Book Review: Bitten by the Blues

Review by Robert Pruter — Bitten by the Blues: The Alligator Records Story, by Bruce Iglauer and Patrick A. Roberts

 

Bitten by the Blues: The Alligator Records Story by Bruce Iglauer, the founder and president of Alligator Records, is a memoir written with the assistance of Patrick A. Roberts, a professor at Northern Illinois University.

Iglauer, who I had the pleasure of working with as a fellow member of the Chicago Blues Festival Advisory Committee, has always struck me not only as a passionate fan of blues but also as a thoughtful and knowledgeable observer of blues. This comes through in every line of his memoirs. He explains throughout places in this admirable book on what primarily works with him in blues, that is, the kind recorded by Elmore James, with the searing steel on steel slide guitar and passionate full-throated powerful singing.

Iglauer in his opening chapters discusses his upbringing and his family and how early on begun his interest in first folk music, which led to country blues performers, which by the time he attended college in Wisconsin led him to Chicago electric bar band blues. This was developed in his first forays into Chicago while still a student at Lawrence University and his promotion of blues shows at the school.

Iglauer had intentions of becoming an academic in theater and literature. But after college he settled in Chicago and got a job at Bob Koester’s Delmark Records. His discovery of the raw slide guitarist and singer, Hound Dog Taylor, changed his career path. He tried to persuade Koester to record Hound Dog, but Koester having seen him perform drunk and poorly was not interested. Iglauer decided to record Hound Dog himself, and having attended a few blues recording sessions previously, he knew what to do and what not to do (well not all at once — it was a learning process), and ably produce a fine LP that no one had expected from Hound Dog.

Iglauer gives the whole trajectory of Alligator Records to the present day, discussing each of the artists he recorded, with insight and what he learned and how he had to overcome challenges. Early on he focused or recording mostly on the powerful electric guitarists, and gave it an appealing marketing term, “Genuine House Rockin’ Music,” taken from the name Hound Dog Taylor gave his band, The Houserockers.

Probably the artists he worked with that most encapsulate this music—Hound Dog Taylor (obviously), Son Seals, Fenton Robinson, Lonnie Brooks, Phillip Walker, Magic Slim, Albert Collins, Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials, and Buddy Guy (leased from a French label).

As Alligator grew and expanded its artist stable it also expanded its breath of music beyond Genuine House Rockin’ Music, reflecting that while Iglauer was most enthralled with the electric slide guitar blues he was expansive in his tastes and would record almost any blues style as long as it was good. This variety is evident from the following blues artists that he recorded and put out records on, from Big Walter Horton (blues harpist), Professor Longhair (a New Orleans pianist), Katie Webster (a gospel boogie pianist), and Koko Taylor (a Chicago blues belter), to Cephas and Wiggins (country blues), Saffire—the Uppity Blues Women (an acoustic trio), and Shemekia Copeland (a powerful female singer).

While Iglauer was wholly focused on recording what he felt was “authentic blues” by African American musicians in the first years of his label, he eventually recorded a number of white blues artists, even those who would more properly be characterized as “rock-blues.’ It appears that he was not that big a fan of “rock-blues,” making comments about such artists “playing too fast” or “playing too many notes.” He mentions that many fans of Alligator felt that the label recording “rock-blues” was a “betrayal.” Alligator’s stable of white artists has included Johnny Winter, Roy Buchanan, Lonnie Mack, Dr. John, Delbert McClinton, Siegel-Schwall, Elvin Bishop, Dave Hole, Marcia Ball, and Tinsley Ellis.

I mentioned a lot of recording artist names in the preceding paragraphs, and that is intentional, because Iglauer in Bitten by the Blues has carefully given each of his artists several pages at least, his full accounting of everything that Alligator put out making the book incredibly strong. He gives each artist a little history, how he discovered each one, what it was in their music that he found compelling, how he worked with them to create an album that would represent the quality he demanded for Alligator, how he recorded and produced them in the studio, and how he marketed and sold the artist. Commercial considerations were not always paramount.

