ALLIGATOR: 40 YEARS OF “GENUINE HOUSEROCKIN’ MUSIC.”
by Aaron Porter
Check out Alligator’s web site to pick up all of their latest releases, or head over to iTunes to sample all of their offerings and build your very own 40th anniversary collection. Want to learn more about the long, rich history of Alligator records? Check them out on Facebook and Myspace.
Alligator Records became a reality in 1971, but one could say that it was always meant to be; that it was Bruce Iglauer’s destiny to be one of the most important and prolific voices of the Blues community. This year, Alligator Records is releasing a 40th Anniversary album that features a wide variety of talent that is likely to make you cry, it’s just that good. Now to say that Alligator has a rich history would be so much an understatement as to garner some fairly cross looks. Those cross looks would be courtesy of the Blues community who has enjoyed Alligator’s music for the last 40 years. It’s incredible to think about, especially when close to 80% of businesses fail with in the first year alone. I’m pretty sure that makes Alligator, an independent Blues label, pretty f@#kin special. In fact, I dare a single person to try to accomplish what Alligator Records has done.
Before you go shouting to the heavens about Bruce and Alligator having the means to accomplish everything they have, I would remind you of a very young Bruce Iglauer who, with $900, cut an album of his favorite band Hound Dog Taylor & The House Rockers. $900 is a lot of money these days, so you can imagine the kind of determination and dedication it took Bruce to save that kind of money and to take a chance with it, though if you were to ask Bruce, I could guarantee that he would probably say otherwise. That is what Bruce does; he invests in artists and employees that he believes in. That fact is evident in the longevity that both artists and employees have enjoyed with Alligator.
It doesn’t stop there – Bruce Iglauer is not a man who rests on his laurels. He has every bit as much enthusiasm as he did in 1971, perhaps more. When speaking with Bruce, a great many things became evident about Alligator and his philosophy regarding the future of the genre. Without further adieu, ladies and gentlemen…Bruce Iglauer.
BL: What does it mean to you to be celebrating Alligator’s 40th anniversary?
BI: You know, it’s kind of unbelievable to me that I’ve been doing this, literally everyday for 40 years. [pullquote]It seems like just the other day that Hound Dog Taylor went into the studio in a building which is now the Hard Rock Hotel on Michigan Avenue.[/pullquote] The Carbide & Carbon Building, I believe. There was a good studio there. We went in for 2 sessions that lasted about between 3 to 4 hours each and my heart was in my throat. I was so nervous and scared, and only had this tiny bit of money to record. Now, it just seems like 40 years has zoomed by. I look and I think, wow – 300 albums and all kinds of adventures, but in a moment.
BL: Right, and for being an independent Blues label, it’s an incredible accomplishment.
BI: Well, thank you. You know, you get up every day and you do it, and you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the big picture of what you’re accomplishing. You think about – I love this music and I want to get this record out, but I’ve got to sell enough of this record to get another record out and try to grow a fan base. Part of my philosophy from day one is I don’t make Blues records just for the existing Blues fans. [pullquote]I want to turn on new people to the music, so I’m always trying to reach outside of the core.[/pullquote] That started with taking Blues to radio stations that were not being presented with any Blues. You know the saga about me being in my car with Hound Dog Taylor LP’s and driving from station to station. I remember somebody at a major station, on a major market saying, “Wow, we don’t even get serviced on B.B. King records.”
BL: You were saying you have over 300 records…
BI: Yes, well now there are a few things that are out of print because they were leased – what they call license masters where you lease them for a certain period of time and in some cases, you can’t renew the lease because the people who own them don’t want to. So, over the years, we’ve had over 300 releases. There are about 280 in print right now. And they’re all in print, still physically on CD’s as well; and all except for a few anthologies, are available for downloads.
BL: With that many albums to choose from, what was your thought going into your tracks for the 40th anniversary album?
BI: It was one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had. I was trying to accomplish so many things at the same time. I wanted to give an overview of the history of the label. I wanted to give people insight into our current roster of artists, as well. I wanted to show the different years and eras because we started as a Chicago Blues label. For the first 6 to 7 years, I never even thought about recording anybody from outside of Chicago. There was such a wealth of talent here to be recording. It was only after I did the Living Chicago Blues series at the end of the 70’s that I thought – okay, I’ve recorded a lot of my favorite artists, at least a few songs, and maybe I can think about somebody from out of town. Of course, the first person from out of town was Albert Collins, which is a fine choice. I started out thinking that recording somebody like Albert Collins was way over my head, way beyond my wildest dreams.
