By now, the story has become part of blues music lore…young fan Bruce Iglauer becomes enamored with the music of bluesman Hound Dog Taylor and tries to convince his boss, Bob Koester of Delmark Records, to record and release an album by the houserockin' guitarist. Koester declines, suggests that Iglauer do it himself, and the young fan uses a $2,500 inheritance to record and release Hound Dog Taylor & the Houserockers, the first album on his new Alligator Records imprint.
Iglauer formed Alligator Records in 1971 to release that Hound Dog Taylor album, and in the 40 years since, the Alligator name has become synonymous with blues music. In the four decades since forming Alligator, Iglauer has worked with some of the biggest names in blues music, from harp wizards like James Cotton, Big Walter Horton, and Charlie Musselwhite to incendiary guitarists like Albert Collins, Son Seals, and Lonnie Brooks...and every sort of talent in between. In honor of the label's 40th anniversary, we had a great conversation with Iglauer on a number of subjects.
Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers
What was it about Hound Dog Taylor that prompted Iglauer to start a label? "It was truly the happiest music I had ever heard," he says. "Blues is so often considered to be sad music, and there wasn't a thing that was sad about Hound Dog's music at all. It had all that rhythmic drive in it, all that intensity, all that rawness, and behind all that was this guy with a huge smile that invested this kind of good humor in everything. Even the slow songs with ostensibly sad lyrics made you smile."
Taylor inspired Iglauer to form his own record label. "I had the experience of hearing this music live, and I wanted to share it. I thought 'this is for everyone, not just for me!' Obviously, I was already a huge blues fan, which is why I was in Chicago, but it was Hound Dog's music that took me from 'I want to be around this music and I want to work for another record company,' which I was doing, working for Delmark, to 'I want to do this myself.' If Bob Koester had let me produce a Hound Dog Taylor record for him, I might still be working there."
Alligator's Next Step
After releasing the Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers album, what would come next for Iglauer and Alligator Records? "What was next," says Iglauer, "was to sell enough of that record so that it might be possible to make another one. I had no money; I started with $2,500, it was all I had, so the first thing I had to do was sell enough records. Once I did that, the list of potential artists was almost endless. My first thought was that I was only going to make one record by any one artist or any one band; there was such a wealth of talent just in Chicago alone that I could have gone on for years."
"As the realities of running a label become clearer to me," Iglauer says, "I realized that making one record and not taking advantage of building an audience for that band by releasing another record was really not very smart. The next thing I did after Hound Dog was Big Walter Horton, who was – and is – my very favorite blues harmonica player ever. The reason I was able to do that, and make such a successful record musically was that Carey Bell, his main protégé and my good friend, helped me with the production and spurred Walter on to play better than he often played in the studio because he was such a shy guy."
Big Walter Horton & Son Seals
"Walter was not a natural band leader," remembers Iglauer. "Walter was much more comfortable in a sideman role because he didn't like to tell people what to do. He was a very emotionally vulnerable man; you could hurt his feelings easily. He put up this façade of being a clown, but in fact, underneath that, he was a guy who remembered everything, and remembered every bit of pain that had been inflicted on him. Unfortunately, in his life, that was a lot. In Walter's case, I made a record that I was very happy with, but it was damn hard to sell it, whereas I was selling Hound Dog Taylor, who was touring all the time at that point."
"The third artist that I chose to record," says Iglauer, "was completely unknown, Son Seals, who had literally never played anywhere that held more than, perhaps, a hundred people. He had that rock 'n' roll fire in his blues, and that huge release of anger...there was something almost punk in the sense that he just let it all out. I had a very difficult time selling him as well, because by that time, even in that two-year period, the kind of radio that had been so supportive of me, which was free-form progressive rock, was already tightening up a lot. I realized that if I was going to continue to have a label, I'd better make another Hound Dog Taylor record, which wasn't very painful to do." Throughout the 1970s, Alligator would slowly grow with this mix of both commercial and critically-acclaimed blues release. "For years, it was just carefully just putting one brick on top of another and hoping that the whole structure didn't collapse," says Iglauer.
Favorite Blues Artists
Who are Iglauer's favorite blues artists, and who are his favorite Alligator blues artists? "That's an unfair question," Iglauer laughingly responds. "I'm asked that all the time, and the common answer is 'which of your children is your favorite?' Every artist that has recorded for Alligator I have strong emotional feelings about," he says. "They're on the label because I believe in them, and hopefully they made the records that I envisioned they could make for us, whether they recorded before or not."
"As far as artists who were around before Alligator," says Iglauer, "who weren't involved with Alligator, I would say that in the history of the blues, my favorite artists, without a doubt, are Elmore James, the second Sonny Boy Williamson, and Tommy Johnson, the Delta guy. I would pick them, and listen to them ahead of anybody else from the pre-1970s era. But there are many, many people that are around now that I love to listen to...from one day to the next, my favorite artist, or the artist that I most want to listen to will change, so I'm not going to pick my favorite Alligator artists."