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Alligator Records: Pushing Blues Forward For 40 Years

Produce Bruce Iglauer (left), founder of Alligator Records, works with blues artist Lil' Ed William at Joyride Studios in Chicago.
Chicago Tribune
MCT via Getty Images
Produce Bruce Iglauer (left), founder of Alligator Records, works with blues artist Lil' Ed William at Joyride Studios in Chicago.

Back in 1970, a young blues fanatic named Bruce Iglauer walked into Florence's Lounge on the South Side of Chicago. The band he heard, Hound Dog Taylor and the House Rockers, inspired a record label that endures to this day.

Hound Dog Taylor and the House Rockers made the first record released on Alligator Records. Some 280 releases later, the label is marking its 40th anniversary this year.

"Florence's was a little neighborhood tavern — they only had music on Sunday afternoons," Iglauer tells Weekend Editionhost Scott Simon. "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. There were these three guys just playing with such joy and such intensity that I fell in love with a band."

Iglauer was working for another record label in Chicago, which recorded and released music by jazz and blues artists. After seeing Hound Dog Taylor and the House Rockers, Iglauer went back to his boss.

"[I] tried to convince him he should record this band and I had the nerve to say, 'And I should produce them,'" says Iglauer. "And I couldn't convince him, 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 had inherited from my grandfather and went to a recording studio."

At the time, commercial radio had just discovered rock 'n' roll on the FM dial. Iglauer took the album on the road, visiting radio stations, and managed to convince some disc jockeys to give Hound Dog Taylor some airplay. "Within three weeks, I had a bunch of distributors and a bunch of radio play — just like that," says Iglauer.

In celebration of its 40 years in business, Alligator Records has released a double-disc compilation containing a history of blues over the last four decades.

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

One of the current artists that Iglauer is especially proud of is Corey Harris.

"[He] started as a country blues band playing in the streets in New Orleans," says Iglauer. "Over the years he 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."

As the label grew, Iglauer began recording artists from out of town, in hopes that Alligator's reach would extend beyond Chicago to distribute blues from around the country. He says in the last decade, he's spent his time looking for artists who will carry the blues into the future.

"When I started Alligator, all I wanted to do was capture the sound and the spirit of what was going in the South Side and West Side clubs in Chicago — this raw Chicago blues that was hardly being heard outside the city," says Iglauer. Now, he says, "I want artists who are writing lyrics, using beats, using instrumental textures that will make them relevant. I have no desire to have a historic label or record things that have been done to perfection in the past."

The purists who loved Alligator Records for recording authentic Chicago blues have occasionally voiced objections about some of those newer artists — like J.J. Grey and Janiva Magness — but Iglauer says his job is more about doing something new than turning his back on traditional blues.

"The blues are in a very difficult period right now. The icons of the blues world — particularly B.B. King and Buddy Guy — are well up in years," says Iglauer. "It's partly my job to bring forward these artists who will carry this music into the future, who will be the iconic artists of the blues of the 21st century."

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