Each profile of his work with the artist is amplified with reports of early qualms about an artist, of funny situations, angry disputes, and anguished problems. A repeated problem with many of his artists was that they would come to the recording session with a lack of songs, despite repeated requests from Iglauer to come to the session with a body of music to record. Iglauer was always clear with his artists that he did not want over-recorded songs (like “Sweet Home Chicago”). This sometimes resulted in Iglauer and his often producer partner, Dick Shurman, hunting through their record collections for songs for a recording session scheduled in a day or so.

Iglauer confesses he developed a reputation as a “control freak” because after more than one poor session experience, he insisted on contracts with the artists that required mutual agreement on choice of songs, producer, mixes, sequence, and packaging. So most all recording sessions with Iglauer involved “guidance” for the artist. And this benefited the label commercially and in terms of reputation — producing album after album that were solid and superbly produced.

Alligator thus became the largest record label for blues in the world, and this was no mere accident. His business model involved promotion, publicity, and artist development — making them “campaign fit,” so that they could tour off a record with a working band and with a full booking of dates. He sent out more free records to stores and radio stations than any other blues label. While difficult in the label’s early years, he spent money to make money. Along the way there were stumbles, from self-inflected mistakes (mainly bad guesses) and forces not under his control (the collapse of indie distribution).

Alligator was built on a growing market by mainstream record buyers (meaning white people) for blues, and particularly blues that sounded close to their the rock music that they were first familiar with. In short he recorded blues for white folks. It was not that in his recordings that he had departed in any great degree from what his artists had been recording earlier for their black audiences. Several issues were involved, the black working class from the 1970s on was moving away from the blues, and particularly the kind of blues that turned on fans of Alligator’s “Genuine House Rockin’ Music” body of recordings. Iglauer makes this point in his book,

Also, African American record buyers of blues were traditionally buyers of singles, not LPs; I have been in many working class African American houses during the 1970s and 1980s, and one rarely ever saw an LP, except perhaps a jazz album or a particularly hip LP like Lou Rawls Live.

Because of the centrality of Alligator Records in the blues world from the 1970s on, Bitten with the Blues is essential reading if one wants to understand the blues business in the last half century. With regard to the next half century Iglauer sees a future that is dire, explained in Chapter 18. Alligator has seen a steady decline in sales for the last twenty years, because of the advent of downloading. But in recent years downloading has declined, being replaced by streaming services, While it was difficult for Alligator to survive on the royalty income from downloading services, like iTunes, it is impossible for the company to survive with the microscopic royalties from streaming services, like Spotify. The implication of this situation for the future of Alligator Iglauer leaves unsaid. He doesn’t need to.

Our thanks to Robert Pruter for his kind permission to re-post this article!

Eight from Bob Eagle — Part 4

In our final installment, we reveal blues expert Bob Eagle’s personal all-time favorite live performance….

#1) The Howlin’ Wolf was, by a long stretch, the best performer I’ve ever seen. It was in 1972, only a few years before his death. It was April Fool’s Day 1972 and he was playing on the West Side for his wife Lilly’s birthday. He was hyped-up, to say the least. So downhome, so damned threatening, so sexy (swinging the mike chord around like a gigantic penile extension). For some reason, I recall the covers that he brought up to date — “Country Sugar Mama,” etc. Fortunately I had met Hubert Sumlin that morning, at Letha Jones’ house (Johnnie’s widow), and Hubert kindly introduced me to The Man. Strangely, Hubert was not doing his patented string bending at that time — maybe he wanted the spotlight to fall unequivocally on The Wolf. The man was kind enough to buy this young fan a whiskey and spend a few minutes talking to him. A class act. Unforgettable. And now you know why.

Eight from Bob Eagle — Part 3

We continue as blues expert Bob Eagle recounts his all-time favorite live performances….

