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Fifty Years Of Alligator Records With Its Founder, Bruce Iglauer, On The String

In the early 2000s, Chicago record label owner Bruce Iglauer went to scout a band he’d heard about - two white guys from Akron thumping away on drums and electric guitar and channeling juke joint blues from the deep South. Alas, he arrived too late. The Black Keys had already signed to Fat Possum Records. But in conversation, Iglauer did learn that the first album he’d ever released changed Dan Auerbach’s life.

“Dan Auerbach said, ‘Hound Dog Taylor’s my favorite musician!” Iglauer recounts in Episode 171 of The String. “‘Without Hound Dog Taylor, I never would have started playing music.’ Dan now owns one of Hound Dog Taylor’s guitars, and he plays it on the new Black Keys record.”

It’s just one of the many rewards and fulfilments that Iglauer has enjoyed in the 50 years since he cobbled together some savings and released Hound Dog Taylor And The House Rockers in 1971. That birthed Alligator Records, arguably the most famous and influential blues label of the modern era and a stalwart indie music company that’s never sold or diluted its ownership. And there have been plenty of awards too, including three Grammys and, just last Sunday, nine more Blues Music Awards to bring its lifetime collection to an unparalleled 161.

But it’s more than the stats. It’s the consistent quality of and insight behind more than 350 releases that’s built one of the triumphant indie music stories of the past half century, spanning every year of that half century. The catalog includes inspired, resilient, working-class artists who bridged styles, demographics and regions. And on the new collection 50 Years Of Genuine House Rockin’ Music, out on Friday, we can hear tantalizing one-song samples of 59 of them, including Koko Taylor, Son Seals, James Cotten, Lonnie Brooks, Lonnie Mack, Katie Webster, Roy Buchanan and Marcia Ball. The label’s recent output is scintillating as ever, with an award-winning duo of Elvin Bishop and Charlie Musselwhite, the fiery original songs of Selwyn Birchwood, the youthful Delta vigor of Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and cultural tribune and killer vocalist Shemekia Copeland.

Bruce Iglauer with the late great Alligator Records blues singer Koko Taylor.

In the liner notes of the new anthology, we learn that Iglauer, a native of Cincinnati, fell in love with the blues as a young guy, including an epiphany experience seeing Mississippi Fred McDowell in 1966. He started scouting Chicago, and his first stop was the Jazz Record Mart, a storied hub of African-American music run by a white fellow named Bob Koester. After Iglauer moved to the city and started promoting the blues in every way he could think of, Koester got him involved, taking him at one point to a recording session with Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and Otis Spann. Before long, he hired Bruce to be the shipping clerk and all-around helper for his tiny label Delmark Records. 

In a segment of our interview that couldn’t squeeze into this hour, Iglauer cited Koester as “more than my friend, almost my father.” And this was just days after Koester had died at age 88. In 1970, he recalls, “I was his only employee. He infused the business in me, without actually sitting me down and teaching me anything about it. I just watched him and learned from watching him, and then I applied what I thought were lessons that I knew from being of a different generation.” 

When Iglauer saw Hound Dog Taylor and the House Rockers play live at Florence’s Lounge on the South Side, he got obsessed as only a 20-year-old convert can get about putting this raw and rusting artist out on Delmark Records. When Koester passed on the idea, Iglauer took it on himself, as told in the liner notes to the new Alligator collection:

“Though he badgered Koester to record Hound Dog for Delmark, Koester declined. Determined that his favorite band be recorded, Iglauer gathered up what little money he had and headed into the studio with Hound Dog in 1971, recording for two evenings direct to two-track, mixing the album as it was being recorded. With his remaining money, he pressed 1000 albums and loaded them into the trunk of his Dodge Dart. The hip new radio format at the time was called “free form progressive rock,” and Iglauer drove over 4000 miles, stopping at every free form station.”

A bit of airplay led to a distribution deal to get his LPs in stores around the country, and the label was born. Koester blessed the effort, even giving Iglauer space in his office to get him started, not to mention a lot of advice. Soon Iglauer was working out of his home, signing new talent and letting each release fund the next. It’s a classic story and key pieces of it are covered in our conversation. You’ll also hear about my personal experience as an intern at Alligator in its northside Chicago offices in the late 1980s, my first brush with the music business. My attachment is sentimental, but it began with the genuine house-rockin’ music.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org
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