Luther Allison, Koko Taylor, Professor Longhair, Albert Collins, Johnny Winter, Elvin Bishop, Shemekia Copeland, Marcia Ball, Tommy Castro – just some of the star-studded cast of blues artists that Bruce Iglauer has worked with and have appeared on the record label he founded nearly fifty years ago.
Alligator Records has been a vital part of blues history over that period, and Iglauer has been at the forefront of promoting the blues, discovering new artists, and investing in the careers of established artists. He’s been a record company owner, record producer, record promoter, booking agent and tour manager along the way, as well as encourager and confidante to many of the Alligator artists, whom he counts as part of the family.
Bitten by the Blues is the story of Bruce Iglauer’s journey, the story of Alligator Records and, in many ways, the story of urban blues since the early ‘70s. It’s a hugely enjoyable insight into the world of the blues, the larger-than-life personalities of the artists, and what it takes to found and sustain a record label over several decades. When we spoke to Bruce Iglauer about the book, he told us:
“I didn’t want it to be for a completely specialized blues fan audience, and I certainly didn’t want it to be academic. I wanted to share my excitement about the music and the artists with a more general audience. I also thought/hoped that the business story (which was expanded at the request of our publisher, University of Chicago Press), would intrigue people who like this sort of American success story. Obviously the music that I love is quintessentially American, and it’s hard to imagine building a small business recording blues anywhere else. I just got an email from someone who was given the book and was inspired to start listening to the artists who were featured. If that’s the result, it’s a success!”
The book rips along at a nice pace and I found myself drawn in, wanting to know what happened next at every turn. It’s very detailed about incidents, people, dates and recording sessions, but these are part of a richly told story and contribute to a cohesive narrative. I did wonder, however, how Iglauer was able to remember everything. Maybe he kept a journal along the way?
“No,” he told me, “I just have a very good memory, at least for the most dramatic events of my career. In my life, I’ve been surrounded by very colourful and talented people and they made an indelible mark on me. It’s easy to remember talking with Howlin’ Wolf, because in my wildest dreams I never thought that could happen.”
Early in the book, he recalls traveling to Chicago in 1966 and hearing Mississippi Fred McDowell playing and he said it changed his life. I asked him why it had such an impact on him.
“That’s hard to explain. All I can say is that the music seemed so honest, so unvarnished, so direct, and it seemed like he was almost stripping himself naked emotionally. There was no pretence, no “show business.” He opened the door to his life and I was able to look in. Plus, he had probably lived a harder life than anyone I ever knew, and you could hear the strength that he got from living that live, and feel the wounds and the scar tissue. Blues is some of the happiest music on earth, but it’s happiness borne from overcoming pain, so the pain should be in the music too. That’s what I heard in Fred, though my response was a gut response, not an intellectual one. I felt this was music for me.”
The first band Iglauer signed and recorded, at a stage when he was a young blues fan in Chicago was Hound Dog Taylor and the House Rockers. He lovingly recounts his encounters with Hound Dog live performances and his subsequent first recording sessions. And he talks about the music being “infectious.” Which is maybe not the first word some people think of when they hear the word “the blues.”
But says Iglauer, “I think the easiest way to explain this is to listen to their music. It’s full of energy, danceable grooves, raw vocals, intense guitar—just the things that made early rock ‘n’ roll so appealing. And when they slowed it down, the catharsis that real blues engenders is right in front of the listener. And you can hear how much fun these three guys had playing together. If you can’t feel Hound Dog Taylor & The HouseRockers, and if they don’t make you smile, you’ve got a hole in your soul!”
The story of Iglauer arriving in Chicago, working for Delmark Records in the basement of the Jazz Record Mart, and discovering the clubs and the artists who worked them, occupies the early chapters of the book and I wondered, what was it like, as a young white guy, a hippie, as Iglauer described himself, trying to engage with artists on the blues scene in Chicago in the 70s?
“Actually, not very difficult. The whole Chicago blues scene at the beginning of the ‘70s was on the South and West Sides of the city, and the audience was 99% black. The white people who came to the blues clubs were enthralled by the music and its creators. We weren’t neighbourhood people dropping in for a beer. We were fans. These were mostly not famous musicians, and they were pleased to have fans, especially ones who came to clubs that were in parts of the city that might be perceived as hostile to them. After I became a “record man,” there was a certain amount of suspicion of me, but when it became known that I paid royalties and welcomed musicians into my home (which was also my office), I was generally well accepted. Of course, I had to learn to speak with a Mississippi accent!”