#3) My #3 best-ever live performance is quite different. I went to Detroit to meet Luther Huff at his home. I was in the states on a shoestring, aiming to stay as long as I could afford to do so, and therefore I wasn’t able to pay to get Luther’s mandolin out of pawn, but he had his guitar and his kazoo (à la Tommy Johnson). I’m not a musician so I can’t tell you much about it, but it reminded me of Hooker from about 1953-1954 (before Vee-Jay tamed him). I’m convinced now (although how could I know then, before its discovery?) that he performed a version of Tommy’s “I Wonder To Myself.” Just an amazing, under-recorded performer.


#2) Who was my #2 live performer (and, believe me, I’ve seen many)? None other than Fats Domino, in Australia in the 1970s, with an absolutely knockout band led by Dave Bartholomew (maybe, I should say Dave instead of Fats). Amazingly powerful ensemble, assisted by a great selection of well-known and well-performed songs. Those days will, my friends, never return.

And… we’ll reveal Bob’s all-time favorite live performance in our next post!

Eight from Bob Eagle — Part 2

We continue as Bob Eagle recounts his all-time favorite live blues performances….

#6) Performance. Exactly what does that mean? Does a guy singing to you at his kitchen sink qualify? I hope it does, because Roy Brown is next. We were talking at his home, and he told me that “Hard Luck Blues” was his life story. He began singing a cappella — he did not need accompaniment. Although he was initially trying to sing like Sinatra (before 1948), thankfully he found his own voice. And what a voice….


#5) Larry Davis. What a great singer! And, starting as a bass guitarist — which might suggest he had no flair to interpolate time — he turned out to be a great guitarist as well, albeit in the Albert King mold. Larry is my #5. Fenton Robinson gave me his number, but it was awhile before I got to Little Rock. Clearly, Fenton had not called him, as promised (probably thinking, “this Aussie guy will never get to Arkansas”). I called Larry from the Greyhound Bus station, hoping to put him at ease, and after a few sensitive moments, he agreed to come pick me up. He had a rehearsal booked with his band, and we went over there. I asked him to play “Texas Flood,” by the end of which we were both emotional, and in tears. This was before “The Years Go Passing By” — how could this guy record two such different but absolute classics?

(Note: Fenton Robinson plays lead guitar on “Texas Flood”)


#4) #4 and #5 are a toss-up between Fenton Robinson and Larry Davis. I saw Fenton first and so let’s make him #4. When I got to the Bay area, I was told he was shacked up with a white girl in Santa Cruz. I got on the Greyhound and caught up with him (alone) one sunny afternoon. He was really friendly. I told him how much I appreciated “Somebody (Loan Me A Dime).” I was short on resources, so it was either record him or video him — I chose video, although he only had an acoustic guitar with him. He was great, as you can imagine. And he gave me Larry Davis’ phone number….

Eight from Bob Eagle — Part 1

Recently, blues expert Bob Eagle shared a short but sweet list of his all-time favorite performances — that he was lucky enough to witness live in person over the course of his career as a researcher, detective, author, and scholar — not to mention fanatic. The list might surprise you, and thanks to Bob’s kindly permission, we’ll be sharing the results with you (along with the videos he picked to accompany each entry) over the next week or so. Enjoy! –SBH

#8) “Mule” (aka Joe Willie Wilkins) was an amazing human being. I knew him very well for about four (maybe more) months in 1972 and renewed the acquaintance early in 1975. He was a great musician and an uncommonly humble man. God, I miss him, ugly mofo that he was. I first heard him play on Danny Thomas Boulevard, Memphis in 1972, with Houston Stackhouse. A stunning young black girl taught me how to dance to the music (L forward, L back, R forward, R back – I had been trying to do it in waltz time; from there, you can do whatever you fancy). It’s a toss-up for me whether I love Joe more than Eugene Powell. What a conundrum to have to consider….


#7) I’ve nominated Eugene Powell (aka Sonny Boy Nelson) as my next favorite. “Lugene” was an uncommonly moralistic man. His (final) wife had taken care of him when he needed her and he was determined to return the obligation. He was not financially able to employ someone to care for her, so often he turned down invitations to appear at blues festivals. I carried him to the Smithsonian in 1972 and he was magnificent. His downfall was that, fantastic musician that he was, he thought he could not sing (that’s why there’s a Hacksaw Harney CD on the Gene’s label — but not one by Eugene). He was not a Delta musician but from the Loess Plains of Mississippi (and his inspiration, Frank Stokes, only became a Delta performer if he turned south upon leaving the Peabody Hotel – LOL).

