You could say that Alligator Records was born in a little neighborhood South Side Chicago bar in January of 1970, almost two years before the label’s first release. That’s the first time I was overwhelmed by the most joyful, exhilarating, spirit-lifting music of my life—the blues of Hound Dog Taylor & The HouseRockers. It was at Florence’s Lounge, on a gritty side street of run-down houses, on a snowy Sunday afternoon. This life-altering music was created by just three men—Hound Dog Taylor, playing a cheap Japanese guitar with a steel slide encasing the fifth of his six fingers (true!) and singing in a high-pitched voice into a microphone plugged into a guitar amplifier; Brewer Phillips, propelling each song with ever-changing bass lines played on a Fender Telecaster guitar, and Ted Harvey, driving the band with rocking grooves played on a minimalist drum kit. It was blues, but it sure wasn’t sad blues. It was blues to make you forget your blues, to make you holler and dance and throw away your troubles. But it could turn serious, slow and cathartic. Hound Dog, playing searing slide and singing about love gone wrong in his ragged, just-on-the-verge-of-cracking voice, could reach inside you, grab you by the soul, and squeeze hard.
I had pushed my way into the dancing, happy crowd of neighborhood people. They had come here to cut loose on the weekend and celebrate their shared “down home” roots in the Mississippi Delta, and to forget about their low-paying jobs and hard life in one of the poorest parts of the city. Once they had figured out that I wasn’t a cop, they weren’t concerned about the longhaired, bearded “hippy” among them. They were having too much fun. And I, a young blues fan who had come to Chicago to immerse himself in the music he loved, thought, “This band has got to be recorded.” And so, in the spring of 1971, I started Alligator Records to record an album by my favorite musicians. It was called simply Hound Dog Taylor & The HouseRockers. Now, 50 years and over 350 albums later, Alligator Records is still releasing recordings by my favorite musicians.
The promotional flyer for that first album was headlined “Genuine Houserockin’ Music,” and that’s been Alligator’s slogan ever since. Not only does it pay tribute to Hound Dog’s band, but it also has a deeper meaning. Genuine because Alligator’s music is rooted in the blues tradition, even when it stretches beyond a purist definition of blues. It’s a musical tradition created by oppressed Black people to carry them through hard times and bind their communities together. It’s created by musicians who have honed their music to meet the emotional needs of live audiences, not by programming synthesizers in their bedrooms. House instead of “theater” or “arena” or “stadium,” because it grew up being played in intimate settings, on front porches and in little taverns, where the audience could feel the emotions of the musicians and the musicians could feel the feedback from the audience. Blues is not music presented by the musicians, but instead it’s shared between the musicians and their audience, just like what happened every Sunday at Florence’s Lounge. And Rockin’ because it’s meant not just to move your body and your feet, but also to rock your soul. It’s music to rid you of your inner pain by ripping that pain right out of you. That’s why they say the blues “hurts so good.”
When I started Alligator back in 1971, I knew a little bit about the record business. I had learned from watching my mentor, hero and boss, Bob Koester, founder of Delmark Records, whom I had talked into hiring me as the label’s shipping clerk. I went to every Delmark recording session in 1970 and 1971, saw Bob interact with and inspire musicians, listened to him on the phone with distributors, and packed every LP Delmark shipped to critics, radio stations, mail order customers and distributors. I hung on his every word as he shared his years of accumulated wisdom learned from running a tiny blues and jazz label.
But Bob didn’t spend much energy reaching out to the growing new audience for the blues—an audience like me—college-aged kids who had discovered blues by listening to the Stones or Yardbirds or Paul Butterfield, or maybe from hearing acoustic blues at folk music festivals, like I did. They were reading new publications called Rolling Stone or Creem, and listening to “progressive rock” radio stations that were playing everything from the Beatles to Motown to Coltrane to Joni Mitchell to B.B. King. I knew that if I was so energized and excited by Hound Dog Taylor’s music, that young audience and those radio stations and those publications would love his music as much as I did. So, when I founded Alligator, a label with one LP in its catalog, I reached out to those radio stations and those publications. I sent out hundreds of promo copies, and visited as many stations as I could. And, much to my delight, the DJs and writers fell in love with Hound Dog, too. My one-man record company, housed in an efficiency apartment where I was sleeping on a mattress on the floor, was getting national and international radio play and press coverage. Plus, I was able to sell enough Hound Dog albums to afford to make the second Alligator release, a summit meeting of two of the world’s best harmonica players, Big Walter Horton With Carey Bell. By then, I had become Hound Dog’s booking agent, manager, publicist, song publisher and part-time driver. I became the same thing for Son Seals and Koko Taylor. They all needed my support, and I was the whole staff of Alligator. It was four years before Alligator was able to afford a full-time employee.
