Back in 1971, 23-year-old blues fanatic Bruce Iglauer was frustrated and motivated. As a shipping clerk for Bob Koester's Chicago-based Delmark Records, Iglauer wanted the label to release an album by his favorite band, Hound Dog Taylor & The HouseRockers. Koester just wasn't interested, so Iglauer gathered up what little money he had and decided to do it himself. Recorded live in the studio in just two nights during the spring of 1971, the recordings captured the band at the height of its powers. Hound Dog and his HouseRockers simply plugged in and played the same beat-up guitars through the same raggedy amps they used when they played at blue-collar blues clubs like Florence's Lounge on the South Side. At a cost of $900, Iglauer produced a direct-to-two-track master tape—no overdubs—which he mixed as they went along. With the remainder of his money, he pressed 1000 copies of Hound Dog Taylor & The HouseRockers. And with that, Alligator Records (named after the way Iglauer clicks out rhythm patterns with his teeth when he likes a song) was born.
Today, proudly independent Alligator Records is home to some of the world's foremost blues and roots rock talent and is regarded by fans and the media alike as the top contemporary blues record label in the world. The Washington Post said, "Alligator is the premiere blues label." The Chicago Sun-Times stated, "Alligator is numero uno among indie blues labels, with artists representing the best in contemporary blues."
Alligator Records celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2011 with the release of The Alligator Records 40th Anniversary Collection. The two-CD set clearly lays out Iglauer's wide-ranging vision. Blues of all flavors abound, including the ragged slide guitar glory of Hound Dog Taylor and the raw Chicago blues of Koko Taylor, Son Seals, Lil' Ed & The Blues Imperials, Lonnie Brooks and Eddy Clearwater. From the harmonica workouts of Charlie Musselwhite, William Clarke, James Cotton and Rick Estrin to the guitar pyrotechnics of Guitar Shorty, Albert Collins, Johnny Winter, Tinsley Ellis and Michael "Iron Man" Burks to the front porch roots-rock of JJ Grey & Mofro to the blistering rock and tender soul of Anders Osborne, the one constant is Alligator's dedication to releasing what the label proudly calls "Genuine Houserockin' Music."
That dedication continues into Alligator's fifth decade, with label debuts by master bluesman Joe Louis Walker, soul/blues singer and harmonicist Curtis Salgado and R&B singer/songwriter and guitarist Jesse Dee. New albums from JJ Grey & Mofro, Janiva Magness, Anders Osborne, Lil' Ed & The Blues Imperials, Rick Estrin & The Nightcats and Michael "Iron Man" Burks have soared up the blues music charts and beyond, continuing to expand the definition of the label's sound and vision.
Everything except for the actual recording happens at Alligator's international world headquarters, located in an old three-flat on Chicago's North Side. Staffers—operating with a grass-roots, do-it-yourself ethos that would make any indie rock label proud—reach out across the globe from offices that used to be bedrooms, kitchens and living rooms. Through their tireless work, the 15 dedicated employees (many of whom have been on board over 20 years) carry out major label-level promotional and publicity campaigns on a fraction of major-label budgets, achieving results that rival any deep-pocketed corporate record company. Against all odds, and using more effort than money, Alligator's publicists and radio promoters are constantly working the phones and the internet placing feature stories, television appearances, generating airplay and scheduling as many artist interviews as possible. Advertising, international sales, social media, licensing, publishing, film and television placements and design are all done in-house as well. In addition, Alligator's full service mail order company is housed in an old, converted furniture store just down the block from the main building.
Alligator is not only a business; it's also a tight-knit family. Relationships between the staff and the artists are personal and run deep. It's not at all uncommon for an artist performing a Chicago show to drop by the office for an unannounced visit. Musicians regularly call Iglauer at any hour, needing help with a non-paying club owner, or looking to have CDs shipped out at the last minute, or to discuss their upcoming recording sessions or sing new tunes over the phone. Iglauer has opened his house to musicians needing a place to live during times of personal trouble and makes himself available to his artists day or night.
With a catalog of almost 300 titles, Alligator Records is the largest independent blues label in the world, and has been repeatedly honored for its achievements. Three Alligator recordings have won Grammy Awards, and 40 titles have been nominated. The label and its artists have received over 100 Blues Music Awards and more than 70 Living Blues Awards. But even with all of the accolades, Alligator Records never rests on its laurels. According to Iglauer, "Alligator should be the label that's exposing the next generation of blues artists and bringing their music to the next generation of blues fans. I want the future of the blues and the future of Alligator Records to be one and the same."