 

Elmore James – The Missing Epilogue

Dear Friends and Fans,
Below, you’ll find an article I posted on January 27th, 2018, to the “Real Blues Forum” on Facebook, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the birthday of Elmore James. Seeing that this would be his 101st anniversary, I thought I would dig it out and re-post it for your enjoyment. The note that follows gives some background context, and explains why it was cut from the final edits made to the book. Enjoy! —SF

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NOTE: Originally, there had been an “Epilogue” (of sorts) to the Elmore book, designed to be a “matching bookend” (if you will) to what I had written in the Foreword. At the advice of one of my proofreaders, who said that reading it made him feel “uncomfortable,” it was jettisoned during the final edits.

In the end, I agreed with the decision to cut it. Primarily because it wasn’t really about Elmore, but about me, and — after having discussed my own personal experience with Elmore at the beginning of the book — didn’t want to re-shift the focus away from the main subject towards the end of the book.

The original text — in spite of my meticulous efforts to preserve and save for posterity all the numerous edits and changes that were made over the course of many months of writing — has been lost forever. I have attempted to recreate it, more than 15 years later, to the best of my ability. Although I am sure that the piece here is much, MUCH longer than the original piece it is intended to replace, I offer it in honor of Elmore’s 100th birthday.

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It had been an awful year.

The last day of class, December 1987. Edwardsville, Illinois. As I packed up the few remaining things from my studio, and carried them off to the car, I was feeling rather morose. My friends, Vicky and Susan, had arranged to go back to Vicky’s apartment when we were done, and in mutual celebration of a shitty year, we would all share a drink or two. Or — depending upon the level of mutually shared shittiness we were all feeling — maybe three. Afterwards, I would get in my car, and quietly head out of town, and sneak out under what seemed like an appropriate cover of darkness. The journey back home, approximately 50 miles or so, would take a little over an hour, through the back farm roads and byways of west central Illinois.

The decision to continue pursuing a Master of Fine Arts, back in January, had seemed like a good idea at the time. One semester previously spent at Southern Illinois University had been akin to a hell with which I was not quite familiar at that relatively young and tender age. With the same amount of passion I had once revered my undergrad art professors, I loathed and detested the ones at Carbondale. At the end of the semester, a window opened, and I was presented with the opportunity to transfer to SIU’s Edwardsville campus instead. It was not only closer to home, but one of the painting professors and I shared an obvious love of American Roots music (later we would exchange cassette tapes with one another — he gave me folk stuff, I gave him tapes of my favorite blues). It seemed so perfect, so logical. Why, maybe after a semester or two, there would be enough money for my own apartment, and I wouldn’t have to commute from home.

Instead, as I quickly found out, it was like jumping from the proverbial frying pan into the fire. Things were different here. Although a loosely based structure — seemingly free and largely unsupervised — was afforded the grad students, in reality, it was just a facade. In the painting department, you were expected to find your “niche” and stick with it. One person did paintings of vintage 1950s lawn chairs. Another brought to life sci-fi fantasy scenes locked inside his head. Yet another tried to make a career out of painting beautiful women — when he could get someone to pose naked for him, it turns out. And then there was another small group, it seemed, who were ensconced in the place semi-permanently. They had managed to work out a system, of sorts, where they were given a studio space to do their art, work a meager campus job, afford a few beers at the local watering hole — the Stagger Inn (it not only featured the work of several grad students on the walls, but in one corner of the place, I had once found Arlo Guthrie’s signature on something) — all with no hopes of ever graduating. As for myself, I didn’t quite take to the idea of being “boxed into a niche.” My art projects became whatever I felt like doing during any one given week. After a semester of letting me find my own way and doing my own thing, it was made all too clear, in the second semester, that I was “not fitting in.” One professor unequivocally stated that he expected us to suffer for our art (when I shared that bit of logic with my undergraduate painting professor, he had laughed so hard, his head almost came off. Later on, I would find a book entitled, “Paint As You Like And Die Happy.” It’s nice to know I was right, after all).

