Book Review – Bitten by the Blues: The Alligator Records Story

(Pictured on the book – Koko Taylor and Hound Dog Taylor.)

Alligator Records has been – since 1971 – arguably the pre-eminent blues label. Founded by Bruce Iglauer – who co-wrote this book – they have recorded many of the finest albums by a wide range of blues men and women. A brief history follows along with a handful of tunes for, as always, your dining and dancing pleasure ….

It is, I suppose, somewhat of a mixed blessing having a book written by the founder of an organization. On the one hand you get the inside story; on the other, that story can be entirely self-serving. (Given the chance to write an autobiography, how many of us would choose to be scrupulously honest?)

The short story is basically this: Bruce Iglauer was a white, middle-class Jewish kid from Michigan who went to university at Lawrence University in Wisconsin in the mid-Sixties. As we all know and has been recounted pretty much everywhere, this was a fertile period for music and the blues – which had largely been restricted to black musicians playing for black audiences – had had a resurgence due to in no small part to the astonishing crop of white British blues players. Who, by and large, credited their forebears. And then of course, there’s Jimmy Page.

Oh, sure. BB King, Buddy Guy and others were out there plying their trade. But with minor exceptions, this music hadn’t made it’s way to wider mainstream – white or black – audience. Once the guys from the UK started releasing records that had great blues songs, kids who were listening to them were checking out the labels to see who wrote those tunes and then found their way back to Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon, etc. (I thought that “Born Under a Bad Sign” was a Cream song till I later found out that Albert King had released an album of the same name the year prior.)

Iglauer fell in love with this music and found out about a guy in Chicago named Bob Koester who he read about and who owned a record store along with a label called Delmark. Delmark is “the oldest American jazz and blues independent record label.” (The 87-year old Koester sold his entire catalog to two Chicago musicians in May of 2018.) 

Iglauer moved to Chicago and would just bug Koester for where the best blues shows were. (Mostly on the virtually all-black South Side where Iglauer said he had a great time and rarely had any problems.*) Eventually Bruce came to work for Koester and with some other folks and in 1970 founded Living Blues magazine which is still going.

On one of his forays to the South Side, Iglauer saw Hound Dog Taylor** and the Houserockers and was totally blown away by their energy and showmanship. He suggested to Koester that he record them. But when Bob passed on it, he struck out on his own, approached Hound Dog, and hence the vert first Alligator record (1971) ever was Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers. (Alligator was so named because of Iglauer’s tendency to click his teeth in time to the music.)

Blues-rock had peaked sales-wise in about 1969 but in 1971 was still strong. And so this album sold pretty well and even Robert Christgau managed to pull his head out of his ass to praise it: ” … pow–electronic gutbucket from the Chicago blues bars, the rawest record I’ve heard in years. Taylor makes a neoprimitivist showboat like James Cotton sound like a cross between Don Nix and the Harmonicats, and about time.”

What you don’t see behind the curtain is the amount of time Iglauer spent absolutely slogging across the country to push this fucking thing. He would go to the colleges and the major FM labels and get DJ’s to play it and listen to it. (This was quite a few years before the guys who sell toothpaste and toilet paper took over radio.) Once Iglauer got, say, WPLJ in NYC to play it, he’d go to ‘BCN in Boston and say, Hey’ PLJ is playing it. And then based on those two minor factoids got distributors to distribute. So, good old Yankee ingenuity and a lot of elbow grease.

How does this thing sound? Pretty raw. Imagine you’re seeing it in a small club in Chicago and crank it the fuck up! How can you beat a song like “Give Me Back My Wig?” You can’t – it’s freaking Shakespeare:

Give me back my wig
Honey, now let your head go bald
Really didn’t have no business
Honey, buying you no wig at all

Spotify link

One of the things that Iglauer does confess about himself in this book – a lot- is his tendency to be somewhat of a control freak. So he didn’t have artists just come in, play, record whatever they felt like and leave, hoping for the best. No, contractually artists were required to collaborate with him on song and album cover choices, band members (if they didn’t have a band,), etc. He admits that he could not sign some deals because of this policy but at the same time the output speaks for itself.

Amazingly, Iglauer somehow kept the label going for the first few years releasing no more than one or two records per year and –  if lucky – selling a few thousand of each. Iglauer, in turn, went on to release records by Big Walter, Son Seals, and Fenton Robinson. (Robinson is the guy who first wrote and recorded “Somebody Loan Me A Dime.”)