BL: And you are not originally from Chicago, is that correct? What caused you to make that move?
BI: No, I didn’t grow up here. I came to Chicago for the Blues. I made my first record because I wanted to record my favorite band as a fan, and share them with other fans and potential fans. I still come at it from the perspective that this is great music, we’ve got to get this music out there, and we’ve got to create more fans for these artists.
BL: Can you tell me a little bit more about the 40th anniversary album? What was the thought behind the sequencing of the tracks?
BI: I spent many, many hours sequencing the record. I felt that even though a lot of people throw things into their iPod and listen to them randomly, that I wanted to make a listening experience that worked on each disc from start to finish. So, listening to transitions and moving things around and trying to reshuffle the hand, and reshuffle the hand so every transition felt good. On the 2nd disc, there are some blocks of Chicago artists, for example, but more of it was gut. Final decisions as to what went on the 2 discs came down to the very last week. I was working on the project, and I was tearing my remaining hair out trying to make it something that I really enjoy presenting to people.
BL: Like you said, you had quite a few of your current artists on there.
BI: Right, I tried to have the whole current roster, which includes some people who have a foot or sometimes a few toes in the Blues, but not both feet.
BL: Right. So, in making that decision, was that also like making a statement about your current roster?
BI: Well, I only sign artists I believe in, and the first test for Alligator is almost always to see the artist live. How does the artist communicate in a live situation? Because, if an artist can excite an audience, move an audience, and touch the souls of an audience in live performances, then the artist should be able to do it on record – sometimes with some help and guidance. Blues artists develop their music in front of an audience, and develop it by watching how an audience is reacting – and they don’t sit in their bedrooms with synthesizers.
BL: You’re also re-releasing Showdown!
BI: Yes, we have re-released Showdown! I remastered it. Showdown! Is one of the best records that we have on Alligator, and I’m proud to have co-produced it with Dick Sherman who’s in the club (Legends) a great deal, and who you probably know. It was a magical record. It was a record that almost made itself. Robert Cray didn’t get there until the second day, but the first night was Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland recording together. [pullquote]“Black Cat Bone,” which is one of the most popular songs from the record, happened because the organ was screwing up; and while they were repairing it, the guys began jamming on it a completely different groove from the one they had rehearsed the song in.[/pullquote] Johnny began singing it in that groove, and everybody kind of fell in and got excited about it. As they recorded it with everything live – live vocals, live solos – Dick Sherman turned to me and said, “Is this as good as I think it is?” We were just sitting there because it wasn’t how we intended the song to be. It was just better.
BL: Right, right. Natural.
BI: Yeah, and it happened because the artists were enjoying playing off of each other so much. Real Blues bands tend to play off of each other a great deal. So, I love recording everything as live as I can. We’ll sometimes come back and fix a vocal, replace a solo; but I want that chemistry of everybody playing together. One of the things I think I am good at as a producer is bringing musicians together who have chemistry between them, or who excite each other. Sometimes that’s a road band like Lil’ Ed.
BL: How pivotal has the family at Alligator been at keeping the dream alive?
BI: I’d like to think of Alligator as being something other than a record label. I like to think of it as being a kind of extended family that involves myself, the staff, and the musicians. The relationships can be very close. A lot of people have worked here between 15 and 20 years, and one over 30 years. You know, people come here and they don’t leave. The artists have come to stay as well. Lonnie Brooks has been with us since the end of the 70’s, and Lil’ Ed since the mid-80’s. It’s because we’re kind of a full service record company. I remember I had an artist who called me at 11 o’clock on Friday night who had just run out CD’s because she had a great show and then had a big concert the next day in Michigan. I got up at 6 o’clock in the morning, packed a huge box of her CD’s, drove to the Greyhound station and shipped them with same-day service to arrive in Lansing, Michigan 5 hours later. I don’t think the Presidents of Warner or BMG are doing that particular service.
BL: No. I haven’t noticed a lot of them do what Alligator does. Not only just for their staff, but for their artists as well.
BI: Well, by putting one brick on top of another, we’ve become the largest Blues label – we say the largest independent – but probably the largest non-independent label as well. I don’t know that any of the majors actually has more Blues records in print than we do. We’ve tried very hard to build sort of a full service organization. We have 2 full-time publicists here, we have 2 full-time radio promotion people, we have marketing people, we have international licensing, we do our television and film placements here, we do all of our art and graphics here, we run a mail order company here, we have a publishing company – inhouse – for publishing songs, etc. We do all our own financial work, and there’s very little of it we farm out. As we’ve gotten bigger and taken on more services, by the nature of what we do, we’ve been able to do more than some other labels. Beyond that, this vision of working every gig as a marketing opportunity to advance the artist’s career and advance the sales of our music is kind of unique to this label. Mostly labels will work and promote and publicize artist’s gigs for the first few months after a new release, but not year in and year out.
