Happy 40th birthday Alligator Records! The legendary blues label has marked the event with the release of “Alligator Records 40th Anniversary Collection.”
If you ever want to start a blues label you should probably make yourself at home in Chicago, Illinois. That’s what a young, impressionable college student named Bruce Iglauer did in 1971 after hearing a band called Hound Dog Taylor & The Houserockers playing at Florence’s Lounge on the South Side. Iglauer quit his job as a shipping clerk at a local record company, recorded Hound Dog Taylor, and launched his own company, Alligator Records.
Iglauer says he always dreamed of living in Chicago and soaking up the sounds he heard on every corner.
“I realized as I began to hear more and more blues that Chicago was and is the capital of blues music in the world,” he said. “There’s more blues performed in Chicago than any other city or any other geographical area in the country. So I came here expecting to hang around and be in the blues clubs for maybe a year before I went back and finished my college. And I never got back to college. I started visiting radio stations, primarily FM stations that had just begun playing a wide variety of rock and folk and blues and jazz music, a format of radio that was being called progressive rock. This was a brand new format and it was very wide open, and lots of those disc jockeys were happy to play a blues record.”
Alligator Records was off and running in the 1970s as blues giants Koko Taylor and Albert Collins signed on. The label, which became known by the slogan “Genuine Houserockin’ Music,” expanded its blues base to include Zydeco master Clifton Chenier and guitarists Johnny Winter and Lonnie Brooks. A turning point came in 1985 with the release of the Grammy-winning album “Showdown!,” featuring a celebrated guitar trio led by Albert Collins.
“Showdown! brought together three artists who had a very special relationship with one another,” Iglauer said. “They were all making their own records, but, Albert Collins, who just was an amazing blues guitar player from Texas [they called him ‘The Master of the Telecaster’]; Albert had tutored and helped bring forward the talent of both Johnny Copeland, who was another artist from Houston who sat in with Albert back in the ‘50s, and the young Robert Cray who was inspired by Albert to pick up a guitar in the first place when Albert played his show at his high school. And Robert went on to become perhaps the most popular blues star of his generation.”
Of all the songs he could have put on the 40th why these?
“Choosing the songs for the Alligator 40th Anniversary Collection was very hard,” Iglauer said. “I wanted to both try to summarize and encapsulate the history of the label. Of course, I wanted to point the spotlight at some of our most important artists like Koko Taylor and Son Seals and Albert Collins and Hound Dog Taylor. I also wanted to show the direction the label is going in now. So I wanted to make sure our current artists – Guitar Shorty and The Holmes Brothers and Michael Burks and Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials and Marcia Ball and Anders Osborne and J.J. Grey & MoFro – and a number of others were all represented so that the fans could feel how I hear the blues expanding to reach a new and more contemporary audience, as well as glorifying the tradition.”
After 40 years, Alligator Records continues to garner accolades. In July, “Living Blues” magazine announced the winners of its annual Living Blues Awards. Four Alligator artists won a total of seven awards, including James Cotton for Blues Artist of the Year (Male), Most Outstanding Musician (Harmonica), and Best Blues Album (“Giant”).