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Book Review: Bitten By The Blues – The Alligator Records Story

Published July 1, 2019 in News

Alligator Records is by many lengths the premier blues label. Since its founding, we have been treated to beautifully produced albums by the top tier of performers. They are distinctively packaged and easily accessible to all blues fans. Not long after it began operations, we on this side of the border benefited from an arrangement that made Alligator albums available here as domestic albums, not imports, an arrangement that continues to this day. Alligator has now even signed a Canadian artist in Lindsay
Beaver. Bruce Iglauer, the company’s President and founder has been a guest at our Blues Summits many times, simply because he has become the acknowledged spokesman for the current state of blues. Alligator albums have achieved 53 Blues Music Awards, 42 Grammy nominations and won 3 Grammys – totals for an independent label that will stand for some time. This is the story of how that came to be. The story of necessity is a story of the record industry and how he was able to succeed in that business. He started the company though, because he loved the music and the artists. As you might expect, there’s quite a lot about the workings of the record industry but the lives of the artists shine through, providing wonderful vignettes of some of our favourite performers. He started out because he wanted to record Hound Dog Taylor, the wildly unpredictable slide guitarist, whom he saw often at Florence’s on the South Side of Chicago. The story of the first album provides the essential ingredients of the Alligator formula: careful artist selection, hands-on involvement in the studio and careful attention to promotion to radio and retail. Artist management and booking followed, all of which led to Alligator artists having an advantage virtually no other label provided. Fortunately for him, Hound Dog’s music and live performances generated radio play and large audiences – a label was born. Many of us still consider Hound Dog’s music the essence of blues. It should come as no surprise that his best sellers get mentioned most and after Hound Dog, Albert Collins became the label’s best-selling artist. After eight albums, including the popular and Grammy-winning Showdown! with Johnny Copeland & Robert Cray, he moved to another company but they didn’t know how to record him. Iglauer spends a lot of time on his trio of Johnny Winter, Lonnie Mack and Roy Buchanan, veterans who would do their best work for Alligator before they too moved on. Winter wanted to record for a blues label, having become tired of being asked to record rock. Bruce thought the veteran Mack would also fit the label well and Stevie Ray Vaughan was on board to assist. Roy Buchanan was introduced to Bruce at Albert’s Hall by our own Derek Andrews. He too wanted to do blues albums. Guitar Slinger, Strike Like Lightning and When a Guitar Plays the Blues are all still wonderful albums. Bruce acknowledges that Saffire-The Uppity Blues Women were an unlikely choice for Alligator but their blend of good time and message music made them hugely popular, beginning with their ever popular “Middle Aged Blues Boogie”. Recognizing that many of his artists and his audience were getting older, he was, and is, constantly on the lookout for younger artists who could attract younger audiences. Shemekia Copeland has continued to have remarkable success. Recently he has signed Selwyn Birchwood, Jarekus Singleton, Toronzo Cannon and now Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram. Although Singleton chose not to pursue blues, Birchwood, Cannon and Kingfish have each released very fine new blues albums and show much promise for the label. The closing pages of the book should be closely read by all music lovers. The changes in the music industry are huge. CDs are rapidly disappearing and now music downloads are declining too, LPs are not yet a significant factor. Streaming is the future but it yields far less money for artists and independent labels. Bruce is unsure where all of this will lead for his company but the facts of this new world are there about the use of web sites, social media and video. The only resource you need to find out how Alligator deals with these issues is the web site: www.alligator.com.

Some of the songs referred to in the book are included on a Spotify playlist called “Bitten by the Blues”. To listen, click here.

-John Valenteyn

Blues Revival #2 Featuring Sean Pinchin
July 2019 - Steve Strongman
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The Toronto Blues Society acknowledges the annual support of the Ontario Arts Council, the City of Toronto through the Toronto Arts Council and the Department of Canadian Heritage, and project support from FACTOR< and the Government of Canada through the Department of Canadian Heritage (Canada Music Fund) and of Canada’s Private Broadcasters, The Canada Council for the Arts, the SOCAN Foundation, SOCAN, the Ontario Media Development Corporation, and the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport.