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.