alligator’s recent shift towards diversity, notably with Corey Harris, the young acoustic guitarist who played on both of Wilco’s “Mermaid Avenue” records and whose own work incorporates an introspective blend of hip-hop, soul, gospel and folk. Then there’s the Holmes Brothers, a trio whose Alligator debut this year was produced by rocker Joan Osborne and is an combination of earthy gospel and soul.
Along with new blues shouter Shemekia Copeland — whose sales nearly rival Koko Taylor’s — Iglauer says he’s conscious of “developing the next generation of blues artists.” “Because we’re the biggest blues label, I feel it falls heavily on me,” he said.
He’s not without obstacles. Unlike the rock audience, blues fans are older and generally not receptive to faces they don’t know. Also, sales in the record industry are on the decline this year, a fact Iglauer had to remedy recently by laying off three employees. With so many hit-driven stores consolidating or closing altogether, it’s getting more difficult to get as many older blues titles into the bins. Iglauer also refuses to take anything out of print (“a classic is a classic,” he said. “I don’t make records that are disposable”).
The tact has merit. Alligator’s biggest seller is “Showdown!” a guitar summit between Albert Collins, Robert Cray and Johnny Copeland. It won a Grammy when it was first released in 1985 and is still selling over 300,000 copies in the U.S. alone.
Because of the label’s dogged independence, its operation is not dissimilar to the old days when Iglauer ran it out of his studio apartment, his coffee table serving as his desk and the lip of his bed, his chair. Eighteen staffers run up and down the stairs of the company three-flat and also in the warehouse two storefronts down the street. Before moving to its current location, the label offices were in his home, just blocks away. Iglauer installed four company phone lines in his house so he can work before and after hours and on the weekends. When he got married six years ago, his wife remained in Wisconsin, a difficulty perhaps in some marriages, but not his.
“I’m totally in love with my wife and I liked spending time with her,” he said. “But I assume weekends and evenings are work time.”
There’s a sense that Alligator could not be run any other way. Unlike larger labels typically run by corporate types who know more about numbers than music, Alligator is inexplicably still him.
Plush, wooden, plastic and stuffed alligators invade his office from every corner. In his briefcase is still that old Mississippi Fred McDowell cassette he carries with him ever since. Afraid of flying but forced to fly on a regular basis, he keeps it close by to play just in case the plane goes down.
Then there’s the company name. That’s Bruce, too. His old girlfriend called him “Little Alligator,” because of his habit for clicking the drum parts on his teeth whenever he’d see a band. “I can play a full octave,” he said.
At age 54, not much has changed. He’s still doing what he’s always done: checking out bands at small clubs, listening to audition tapes, writing royalty checks, running recording sessions, scanning his pile of music to find the right song that might be perfect for the right artist.
“I’m working as hard as I have in my whole life,” he admits. “This is going to be tough when I’m 84.”
Alligator Records has just released a two-disc collection to celebrate its 30th anniversary. Compiling unreleased studio and live cuts from its roster over the years, it includes CD-ROM footage of a Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers performance from the early ‘70s.