The history of Alligator reads very much like a history of contemporary blues and roots music, and a little bit like a Horatio Alger story. Bruce Iglauer, a native of Cincinnati, first fell in love with the blues in 1966. A live performance by the great Mississippi Fred McDowell struck him deep inside. "It was as if he reached out and grabbed me by the collar, shook me and spoke directly to me," he recalls. After that show, Iglauer, a student at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, immersed himself in the blues. He began making regular pilgrimages to Chicago to see Muddy Waters, Magic Sam, Junior Wells, Otis Rush, Carey Bell and many other stars in the ghetto blues clubs, eventually meeting Bob Koester, owner of the prestigious blues and jazz label Delmark Records and The Jazz Record Mart.
Koester was impressed with Iglauer's passion for the music and his promotion of two sold-out Luther Allison performances at Lawrence. When Iglauer moved to Chicago for good at the beginning of 1970, Koester hired him as a $30-per-week shipping clerk. Almost every night, Iglauer hung out in the funky South and West Side bars, spellbound by the blues men and women performing on their home turf. He accompanied Koester to the studio for every Delmark session, where he watched blues greats such as Junior Wells, Roosevelt Sykes and Robert Lockwood, Jr. create classic blues albums. Iglauer soaked up everything he could about record production before heading into the studio with Hound Dog in 1971.
With his newly pressed Hound Dog Taylor LPs loaded into the trunk of his Chevy, Iglauer hit the road, visiting progressive rock and college radio stations and record distributors between Chicago and New York. "FM rock radio was pretty loose back then," says Iglauer. "DJs were programming their own shows. As each DJ went on his or her shift, I would hand them a copy of the album and say something like, 'This is a record I produced by my favorite band. Would you play it?' And instead of having to get the word from the music director or wait for national chart positions, the DJ usually said, 'Far out. Wow. Sure, man.' Then I'd go to a distributor and say, 'I've got two or three radio stations in your area playing this album. Want to sell it to the stores for me?' Which, of course, they did."
Iglauer became booking agent, business manager, roadie, promotion man, and publicist for Hound Dog. Alligator Records was a one-man operation run out of his tiny apartment, filled with stacks of record cartons and a shipping table next to the bed. For years, each record had to finance the next one, which meant Alligator released about one record a year. Luckily, those records continued to impress fans and critics and sell enough to keep the label going. Albums by Big Walter Horton, Son Seals and Fenton Robinson all contributed to getting the fledgling company off the ground. Eventually, he moved himself and the company to a small house in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood (where he still lives) with a photocopier in the dining room, his office in his bedroom, the warehouse in the basement and 7000 cassettes stacked in the kitchen.
When Koko Taylor came to Alligator in 1975, it was a risky move for the label. Koko had recorded blues hits in the 1960s, but had been out of the limelight for years. Iglauer knew how to record guitarists, but wasn't sure about working with a vocalist. Fortunately Alligator, now with a staff of two, turned out to be a perfect fit for Taylor's giant voice and charisma. The label's efforts and perseverance, combined with Taylor's force-of-nature talent, focus and drive, turned Taylor into a bona fide star—and in turn gave Alligator a newfound prestige—with fans ultimately crowning her The Queen Of The Blues.
Other artists took notice of what Alligator was accomplishing. In 1978, blues legend Albert Collins signed as Alligator's first non-Chicago artist, and before long he catapulted to the top of the blues world. Feature stories and radio airplay—fueled by Alligator's promotional know-how—helped Collins become one of the most recognized names in the blues. He grew from playing small clubs to performing in concert halls and at major festivals around the country and overseas.
As Alligator made its way into the 1980s, the label continued to release groundbreaking albums. Releases from New Orleans legend Professor Longhair, emerging blues star Lonnie Brooks and the reissue of a European recording from Buddy Guy all added to Alligator's growing and glowing reputation. In 1982, the label won its first Grammy Award with zydeco pioneer Clifton Chenier's release I'm Here!. Two years later, Alligator signed legendary guitarist Johnny Winter. Winter was better known as a rock star, but came to Alligator to get back to his blues roots. While Koko Taylor and Albert Collins were famous among blues fans, Winter had been a top arena draw, and was the first Alligator artist to come to the label having sold millions of records. His label debut, Guitar Slinger, which won the label its 14th Grammy nomination, became the first Alligator album to break into Billboard's "Top 200" chart.
By 1985, Alligator (which had been operating out of Iglauer's house for the last 10 years) had seven full-time employees, and the company moved into the three-flat that it still calls home today. New international distribution deals brought Alligator's releases to dozens of countries around the world, allowing artists to organize major tours of Europe, Japan, Canada, Australia and South America. By now Alligator was releasing about 10 albums a year, up from one or two just a few years earlier. The labor of love was now a full-fledged business.