Another once-unknown artist that Iglauer signed was Koko Taylor (no relation to Hound Dog.) He relates that initially he “wasn’t very interested in recording her,” viewing her as having a repetitive vocal style. But she wore him down and in 1975 produced her Grammy-nominated I Got What It Takes. (Almost all of her Alligator albums were Grammy-nominated.)

Here’s Koko doing “That’s Why I’m Crying.” (We once saw Koko at a blues revue in Cambridge, MA which, if memory serves, was held in a high school gymnasium. Don’t ask. It was wild.)

Spotify link

The book is filled with great anecdotes about Iglauer’s attempts to pull these artists together and get them into a studio to record. There’s also a really sad story about Son Seals’ late ’70’s tour that almost ended in disaster when there was a train crash. (Drugs and transportation seem to get musicians more than anything else.)

For years, Iglauer did not record white blues musicians believing, I suppose, that they were not authentic. (He dismissed Stevie Ray Vaughn as an Albert King imitator.) But he eventually changed his tune recording three albums each by Roy Buchanan and Johnny Winter. (He confesses that he and Winter were sick of each other by the end of their time working together.)

I heard Johnny’s version of Willie Dixon’s “Third Degree” on the radio the other day and I believe it’s as fine a blues guitar song as I’ve heard in quite some time:

Spotify link

Another thing I like about this book is that it’s not just about the music, it’s about the business. I’m always grateful to these small independent labels that keep music like this alive against all the odds. So Iglauer dips somewhat into the logistics of running a label and the reality of trying to stay alive in a niche market in the age of streaming. (And he’s proud to say he’s never missed cutting a royalty check.)

Let’s veer away from the guitar to give you some harmonica. You say you like the harp? How about four of them? In 1990, Alligator released Harp Attack! featuring four of Chicago’s best – James Cotton, Carey Bell, Junior Wells, and Billy Branch.

Here’s “My Eyes Keep Me In Trouble.” (Want every woman I see.) The bassline is killer on this thing:

Spotify link

Near the end of the book, Iglauer – who still runs the label – cries the blues about the current state of music. The older blues guys are mostly all gone, the audience is aging and doesn’t buy CD’s like it used to, streaming is the thing, etc. He wonders about whether his label can survive. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that one day the 71-year old Iglauer will likely sell his whole catalog to some major label who will – hopefully – keep issuing new stuff.

it would be totally remiss of me to end this post without mentioning one of the finest blues albums ever and certainly, one of the best Alligator ever released. It was Iglauer’s first shot at an all-star album. It featured guitarists Albert Collins, Robert Cray and Johnny Copeland and it was called – appropriately – Showdown!

Here’s “T-Bone Shuffle.”

Spotify link

*Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield used to haunt these sites too. Johnny Winter once got up and played with B.B. King. Alas, many of these clubs are gone now. But I’ve been a number of times to a club on the North Side literally called B.L.U.E.S and it is a great, small down-home place.

**Per Wikipedia, “Hound Dog was famous among guitar players for having six fingers on both hands, a condition called polydactyly. As is usual with the condition, the extra digits were rudimentary nubbins and could not be moved. One night, while drunk, he cut off the extra digit on his right hand using a straight razor.”

Alligator records discography is here.

12 thoughts on “Book Review – Bitten by the Blues: The Alligator Records Story

  1. Great post! It sounds like Iglauer has run Alligator with an iron hand that reminds me of Motown’s Berry Gordy. And while it’s easy to criticize some of both mens’ tactics, especially in retrospect, there’s no question they’ve had impressive accomplishments.

    What’s amazing to me is how Iglauer managed to stay afloat, especially during the first few years of the label when they barely issued any records. One can only imagine how challenging this must have been.

    While I don’t know whether Alligator will be able to survive in today’s music business, I’m generally optimistic about the prospects of the blues. Yes, the “old guard” is pretty much gone, but with many younger artists out there, the blues feels like a vital niche genre to me.

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    1. Gordy is a fair comparison, except Bruce didn’t have all the staff songwriters and “quality control” people. I think Iglauer managed to stay alive with a combination of grit, timing and luck. Hound Dog Taylor’s album sold 9,000 copies which is peanuts if you’re talking Michael Jackson numbers but was fairly substantial for a blues album.