The early years of Alligator were spent mining the riches of Chicago’s fabulous blues scene. Dozens of taverns and clubs across the Black neighborhoods of the South Side and West Side booked blues bands (and, starting around 1971, some white North Side clubs did, too). You could sit 20 feet from Howlin’ Wolf at Big Duke’s or Junior Wells at Theresa’s or Otis Rush at the Wise Fools Pub. And you could hear wonderfully talented unrecorded and under-recorded bluesmen and women who deserved a national and international audience. Alligator became the home for some of those world-class Chicago artists, ranging from an unknown, rough-edged young guitarist from Arkansas named Son Seals, to Koko Taylor, “The Queen Of The Blues,” to a subtle, melodic master singer and player named Fenton Robinson. Besides full albums by Chicago artists, our six-LP Living Chicago Blues series, released in 1979 and 1980, showcased 18 more of the city’s bluesmen and women. One of them, Lonnie Brooks, a West Side guitarist with roots in Louisiana and Texas, became a long-time member of the Alligator family, bringing his funky “voodoo blues” sound to the label.
It wasn’t until 1978 that Alligator signed its first non-Chicagoan, the legendary Texas-born guitar giant Albert Collins, “The Master Of The Telecaster.” Albert came to Alligator with a worldwide reputation as a thrilling, top-echelon blues guitarist. With his Alligator debut, Ice Pickin’ (which I co-produced with Dick Shurman), he finally made a record that matched the level of his overwhelmingly powerful live performances. Ice Pickin’ announced Alligator as more than a Chicago label. During the 1980s, my little label signed artists from all across the country.
The first was the beloved, one-of-a-kind pianist/vocalist Professor Longhair, New Orleans’ “Bach of Rock.” Fess cut his classic Crawfish Fiesta album (sadly, the last album of his career) for us. Famous blues-rock guitar heroes also found a home at Alligator. The flamboyant Johnny Winter came aboard, determined to get back to his blues roots. He made three albums for Alligator with some of Chicago’s blues giants, beginning with the much-hailed Guitar Slinger. Pyrotechnic master guitarist Roy Buchanan followed, and Alligator shepherded the re-emergence of Lonnie Mack, produced by his #1 disciple, Stevie Ray Vaughan. (In December of 1985, Albert Collins, Lonnie Mack and Roy Buchanan rocked the house at Carnegie Hall for an American Guitar Heroes night. It was a long way from Florence’s Lounge!)
Other major blues figures joined the Alligator family during the 1980s—powerhouse harmonica giant James Cotton, beloved country-tinged blues-rocker Elvin Bishop, the fabled Texas guitarist Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown (who had been recording since the 1940s) and the exuberant “Swamp Boogie Queen,” pianist Katie Webster. Besides signing established stars, we championed rising younger artists, helping them break out of their local scenes to reach national and international audiences. We released albums by a host of newcomers: Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials, the rough and ready band from Chicago’s West Side; The Kinsey Report, the funky band of brothers from Gary, Indiana; Little Charlie & The Nightcats, the jumping, swinging quartet from Sacramento; The Paladins, the tough roots rock trio from Southern California; Kenny Neal, the guitarist/harmonicist from Louisiana bayou country; and Tinsley Ellis, the rocking guitar hero from Atlanta. All of them burst onto world stages following their debut Alligator releases. And the unlikely all-female, all-acoustic, proudly middle-aged trio, Saffire–The Uppity Blues Women, became one of the label’s best sellers. Virtually all the Alligator artists were touring nationally and internationally, represented by professional booking agents. I often became the overseas road manager for Koko Taylor and Lonnie Brooks, and regularly carried luggage and guitar cases through Europe, Japan and Australia. Alligator has always been a “hands on” business.
The 1980s and 1990s were years of steady growth for Alligator. In the 1970s, the label released only 22 LPs. In the 1980s, that number grew to 60, and in the 1990s, we released 90 albums. The label expanded from three people to over 20. We moved from my little house in a working-class neighborhood, with its dank basement “warehouse” crammed with albums and 7000 cassettes stored in the kitchen, to two rundown storefront buildings. Alligator became a real business, with distributors across the country and around the world. Taking a leap of faith, I gambled on a new technology called compact discs, and Alligator became the first blues label to release its catalog on CDs. Meanwhile, I was in the studio constantly, producing or co-producing iconic artists like Albert Collins, Koko Taylor, Son Seals, James Cotton, Johnny Winter, Roy Buchanan, Lil’ Ed, Saffire, and more. As a fanatic fan, to work with these artists, help them create and then be the bridge that carried their music to the public, was my dream come true. And over the years Alligator attracted a series of intensely hard-working staffers who were just as dedicated to the artists and their music as I was.
