As most regular FBF readers know, your humble correspondent's world changed when he heard the album Showdown!
in the mid 80's. The voices and guitars of Albert Collins, Robert Cray, and Johnny Copeland were unlike anything I'd ever heard before. It was exactly what I had been searching for......the perfect combination of the rock and soul music that I loved.
While I had listened to B.B. King on TV and I had seen The Blues Brothers on TV and in the movie theater....and was also a fan of Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, I still didn't know what the blues were until I heard Showdown!
and as a result, dug a little bit deeper into the music via the label that released that great album, Alligator Records.
The only reason that I found Showdown!
in the record store was because it was filed in the Jazz section. That's the music I was into at the time and the cover caught my eye, so I purchased it....strictly on impulse. When I started looking for more music like it, I discovered the Blues section, where most of the releases were either from labels like MCA (B.B. King, Bobby Bland, etc...), a few from Malaco (Bland, Little Milton, Lattimore, Z.Z. Hill, Denise LaSalle), or Alligator. The Alligator albums were the ones that really drew me in. I picked up copies of albums from Lonnie Mack, Jimmy Johnson, Albert Collins, and later I found a collection of their recordings called Genuine Houserockin' Music
, which introduced me to even more of their catalog.
A few months later, at the Chunky Rhythm & Blues Festival, which was 15 miles from where I live,
Alligator had the two headliners, Koko Taylor and Lonnie Mack, so not only had I heard these artists, I actually got to see them. I was within 20 feet of them at the Festival. By that time, I had dug even deeper, because MCA Records had started reissuing albums from the Chess Records catalog. Needless to say, once I actually got to SEE some of these artists plying their trade, there was no turning back for me.........I was a bonafide BLUES fan at that point.
All of this came back like it happened yesterday when I read Alligator founder Bruce Iglauer's (with Patrick Roberts) recent book, Bitten By The Blues: The Alligator Records Story
, a collection of stories recounting the high points, and a few low points, in the label's nearly fifty year history. For many years, Iglauer has had a full-page of advertising in Living Blues
magazine, where he had published a memo to fans that discussed the label's upcoming releases. He's also included a paragraph or two in each memo reminiscing about previous releases. There have been some great stories included in those letters, and a lot of them are expanded upon in the book.
Iglauer also tells his story along with the story of Alligator.....how he fell in love with the music as a youngster, how he hosted a radio show and booked blues acts at his college, how he ended up in Chicago and working at Bob Koester's Jazz Record Mart (and Koester's Delmark Records), how he helped found Living Blues
magazine, and how he took a huge leap of faith with a small inheritance and decided to record his favorite blues band, Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers, after Koester declined to do so.
Iglauer's love for the music, and for the performers, comes through on every page. He revels in their successes and mourns their failures. Not every artist's story ends on a positive note.....such is the nature of the blues........and Iglauer goes through each of the label's successes and failures in great detail. He's the first to acknowledge that he can be hard to work with because he sometimes has a different view of what a song should be like than the performers do, but he's also willing to acknowledge that, at times, his way may not have been the right way, but more often than not, he got his way and it worked out for the best for most of the artists. He always took care of his artists, too, ensuring that they got their royalties from sales, something that surprised many of his earlier artists who had been shortchanged in their earlier recordings. He also describes the business difficulties, obstacles, and hoops that he's had to jump through over the years. While I don't really have a business head at all, it's obvious that the label's success over the years was due to a lot of extremely hard work by Iglauer, with a little bit of luck thrown in from time to time.
When a longtime blues fan looks at the music's landscape today, compared to the mid 80's (when I started listening), it's a bit sobering to see how many of the labels that sprang up during those days have gone under, or no long have new releases, or just stopped releasing blues albums altogether. There aren't nearly as many blues festivals as there were back in the day. The whole record industry has changed, moving from vinyl to cassette to CD to digital to streaming. Alligator continues to survive and this past year was one of their most successful critically with their current roster garnering multiple BMA nominations announced last week. At the same time, Iglauer realizes that many of his label's biggest fans are in the 50-60 year old bracket (as is your humble correspondent), so there's a need for his label, and the blues itself, to attract younger fans, and he is working hard to ensure that this happens.
Iglauer is honest, but fair, in his assessment of artists and other people associated with the blues. He's also honest in assessing his own place in events as well as his place in helping with the continued popularity of the music. It's hard to argue what an impact Alligator Records' success has had on the rest of the blues genre. I know I would probably not be a fan if not for that fateful day at Camelot Music in Columbus, MS back in 1986.
Anybody who loves the blues has heard a few Alligator releases, and they will certainly enjoy this book.