As well as a music story, Bitten by the Blues is also a riveting story about business start-up and development, and, as with any business, you not only need a good product, you need good marketing and a huge dollop of hard work. I loved the account of Iglauer’s tenaciousness when he was trying to promote his first Alligator recordings – having signed the artist and overseen the recording and production, he drives to various radio stations in different cities to ensure radio play and doggedly contacts magazine journalists – hugely time-consuming, but the sort of effort that serious marketing requires. He carefully thought through his target audience and how best to reach them (at that time progressive rock radio, rock-oriented publications) and he was the first person marketing blues to that audience specifically.
“I also had to learn the existing ‘ropes’ – working with distributors, working with retailers, collecting money, dealing with financial issues, etc. A lot of it was my refusal to give up, and my willingness to work almost every moment. I never did learn engineering, though. I always found engineers who could hear like I do.
“As far as my “early success,” my success was pretty much just with Hound Dog. I sold enough Big Walter Horton albums to break even, and Son Seals, a complete unknown, was a money-loser for me. Still, part of the reason for my money-losses was that I was manufacturing and giving away literally thousands of promo LPs to radio, press and for in-store play. I could have had a much more modest label, but then I never would have reached the audience I was going after.”
One of the artists whom Bruce eventually signed was Luther Allison, but his history with Allison went all the way back pre-Alligator and he recounts a fascinating incident about trying to get Allison to sign an agreement for a new album with Delmark, which Allison declined to do. In the book, Iglauer said “I was unable to forgive Luther.” And it wasn’t until 20 years later that that relationship was repaired. I wondered about that…
“I was very hurt by Luther’s not being honest with me and leaving me so vulnerable. I could have, and probably should have, lost my job at Delmark because of him. I’m glad we made up but I never forgot what he did to me because he was just looking out for himself. It always kept some distance between us. I was happy to work with him but we didn’t become real friends. Still, people change and I accept that he was a different man in the 1990s than he was in the early 1970s.”
As I considered the colourful history of Alligator Records and Iglauer’s leadership over many years, I asked him if he had any regrets, looking back.
“Obviously, failing to hear the originality in Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray, both of whom I could have signed, makes me kick myself. Mostly, even though I’m a risk-taker, I’m sorry I didn’t take more risks on more unknown or developing artists, even though I’ve had plenty of failures (when I say failures, I mean financial failures, not artistic failures, though I’ve had some of them too) with unknown artists. Some worked out well, like Son Seals and Saffire – The Uppity Blues Women and Selwyn Birchwood. Some didn’t, like Michael Hill’s Blues Mob and Corey Harris. Many were mixed results. But I’m very proud of the quality of music on Alligator, and I hope it will stand for decades to come.”
As I read this roller-coaster history, I wondered if the young Bruce Iglauer knew then what he knows now of what was to transpire over the years, all the ups and downs, would he have done what he did?
“For sure (though I would have done it better!). There are other people who could have done what I have done with the blues, but no one else chose to do so and was able to combine musical and business and marketing skills in the way I have. There are other excellent producers, other smart business people and certainly there are better marketers than I am. And many of those people would expect or hope to make more money than I ever thought about making. I’m very greedy, but my greed isn’t for money. It’s for being in the studio when a timeless recording is made, or in the audience when an Alligator artist makes that soul-to-soul connection with the listeners, or bringing a good arrangement idea to a rehearsal or encouraging an artist to write a fresh original song. The feelings I get in those situations are way better than money!”
One of the most hair-raising incidents in the book is the story about a train crash in Norway in 1978, during a Son Seals tour of Europe. I’ll not spoil the story for you – read the book! – but suffice it to say, thanks to the efforts of Iglauer and band members, nobody died.
Bruce told me, “It’s the only time in my life I’ve ever been brave; I was pretty sure I was going to die and I wanted to know that I had done the right thing. I could have escaped the train car but not without trapping the other passengers. I wasn’t willing to do that. I had always known since my father’s death that life is very fragile and there are no guarantees for the future. So, accomplishing something every day is necessary.”
Talking of accomplishments, what, I asked him, does he consider his greatest achievements?