We celebrated the 20th anniversary of Alligator in 1991 by hitting the road and taking the music to the people. In the spirit of the old R&B multi-artist package tours, we rented a bus and brought on board Koko Taylor & Her Blues Machine, the Lonnie Brooks band, Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials, Elvin Bishop and Katie Webster. They barnstormed across the Midwest and up and down the East and West Coasts, delivering hours-long shows with spontaneous jams, and spreading the gospel of Genuine Houserockin’ Music.
As we rolled into the 1990s, established artists like harmonica great Charlie Musselwhite, zydeco accordion hero C.J. Chenier and Piedmont acoustic blues duo Cephas & Wiggins found a home at Alligator. Through an arrangement with Germany’s Ruf Records, we released four albums by the amazing Luther Allison, a Chicago legend who had relocated to Europe. Between 1994 and his tragic death from cancer in 1997, Luther became the most popular artist on Alligator, returning to the U.S. to deliver thrilling, hours-long performances, including his incredibly powerful set at the 1995 Chicago Blues Festival. But we were also determined to continue to bring new names to the forefront. Australian slide guitar wizard Dave Hole, brilliant California harp player William Clarke, and visionaries like young Corey Harris and cutting-edge New York guitarist/songwriter Michael Hill, all became Alligator artists. Plus, the most charismatic blues/roots singer of her generation, Shemekia Copeland, cut the first of her seven genre-bending Alligator albums in 1998, at the age of 18.
Things turned difficult for Alligator starting in 1999, when music began being offered illegally on the Internet for little or nothing. CD sales plummeted, and thousands of record stores closed nationwide, especially independent stores that had supported Alligator. “Music should be free” became a mantra for a lot of youth. At the end of 1999, we had 22 employees. Within a few years, that number was reduced to sixteen. But still, established artists kept knocking on our door. In the next few years, Coco Montoya, The Holmes Brothers, Marcia Ball, Roomful of Blues, Tommy Castro, W.C. Clark, Guitar Shorty and the truly legendary Mavis Staples, all of whom had recorded for other labels, released Alligator albums. Our definition of the Alligator sound broadened to include roots rock singer-songwriters—Florida’s JJ Grey & Mofro and New Orleans’ Eric Lindell and Anders Osborne. Not every artist has stayed with Alligator. We weren’t the right fit for some musicians, or they weren’t the right fit for us. But many, like Koko Taylor, Lil’ Ed, Lonnie Brooks and Little Charlie & The Nightcats (now Rick Estrin & The Nightcats), spent decades with us and became close personal friends. Of course, over the years, we’ve had too many of our musician family members leave us to join the great blues band in the sky.
Today, after 50 years, Alligator remains proudly independent and still 100% dedicated to Genuine Houserockin’ Music. With a roster that includes beloved veterans like Marcia Ball, Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials, Elvin Bishop and Roomful Of Blues, rising stars like Selwyn Birchwood and Toronzo Cannon, and the 22-year-old sensation Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, we are committed to the past, present and future of the tradition. Now that illegal downloading has been replaced by digital streaming services reaching around the globe, Alligator’s music can be heard in China, India, and across Africa, and in other countries where it was never available in physical form. Hound Dog Taylor & The HouseRockers would be amazed to see what happened to the tiny record label, now with over 350 releases, that was created to bring their music to the world. They’d be thrilled to know that billions of people can now discover the joyous houserockin’ blues that they played every Sunday at Florence’s Lounge.
