Inspiration comes in many forms, and often unexpectedly. For Bruce Iglauer, the founder of notable blues record label Alligator Records, it came after watching guitarist Hound Dog Taylor perform on a stage in a Chicago blues club with his band the HouseRockers. At this time – around 1970 or so – Taylor was a virtual unknown to blues fans outside of the Windy City, although he was a popular fixture of the late-1960s Chicago blues scene.
The HouseRockers were just three guys: guitarist/vocalist Taylor; guitarist Brewer Phillips, a blues veteran who had played with Roosevelt Sykes, among others, and who added bass to the songs by playing the rhythm on the bottom strings of his guitar; and drummer Ted Harvey, who had played with Elmore James and Little Walter. Together, the three of them made a heck of a noise, and such was the HouseRockers' popularity in the city at the time that artists like Son Seals, Big Walter Horton, and others would often sit in with the band. Struck by Taylor's potential, Iglauer tried to get his boss at Delmark Records, Bob Koester, to record the band but when he was refused, Iglauer formed Alligator Records and recorded Taylor himself.
Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers
For good reason was Iglauer enthralled by Taylor, whose slide-guitar technique was unparalleled at the time, and unmatched since. Influenced by Elmore James, Taylor takes the rattletrap six-string sound a step or three further, resulting in some of the most raucous, roof-raising blues that you'll ever hear. Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers, the first album released by the fledgling Alligator label, is a fine collection of raw, primal blues that, due to Iglauer's lack of production experience, hits your ears like a runaway freight train. Back in 1971, there was no Pro Tools software to sweeten the mix, no digital gimmickry...just Taylor and his trio and a reel of analog tape. It's not slick or over-produced, but instead as close as you could come to Taylor's onstage dynamic as you could get in the studio.
Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers opens with the blistering boogie-rock tune "She's Gone," the band laying down an insistent shuffle while Taylor moans and wails above the constant buzz and drone of his electric guitar. The song has more than a little musty stink of the Mississippi Delta about it, Taylor's emotional vocals sounding a little like Robert Johnson, while his otherworldly, piercing guitar sounds like nobody else on the planet at the time. The rollicking instrumental "Walking The Ceiling" sounds exactly like the title, Taylor and the HouseRockers running wild on pure adrenalin and plastering the room with manic drumbeats, a bass line as strong as a steel girder, and Taylor's jump-n-jive fretwork, which fuses the best aspects of the Chicago blues with a off-tilt rockabilly framework to great effect.
Taylor does more within the boogie-blues format than any guitarist before or since. As evidenced by "Taylor's Rock," another inspired and entirely wired instrumental, while the rhythm section lays down a choogling shuffle (with a few flourishes – Harvey's drumwork gets away from him at times and beats fly in odd directions), Taylor embroiders his guitarplay high in the mix with a taut, at times discordant sound that flays your eardrums even as it gets your feet stomping and your booty moving.
Second guitarist Brewer Phillips gets his moment in the spotlight with his "Phillips' Theme," laying down the red-hot lead on this slow-burning blues bonfire. With Taylor (presumably) providing an underlying walking bass line and Harvey banging loud and proud on the drums, Phillips scorches the tape with solos worthy of Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page, shifting gears now and then to keep the listener on their feet.
Give Me Back My Wig
No matter how good the first eight or nine songs are, it's with the final three performances on Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers that vaults the album to "classic" status. The trio takes the Roosevelt Sykes' gem "44 Blues" and strips it down to its bluesy core, the instrumental featuring Harvey's beat-keeping skills front and center as the drums are mixed high, with Taylor's guitar racing across the low road while Phillips' bass holds the middle. Taylor's lead pops its head up once in a while, in lieu of Sykes' spirited piano-pounding, but the overall effect is disconcerting and entertaining, a mid-tempo vamp through a well-known tune.
"Give Me Back My Wig," on the other hand, bolts out of the gate with a bang, Taylor's guitarplay shimmying and shaking with reckless abandon as the rhythms crash-and-bang behind him. Taylor's vocals on what is a humorous song of love and betrayal are appropriately manic, matching the teetering instrumentation. Taylor's "55th Street Boogie" is equally invigorating, a high-energy instrumental boogie-blues that has more in common with Canned Heat or Savoy Brown than with just about any blues artist of the era. The song rocks, Taylor's guitar incinerates, and Harvey's drumwork is spartan but explosive.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
Recorded on a shoestring budget, Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers sounds thin at times, while overwhelming the senses at other times with redline sound. While Iglauer has certainly grown as a producer over 40 years, and Alligator has released better-sounding records since 1971, he's never matched the energy and vitality that he managed to capture on tape from Hound Dog Taylor, Brewer Phillips, and Ted Harvey.
The album is both a representation of Taylor's live show, as well as the sound that would become Alligator's credo in the years to come – "Genuine Houserockin' Music" – that would result in subsequent album from such talents as Son Seals, Lonnie Brooks, Johnny Winter, and many others. This album is a bona fide blues classic, and its influence on a generation of blues-rock guitarists to follow just cannot be underestimated. (Alligator Records, released 1971)