The coup de grâce had been the marathon “crits” — short for “Critiques” — in which all the fellow painting students would gather around and discuss each other’s work, in what was supposed to be a helpful and mutually shared learning experience involving freely shared feedback, tips, and insights. Instead, it turned into something akin to the Bataan Death March — hour upon hour, at times, of nothing more than thinly veiled vitriol and invectives — without breaks of any kind — until the last student’s work had been gazed upon and duly criticized. For the summer crit, I had simply walked out after 12 hours straight. It was too much, and I told my dad that, who was waiting up for me when I got home. In a rare confrontation, he stopped me as I was descending the stairs to my basement hideaway, and rather pointedly asked me if that’s what I was going to do — just run away from my problems all the time. I told him that whatever it is I came there for, I had not come here for that, and would not subject myself to any further abuse. As far as I was concerned, I didn’t see it as running. There simply wasn’t any good reason left to stay anymore.

Eventually, I lost interest in completing my art projects. I found solace across campus — far away from the studio buildings — in the music library, spending many happy hours listening to John Lee Hooker, Sonny and Brownie, and Lightnin’ Hopkins. On Saturday nights, I was glued to the St. Louis NPR station, as a local scholar, “Baby Face Leroy,” played through his impressive collection of vintage blues records and shared his knowledge with eager listeners like me. “Hawaiian Boogie” was his closing theme song; I made it a point never to miss a show. One day, in the SIU library, I stumbled upon a book by a guy named Mike Rowe — “Chicago Breakdown.” I devoured it, poring over every page and paragraph. When I got to the last section — on Elmore — I was totally engrossed, deciding that the best thing to do was simply read the whole thing over again. Which I did.

While visiting friends in Atlanta, there had been another Elmore revelation of sorts, when I found a copy of “Let’s Cut It,” a freshly minted compilation out of England, courtesy of the good folks at Ace Records. My old college buddies had taken me to their favorite record store, and there it lay waiting for me: 18 more tracks to add to the collection, including yet another version of “Standing At The Crossroads” and the all-out rocker, “Hawaiian Boogie” (among others). When I got back home, I made a cassette copy of my new prized possession. It would be added to my daily commuting soundtrack, along with the Elmore tape I had gotten from Wild Bob earlier in the year, as I went back and forth to school.

One day, while driving home — naturally, I was listening to Elmore James at the time — I shouted out to the nameless cornfields passing by: “I want to be an Ethnomusicologist!” It felt good. I shouted it out again. It felt even better. When I got home, I told my folks. My mom wasn’t sure what it meant. My dad nodded in approval, and said he thought it sounded like a good idea. I started looking for grad schools, and finally settled upon a small little program in Memphis. The school wasn’t sure about my GRE scores, but fortunately, they accepted the Miller Analogies Test, and based on that rather odd twist of fate, I would be starting classes there at the beginning of January, 1988.

I decided not to tell anyone at Edwardsville. It didn’t matter anyway. My one real friend, Tom, with whom I shared a studio space, would surely understand. In a place where everyone was happily ensconced in their own little box, Tom was a free spirit who painted joyful scenes that were inspired by a childhood partly spent in Africa. He moved to the rhythm of his own song and to a beat that no one else heard. Tom worked part time at a convenience store, and one day, after visiting him on my way home — I wound up winning $20 bucks on the state Lottery. It was another stroke of luck, as it just so happened to afford me the opportunity to go and see John Lee Hooker instead — who just happened to be playing THAT night in downtown St. Louis. I sat next to a guy who drove a concrete truck for a living, and who was just as excited as I was to be there. He told me stories of hanging out in the blues clubs of East St. Louis as a young man. I had my camera with me, from photography class, and surreptitiously snapped a photo of Mr. Hooker, without using a flash. Somehow, he had sensed his spirit was being captured, and stared right at my lens, although I have no idea how he knew when the exact moment had come. It was a night that would stay with me for many, many years. And had it not been for Tom urging me to play the numbers that day, I would’ve missed all of it.