by Bruce Iglauer, 2021
Artist - Tracks - Composer
1. Hound Dog Taylor - Give Me Back My Wig (Hound Dog Taylor) - 3:34
2. Koko Taylor - I'm A Woman (Koko Taylor, Bo Diddley) - 4:34
3. Big Walter Horton And Carey Bell - Have Mercy (Walter Horton) - 3:43
4. Fenton Robinson - Somebody Loan Me A Dime (Fenton Robinson) - 2:56
5. Professor Longhair - It's My Fault, Darling (Miles Grayson, Lermon Horton) - 4:53
6. Son Seals - Telephone Angel (Deadric Malone) - 5:25
7. Johnny Winter - Lights Out (Mac Rebennack, Seth David) - 2:34
8. Albert Collins - Blue Monday Hangover (Deadric Malone, Gilbert G. Caple) - 5:34
9. James Cotton - Little Car Blues (Big Bill Broonzy) - 3:33
10.Albert Collins, Robert Cray And Johnny Copeland - The Dream (Bruce Bromberg, Robert Cray) - 5:32
11.William Clarke - Pawnshop Bound (William Clarke) - 4:23
12.Lonnie Mack - Ridin' The Blinds (Don Nix) - 4:23
13.Lonnie Brooks - Cold Lonely Nights (Lonnie Brooks) - 5:43
14.Luther Allison - Soul Fixin' Man (Luther Allison, James Solberg) - 4:06
15.Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown - Got My Mojo Working (Preston Foster) - 4:47
16.Saffire The Uppity Blues Women - Sloppy Drunk (Lucille Bogan) - 3:07
17.Roy Buchanan - That Did It (Dave Clark, Pearl Woods) - 5:07
18.The Paladins - Keep On Lovin' Me Baby (Otis Rush) - 4:02
1. Michael Burks - Love Disease (Michael Burks) - 3:19
2. Kenny Neal - I'm A Blues Man (Walter Godbold, A.D. Prestage, Joe Shamwell) - 4:11
3. The Holmes Brothers - Run Myself Out Of Town (Wendell Holmes) - 3:25
4. Little Charlie And The Nightcats - Jump Start (Little Charlie Baty) - 2:54
5. Katie Webster - I'm Still Leaving You (Jay Miller) - 3:36
6. Smokin' Joe Kubek And Bnois King - Don't Lose My Number (Joe Kubek, Bnois King) - 3:33
7. The Kinsey Report - Corner Of The Blanket (Donald Kinsey, Kenneth Kinsey, Ralph Kinsey) - 3:36
8. Carey Bell - I Got A Rich Man's Woman (Jack Leroy Welch) - 4:43
9. C.J. Chenier - Au Contraire, Mon Frere (Williams) - 3:39)
10.Mavis Staples - There's A Devil On The Loose (Brenda Burns) - 3:34
11.Michael Hill's Blues Mob - Presumed Innocent (Michael Hill, Eunice Levy) - 4:38
12.Bob Margolin - Not What You Said Last Night (Bob Margolin) - 2:48
13.Billy Boy Arnold - Man Of Considerable Taste (Billy Boy Arnold) - 4:32
14.Cephas And Wiggins - Ain't Seen My Baby (John Cephas) - 3:23
15.Long John Hunter - Marfa Lights (Jon Foose, Long John Hunter, Tary Owens) - 4:53
16.Dave Hole - Phone Line (Dave Hole) - 3:43
17.Eric Lindell - Josephine (Eric Lindell, Aaron Wilkinson) - 2:46
18.Joe Louis Walker - I Won't Do That (Tom Hambridge, Richard Fleming) - 5:01
19.Janiva Magness - That's What Love Will Make You Do (Milton Campbell) - 3:20
20.The Siegel-Schwall Band - Going Back To Alabama (Sam Lay) - 3:40
21.Corey Harris And Henry Butler - Why Don't You Live So God Can Use You (Traditional) - 2:12
1. Marcia Ball - Party Town (Bobby Charles) - 4:14
2. Lil Ed And The Blues Imperials - What You See Is What You Get (Lil Ed Williams) - 4:21
3. Roomful Of Blues - In A Roomful Of Blues (Chris Vachon) - 3:30
4. Billy Branch And The Sons Of Blues - Blue And Lonesome (Walter Jacobs) - 4:12
5. Christone 'Kingfish' Ingram - Outside Of This Town (Tom Hambridge, Christone "Kingfish" Ingram) - 4:09
6. Shemekia Copeland - Clotilda's On Fire (John Hahn, Will Kimbrough) - 4:26
7. Curtis Salgado - The Longer That I Live (Curtis Salgado) - 3:50
8. Selwyn Birchwood - Living In A Burning House (Selwyn Birchwood) - 4:07
9. Elvin Bishop And Charlie Musselwhite - Midnight Hour Blues (Leroy Carr) - 4:13
10.The Cash Box Kings - Ain't No Fun (When The Rabbit Got The Gun) ("Low Rollin' Joe" Nosek, Oscar Wilson) - 3:07
11.Tommy Castro And The Painkillers - Make It Back To Memphis (Bonnie Hayes, Tommy Castro) - 4:55
12.JJ Grey And Mofro - A Woman (John Grey Higginbotham) - 3:25
13.Rick Estrin And The Nightcats - I'm Running (Rick Estrin) - 4:07
14.Coco Montoya - You Didn't Think About That (Dave Steen) - 3:56
15.Tinsley Ellis - Ice Cream In Hell (Tinsley Ellis) - 4:14
16.Chris Cain - You Won't Have A Problem When I'm Gone (Chris Cain) - 3:06
17.Guitar Shorty - Too Late (Cecilia Rockstead, Dave Kearney) - 4:15
18.Nick Moss Band And Dennis Gruenling - The High Cost Of Low Living (Nick Moss) - 4:04
19.Toronzo Cannon - The Chicago Way (Toronzo Cannon) - 4:22