BI: Two years after the last record, they’re not still setting up the radio interviews and still sending out the press releases. This is a very specific corporate philosophy. As I’ve said, I sign people who excite me live. So the theory is – if other people come and see them and are excited, they’ll buy the music, and the artist will have a career.[pullquote] Everything we can do to drag warm bodies into places where our artists are performing is ultimately a marketing tool for us.[/pullquote] It helps the artist and it helps us at the same time. I often say that Alligator doesn’t make anybody into a star; but with the right artist, with the right media response, with the right live presentation, with the right booking agent, and with a lot of luck, we can make careers for people. Most Blues artists want careers. Their goal is to play music for 40 years. And we can help them make a living playing music for 40 years, and make it possible.
BL: To me, from an outsiders view, it seems that a lot of the major labels refuse to recognize the Blues.
BI: I don’t think there’s some sort of anti-Blues conspiracy. I think there are a number of things – the major labels are not particularly interested in Blues, nor are they particularly interested in most Jazz, Folk music, World music, Polka, or foreign language stuff. In this world, we don’t talk about selling music, we talk about marketing a product just like it was widgets. The major labels and structures that are so large – they require gigantic cash flow to survive. A Blues hit is 50,000 or 100,000 units. It’s really hard to motivate major labels to get excited about selling 50,000 units because it won’t pay for that big office building that they have in New York.
BI: And so they get a certain level where they have to have huge cash flow and they’re not going to go after niche music.
BL: What do you consider to be the most important goal of the Blues looking towards the future, and what do you feel is the biggest obstacle facing the Blues reaching that goal?
BI: My fear about Blues is that if the music does not continue to evolve, and continue to be more relevant to a contemporary audience, that it’s going to become a museum piece. There’s a lot of pressure that comes to the artist, from the fans, to make new Blues that sounds a lot like the old Blues. The old familiar stand by songs get big rounds of applause in Blues clubs. There’s not a lot of pressure on the artist to do something fresh. When the artists do something fresh, or write a fresh song, they also tend to write a new song that sounds an awful lot like an old song. [pullquote]If Blues is going to have a future, it has to speak to today’s audience.[/pullquote] So this year, much to my amazement, I’m nominated as a writer for a Blues music award for some lyrics I wrote – Guitar Shorty wrote the music. It starts, “Please Mr. President, lay some stimulus on me.” It’s a straight Blues tune, but I said somebody’s got to write about what’s going on now. Seriously, people need to write about what going on in the world now. I was in college during the Vietnam War era, and I remember my horror at the possibility of being drafted, and thinking about what I was going to do. I also do not remember a single song on that subject, but it would have been a very appropriate subject to write about at the time. After 9/11 it would have been very appropriate to write Blues songs about fear of terrorists, and many people fear them now. We’ve got a country where everybody’s worried the country’s going broke, and maybe it is, but nobody’s writing Blues songs about it. It takes a ballsy musician to be a visionary. When I record artists like that, I’m trying to push that definition. I’m trying to suggest the direction Blues can go in the future.
BI: But, if I can find those artists, then hopefully Alligator can be the label that will carry the Blues into the future and keep it relevant, you know? I have no desire to be operating a museum here.
BL: Absolutely. Okay, last question – build your band. Alive or dead.
BI: Oh God!
BL: You get 5 pieces.
BI: Thanks for the rule. Well, I guess that my choices would be really obvious. The first artist that I listened to and my ground zero artist is Elmore James, so he’s got to be in the band. His friend, Sonny Boy Williamson, Rice Miller – number 2 – he’d have to be in the band; although if he was on, Big Walter could do that too. I’m more of a Big Walter guy than a Little Walter guy. Not knocking Little Walter. On piano, probably Big Maceo. Uh…do I have to pick a bass player? Good Lord. Ok, on drums, Odie Payne. On bass…this is tough. Do I want an upright bass player or do I want an electric bass player? Uh…kind of winging it, but maybe Jack Meyers, Buddy’s old bass player from the 50’s and early 60’s.
Because of the hard work of the entire staff and the unrelenting passion of Bruce Iglauer it’s easy to see why and how Alligator Records is celebrating it’s 40th year in the music industry. The 40th anniversary CD release has a ton of great artists new and old that will fully satisfy traditional Blues fans and fans experiencing the Blues for the first time.