I picked up the last box, put it in the back of the car, and closed the hatch. Now it was just time to wait for Vicky and Susan, share a couple drinks, and make a toast to the year from hell that had seemingly been all for naught. It seemed like a good idea as any.

Suddenly, Vicky came out. Something was not right. Tempers had flashed, and she had yelled at her boss. Her student job involved janitorial duties, and on that particular night, was not one she was enjoying all that much. Her boss fired her on the spot. Whatever hopes there might’ve been among the three of us for what happened AFTER the drinks had been consumed, were suddenly dashed. Feeling sullen, we slunk out quietly, and headed downtown to Vicky’s apartment.

We parked on the deserted streets — it was getting late already — and Vicky took us over to a door that led to her upstairs apartment. On the same floor next door to hers, another grad student, Rick, also had his own place.

As Vicki put the key in and opened the door, the sound of something familiar greeted us. It was the sound of an electric guitar.

I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up on end. This wasn’t just ANY electric guitar. It was the sound of Elmore James.

I quickly bolted past Vicky and Susan up the stairs, and knocked on Rick’s door. There he was, blasting Elmore at top volume while he happily played along, his electric guitar plugged into a nearby amp. Since all the businesses downstairs had long since closed for the night and there wasn’t anyone else around, he was free to play as loudly as he wanted, and that’s exactly what he was doing all right. I was absolutely floored. I told him I was going to Memphis “to study all this,” and, in an exercise of great compassion, Rick stopped what he was doing, got out a blank cassette, and made me a copy of the Elmore LP he’d been playing along to — one that I didn’t yet have in my meager collection — right there on the spot.

Susan, looking more sullen now than ever, poked her head in to see what I was doing. Vicky did a little later on. They didn’t really quite understand what to make of it all. For my part, I couldn’t really pretend to care about the drinks anymore, either. Afterall, we were talking about Elmore here — and whatever brief and flickering bit of guilt had crossed my mind for having been the cause of abandoning our plans — it had just as easily dissipated.

Rick handed me the tape and shook my hand. I couldn’t believe my luck. A BRAND NEW Elmore tape to listen to on the way home. I poked my head in to say my goodbyes to Vicki and Susan — just to be polite — and headed down the stairs.

I shuddered a bit as I got in the car, put it in first, and quietly headed for the outskirts of town. It was cold and dark, and the lateness of the hour made it seem all the more so in this moment. My dad used to say that when it got really cold, the snow would “bark” under your feet as you walked. It was one of those nights. There wasn’t much moon, just a few days before Christmas now. There was a little snow left from a dusting we’d had the other day, just enough to give a contrast when you looked out the window into the darkness.

For the last stretch, about 12 miles, I had to get on the interstate. It was my least favorite part of the trip, but suddenly, something told me to stop just before I got on the entrance ramp.

I coasted to a stop, shut off the engine, and got out. In front of me was a corn field, the stubble from the year’s harvest still visible, thanks to the little bit of snow that remained. I sat there and took it all in for a moment. The year flashing through my head. I guess, afterall, it hadn’t been ALL bad. I had been introduced to the music of Elmore James, and that was certainly something, wasn’t it? In a few weeks, I would begin a new journey — this time, heading south — for a city I had been to only once before. I don’t know if you can say, at the age of 23, that you feel like you’re being called to something. But if you could, I guess I felt that I was. I had no idea what lay in store for me, just that it was something I was being compelled to do.

Suddenly, as I stood there, I felt this sense — as if someone were tapping me on the shoulder. Instinctively, I looked up. There, stretched out before me, was the Milky Way, in all its beauty, splendor and glory. Like a little kid, I stared at it — for what seemed like a long, long time — before I finally got back in the car, turned the key, and started towards home.

As I did, the cassette tape of Elmore James sprang to life, his music filling the inside of the car. As I thought about the previous twelve months, a great big smile crept across my face.

It had been a wonderful year.

© 2018 by Steve Franz