“I can’t easily determine which things I’ve done have the most importance or are ‘the greatest’. I feel that Alligator (both myself and my great staff of 14) has been a crucial force in moving the blues forward and developing careers for many worthy artists. Of course that only happens with the artists’ talent and a huge amount of effort on their part. But the most important thing I can do is to assure that the blues will have new artists and new audiences in the future. That’s a continuing goal.”
Although he missed one or two opportunities to sign world-class artists along the way – Stevie Ray Vaughan was a case in point: “I couldn’t hear what made him special,” Bruce admits in the book – Alligator has had more than its fair share of top-class blues artists. What does Iglauer look for in an artist when he is thinking of signing them?
“First, passion. I want to feel the music is pouring from the deepest place inside the musician and that “it’s in him and it’s got to come out” (to quote John Lee Hooker). Originality – does the artist have something fresh to say, or a fresh way to say it? Blues is a traditional music, but you can’t impress me just by doing something that’s already been done. Take the tradition and make your own personal statement from it. Then I look for professionalism – can this person lead a band? (Not the same skill as making music with a band). Are they already advancing their own careers, at least by gigging locally and regionally? Are they capable of national/international touring? Do they have their personal lives together? Do I see a potential for them to continue to grow as artists? And do I feel I can work with them as people? But ultimately it’s a ‘gut’ thing. If it moves me, I’ll often take a chance, whether it’s Son Seals or Lindsay Beaver or Toronzo Cannon or Michael Hill.”
Towards the end of the book, Iglauer discusses the recent developments in the music industry – from CDs to downloads to streaming, and the fact that many of Alligator’s former indie label competitors have given up on the blues. What hope is there, I enquired, for independent labels these days?
“The role of labels, indie and major, keeps changing. However, the reality is that though many artists can afford to record their own music now, and make it available on the Internet and on various streaming and download services, there is little to push listeners to discover their music. The role of the labels can still be to bankroll the recording – which many artists need. The “you can do it yourself on your computer in Dad’s garage” is not a reality for people who can’t afford a computer or software and who don’t have a Dad or a garage, i.e. really poor people). And to create media excitement, get songs on streaming service playlists, help create live performance events, and of course also to manufacture and distribute physical CDs or LPs and get them places like Amazon and into existing stores – for that you need a real label with real distribution and marketing.”
And an active online presence is a vital part of this, using an artist’s website, online marketing, and social media.
Says Iglauer, “A few of the older, better-established artists can get away with not much online presence. For anyone on the way up, using any and every online marketing /communication form is absolutely necessary. First, a website that includes every upcoming date, a well-written bio, downloadable good quality photos and maybe a downloadable poster. Lots of Facebook presence. Post photos with fans all the time. Write about upcoming gigs. Even non-musical things….one of my artists did a FB Live from his kitchen while cooking his favorite dish. The artists must be available to their fans 24/7/365 or they appear to be assholes. I don’t know how anyone has a chance to write a song anymore, they’re so busy responding to online communication or Instagramming photos. But it’s all necessary.”
At the end of the book, Iglauer says, “As I get older and the blues move further from the mainstream of popular music, my mission of bringing forward the key artists of the next generation of blues seems ever more vital.” I wondered how confident he was that this can be done? Is blues now just music for old white people?
“I am both confident and concerned. I need to find artists who are rooted in the blues tradition with just copying what’s been done before. Recently we’ve signed 20-year-old Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, and just-over-30 Selwyn Birchwood is working on his third Alligator album. Lindsay Beaver, a recent signing, is 33. But regardless of the artist’s age, I want to hear an artist who has a vision for making blues more contemporary, both in the lyrics and in the musical form. I’d like to hear someone making a real synthesis of blues and hip-hop. I’d like someone exploring new chord changes and song structures for blues, but still incorporating the emotions and the blue notes that are intrinsic to blues. I’m sure that humans need the intense catharsis that the blues (at its best) can stir, and the soul-soothing quality of the blues. But can I find the artists who can convey those things in a way that the modern audience (and the future audience) will feel and understand? I’m not sure, but it’s my mission.”
Bitten by the Blues is a well written and utterly engaging insight into how Alligator grew from a standing start into the largest independent blues record label in the world, with hugely entertaining stories of record deals, live performances, studio recording and the lives of important blues artists. If you’re a blues or roots music fan, or a music fan interesting in a behind the scenes look at the history of the music industry, or have an interest in the story of true entrepreneurship, then Bitten by the Blues is a must-read.