That same year, an idea to team up Albert Collins with two of his protégés—Johnny Clyde Copeland and Robert Cray—became the Grammy-winning Showdown!. In the studio the fireworks flew, with each artist reaching new heights in a fierce but friendly game of guitar one-upsmanship. To this day, Showdown! is among Alligator's best-selling and most celebrated releases. A special reissue of the album (remastered by Iglauer, available on CD and LP and including a bonus track) was released in 2011, helping to commemorate the label's anniversary.
The late 1980s and the early 1990s marked a period of enormous growth for Alligator. Iglauer's ear for new talent brought the next generation of blues stars to the forefront, including Kenny Neal, Tinsley Ellis, Saffire–The Uppity Blues Women, Little Charlie & The Nightcats, Lil' Ed & The Blues Imperials, Lucky Peterson, Michael Hill's Blues Mob and The Kinsey Report. Signings of established blues stars like Katie Webster, Charlie Musselwhite, Elvin Bishop, and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown rounded out the roster. And when opportunity arose, Alligator licensed and released finished master recordings by Buddy Guy & Junior Wells, Delbert McClinton, Otis Rush and others. Newspaper features and radio play followed Alligator artists across the globe.
Never able to turn down a reason to party, Alligator celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1991 by loading Koko Taylor, Katie Webster, Lil' Ed & The Blues Imperials, Elvin Bishop and Lonnie Brooks into a tour bus to join forces for a cross-country tour, resulting in a Grammy-nominated two-CD set, The Alligator Records 20th Anniversary Tour. Noted filmmaker Robert Mugge documented the proceedings in his film, Pride & Joy: The Story of Alligator Records, including a rare behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of Alligator Records, as well as some electrifying concert footage.
During the 1990s, Alligator helped define the future of the blues. The addition to the roster of young singing sensation Shemekia Copeland and groundbreaking, visionary bluesman Corey Harris carried the music to a new, younger audience. No longer a Chicago blues label, but rather a national and international blues label based in Chicago, Alligator expanded its roster (and its audience) with artists from Chicago (Carey Bell, Luther Allison), Texas (Marcia Ball, C.J. Chenier, Long John Hunter), California (William Clarke), Washington, DC (Cephas & Wiggins), New York (The Holmes Brothers) and even Perth, Australia (Dave Hole). With these outstanding musicians came copious amounts of radio play, as well as guest spots on national radio and television programs. Over the years, Alligator artists have performed on Conan, The Tonight Show, The Late Show With David Letterman, Austin City Limits, The CBS Saturday Early Show and public radio's A Prairie Home Companion, Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Fresh Air, World Cafe, E-Town, Mountain Stage, Woodsongs and XM/Sirius Radio among many others.
Even as the recording industry was contracting during the new millenium, Alligator was (and still is) aggressively seeking out new talent, broadening its vision to include shades of gospel, roots rock, and Americana music. Mavis Staples, Roomful Of Blues, Lee Rocker (of the Stray Cats), Michael "Iron Man" Burks, Eric Lindell, JJ Grey & Mofro, Janiva Magness, Anders Osborne, Guitar Shorty, Rick Estrin & The Nightcats, Tommy Castro, Joe Louis Walker, Buckwheat Zydeco (whose Lay Your Burden Down won the label its third Grammy Award) and Jesse Dee all came on board since 2000.
Since its inception, Alligator has always kept a close eye both on new artists and new technologies. In the 1970s, the company produced LPs, cassettes and 8-track tapes. In the 1980s, Alligator was the first blues company to produce CDs, and in the 1990s Alligator was among the first labels to market its catalog over the Internet. These days, alligator.com, the label's website, and its social media sites are instantly updated with the latest news and tour dates. At the website, visitors can listen to hundreds of songs on our jukebox while reading bios of every artist, get free downloads and purchase CDs and other blues-related merchandise. Alligator is also deeply involved in the downloading worlds, working closely with almost all of the legitimate download services, making thousands of Alligator tracks available for instant online purchase.
Today Alligator Records is fueled by the same principles that it first established in 1971. The label continues to push forward, still bucking the odds, with everybody working long hours on a shoestring budget. The entire staff is always looking for new talent and listening to a wide variety of roots music. As driven and determined as ever, Alligator is committed to the future. "I want to keep bringing blues and roots music to new fans and getting them as excited about the music as I am," says Iglauer.
From the early days of recording only Chicago blues artists to the addition of national and international artists to the label's commitment to younger roots acts who are creating new blues for the new millennium, Alligator continues to forge ahead. Into the label's fifth decade, Alligator is dedicated to discovering great new talent, proving that the passion, soul and redemptive power of blues and roots music is alive, well and genuine, capable of rocking the house for many more years to come.