      Albums back then cost about 5 bucks each so he probably pulled in about $45,000 revenue out of the gate. Considering he was the only employee and he kept his expenses low (worked out of his house, drove his own car) it starts to make sense. How he managed to stay afloat releasing 1 or 2 records/year is pretty amazing. But he was very much on a shoestring.

      As I mentioned in the post, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to hear in the next 5 – 10 years that Iglauer has either found a younger buyer or has sold Alligator off to a larger company that makes it a niche in their offerings. How well they’d actually support and promote it?

      ???

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review of a great label. This book needed to be written, even if it might be somewhat biased (with Iglauer co-authoring). A friend and I met him in Chicago in 1984. Son Seals was with him. All four of us were in the audience in a small club to hear Junior Wells. Iglauer was real nice, and even then he was thinking business and contacts, because when he found out I worked for a progressive jazz station in Cincinnati, he asked a bunch of questions about our blues coverage! (I’d had a few beers, so I forget any other details.) That’s one of the cool things about blues: your heroes are very accessible, no star trips, and they’re usually very appreciative of the fans.

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    1. Agreed about Iglauer writing it really not being a problem. I guess it’s true of any autobio that one can be as honest or as self-serving as one wants. He seems to be pretty straightforward.

      I was listening to “Showdown!” and it still sounds damn good as are the Alligator anniversary albums. I saw Collins back in the day and Cray not too long ago (opening for the last, sad time I saw BB who was no, shall we say, in his prime.) B.B aside, Collins put on the best damn blues show I’ve ever seen.

      Wow, your story is awesome. I featured Son Seals a short while back and I believe (if memory serves) I may have seen him once. His “Live and Burning” album is a classic. You can feel the sweat in the club.

      My understanding is that country stars have that kind of accessibility as well. I read a book about country artist and they have something called CMA Music Festival (aka Fan Fair) in Tennessee where fans get to meet and greet. The rock world, alas, ain’t so great. I suppose if you paid enough for a VIP ticket you could have your picture taken with a bored-looking Stevie Nicks before her people shoo you away.

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      1. Yes, I’ve seen both B.B. and Collins (B.B. twice) and both smoked. I’d give a slight nod to The Iceman for showmanship. Maybe he did this when you saw him, but the highlight was him stepping offstage, strolling through the club, then out the door, then partway down the sidewalk, soloing with a crowd of admirers behind him. A memorable night. (Plus, I managed to hook up with a lady during the show, which helped!)

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        1. Oh man, it was a while ago, I’d say maybe ’82 or ’83. I don’t recall him doing that but I posted about Buddy Guy not too long ago who I videoed doing pretty much that kind of running around. He was so close I could have reached over and touched his strings. But then I remembered (I think) a line from Son Seals album where he says something like, “Don’t bother me boy, I’m working.”

          BTW, that club I saw him (and others) at was a legendary club in South Boston called The Channel. It was a big dirty, cavernous pit and so, just right for blues, punk, etc. It ran for a number of years as a rock club till Whitey Bulger’s guys (I shit you not) got their hands on it and turned it into an “exotic dancer” club. One of the owners went missing and was later found wearing cement shoes in Providence. Sigh. The good old days.

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  3. With respect to your last (maybe greatest post) this is more like it music wise. I have all the albums you featured except the Koko (have a couple others). I actually have vinyl on a couple of them. All good records or they would’t be allowed in my pile. Hotfox featured the Hound Dog album a while back, what a good record. I wore out the Showdown album.
    I’ve been slowing down on the music reads but this one sounds like a CB type of book. Enjoyed you and Pete’s back and forth. You guys managed to keep politics out of it because you know why? There is no @#*&^$ politics in the blues.

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    1. Like I mentioned to Pete, I gave “Showdown” a listen the other day. Sounds as great as ever. Iglauer got these guys to record some quality for sure and the musicians brought it. As to the book, yeah, it’s nice to read a “rags-to-riches” story that doesn’t end with Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. The anecdotes of working with these guys are fun to read. I guess the logistical parts about running a record company are a matter of personal taste, reading-wise. I found it all pretty damn interesting. The book is pretty new, came out late last year. Ask for it for your birthday.

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